Star-Bulletin Features

That dependable, simple appliance, the rice cooker, can handle a lot more than rice.

Rice pot gourmet

Even if you're using it every day
for its intended purpose, your rice
cooker could be working harder
for you -- making risotto, for example

Humble rice cooker a whiz at 1-pot meals

By Betty Shimabukuro

To think for all these years I've been using my rice pot to cook rice. What a waste of potential.

All this time it could've been making me one-pot meals, soups, even risotto, for cryin' out loud. Saving me time. Making my life easier.

But I am smarter now, thanks to a cookbook writer from Northern California who didn't even have a rice cooker until two years ago.

Julie Kaufmann and her partner, Beth Hensperger, have written "The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook," a collection of recipes that really put that humble appliance to work.

What's to get so excited about? Imagine the possible applications ...

>> Soccer practice and other mandatory excursions that disrupt your late afternoons: Before ferrying the kids off, put some ingredients in the rice pot, then go away. Come back 90 minutes later and dinner's ready.

>> Camping or picnics: Provided there's electricity, take along the rice pot and you can have something to eat besides barbecue.

>> Hot summer nights: Take the pot outside and cook a meal without heating up the kitchen.

>> Dorm rooms (and other small living spaces): Make simple meals without an illegal hot plate. This would work in motel rooms, too, if you're trying to save money while traveling.

Kaufmann, whose day job is food and wine section editor for the San Jose Mercury News, says her first rice cooker was a revelation. "I was intrigued because it was a beautiful piece of technology that works exquisitely at making rice ... then I started to go, 'Now, well, I wonder what else it can do?"

In Hawaii, where just about every household has a rice pot, that's probably not a burning question. The thing makes rice just about every day -- isn't that enough?

Sometimes it takes a new set of eyes to really flesh out the possibilities.

Kaufmann now has four rice cookers, from basic models to a fancy Sanyo "fuzzy logic" cooker with all the bells and whistles -- she calls that one her "alpha rice cooker." Two years of experimentation have resulted in an impressive mix of ideas -- stuffed grape leaves, for example, tamales, poached fruit, even Thai-style coconut-tapioca pudding (although for this you need a cooker with a porridge setting).

Now, no one is saying that expanded use of a rice pot is a brand-new concept. Every Chinese mom, for example, knows you can put a plate of lup cheong on top of the rice in the last stages of steaming to get perfectly done sausage. And the latest "smart" cookers, with their various cooking cycles, come with steamer baskets and little books of recipes for rice-pot meals.

What Kaufmann and Hensperger have done is come up with some pretty complex, layered meals that work in most rice pots, even the simplest ones that have just one function -- "on."

Learning to sauté in the rice pot is the key to quadrupling its capabilities. Click the pot on, add oil or butter, then garlic, onions, diced vegetables, spices -- whatever needs the benefit of a little browning or softening.

In making risotto, the arborio rice is sautéed and the wine reduced right there in the pot. Then you add broth, close the cover and walk away. It's much simpler than a stovetop version that requires you to continually add liquid.

"When we discovered that you can make risotto and polenta in the rice cooker with so much less trouble, then we were sold," Kaufmann says. "I love risotto, but I can't stand at the stove for half an hour. It just doesn't fit into my life."

Rice pot basics

How a rice pot works:

The cooker stays on until the temperature of the contents rises above 212 degrees, the maximum temperature that water can reach. The heat level starts to rise once all the water has been absorbed into the rice; the cooker senses this and shuts off.

Simple suggestions for getting more from your rice pot:

Barley boost: Cook 1 cup barley along with 1/3 cup brown rice, 2-1/4 cup warm water and 3 tablespoons miso to pump up basic rice. Stir in cooked fish or chicken to make a meal.

Basmati blend: Cook 1 cup basmati rice with a cinnamon stick, 3 green cardamom pods and 1-1/2 cups water for an aromatic side dish.

Mini-meal: Place sausage links on top of rice 15 minutes into cooking cycle.

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