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Chicken and Rice and Other Things Nice

Published February 27, 2023

Like tofu, pork, eggplant, cauliflower, portobellos — you get the picture

Messing with an iconic dish is risky business. So instead let’s say that what’s about to happen here is a tribute. By varying the components in one of the world’s great dishes—using vegetables, tofu, shellfish, beans, or different grains and seasonings—we can all eat some spin on chicken and rice more often.

The photos and captions below walk through the process, offer ingredient variations, and describe adjustments in timing with visual cues. The recipe at the bottom will help you with quantities—or leave you with a skillet full of saffron-scented chicken and rice. I suggest you read everything through, decide your ingredients, and have those ingredients handy. Once you’re cooking, if at any point the skillet gets ahead of you, just move it off the heat. Ready?

Sear something

Put a knob of butter or film of oil—chosen to reflect how much you want to taste it—in a deep 12-inch skillet over medium heat. (You should have a fitted lid or foil nearby.) When it’s shimmering, add whatever you want as “the chicken.” That could be bone-in chicken parts, pork chops or steak, or tofu planks. It could also be cauliflower steaks, split eggplants or delicata squash, portobello mushroom caps, wedges of cabbage. (You see where I’m going.) Sprinkle with salt and adjust the heat so whatever you’ve got sizzles around the edges without burning. (You’ll be able to see and smell the difference without peeking.) Resist the temptation to fuss before it’s well seared. It’s okay if the fit is a little snug; as long as you let the food brown on one side before you start moving it, you’ll still get a good crust. Then turn, move, rotate as necessary to even the color, and transfer the pieces to a plate as they’re ready.

Gloss the grains and season

When the pan is empty, tip it to check the fat. Spoon off or add more to get you to 2 to 4 tablespoons—less if the food you just cooked is fatty; more if you’re using plants. If you like, soften some aromatics like onion, leeks, garlic, shallots, or ginger in the hot pan. Now decide if you’re going with white short-grain rice or something else. (We’ll call this “the base.”) Steel cut oats, quinoa, or lentils will all cook in about the same time as the rice in the recipe below. To use something longer-cooking—like millet, farro, or brown rices, give them a head start before returning the “chicken” to the pan. You’ll be using your judgment and checking for doneness but no harm in that. After tossing the grains or lentils in the oil, stir in seasoning. A curry or chile blend, a five-spice “plus”, dried or fresh rosemary or oregano are all great, as is almost anything else you can think of. If going with saffron you don’t need more than a small pinch; how much of other spices will depend on their potency. If unsure, go easy and taste and add more later.

Add liquid and assemble

“The base” and spices will only take a couple minutes to gloss. As soon as they’re fragrant, pour in the liquid. Water. Stock. Coconut milk. Juice. Or some combination of those. Whole grains and lentils will take a little more than the recipe says. The idea is to submerge them in the skillet with about 1/2 inch pooling on top. You’ll check it midway and be able to add more. This is the step where you might decide to cover and cook for a while. The idea is that you can return “the chicken” to the pan now or in a few minutes—so that it takes about as long to finish cooking as “the base.” It sounds imprecise and it is. But that’s okay. You’re going to check once in a while for the tenderness of the grains or beans and not worry so much about overcooking “the chicken.” As long as there’s a little bubbling liquid in the skillet and you don’t smell burning, what’s the worst that can happen? Things might be a little softer than you hoped, is all. And next time it will be perfect.

Add finishes and rest

So “chicken” and “base” have been simmering  together for a bit—somewhere around 20 minutes if you’re following along in the recipe—and it smells wonderful. Everything is done or nearly so and there’s a small amount of liquid left. Now’s the time to stir in a fresh finish, like herbs, chopped tender greens, frozen peas or corn, snap or snow peas, canned or frozen beans, or scallions. Cover and turn off the heat. This important step also makes the dish perfect for entertaining, since you can wait up to 15 minutes before serving.

Adjust texture and doneness

The goal is for “the chicken” to be ready to eat when “the base” has absorbed all of the liquid and be tender but not too wet. Fortunately, “the chicken” has a big window of doneness so you have flexibility getting “the base” where you want it. If you’ve got tenderness in the grains or lentils but too much liquid, return to medium-high heat, uncover, and let some bubble away before serving. For grains or legumes that are still too firm, add some water, cover, and simmer for another few minutes before checking again.

We look forward to hearing about your adventures with chicken and rice in the comments. And now, for the master recipe…