Tips from culinary school: How to cook rice, pilaf, pasta, potatoes perfectly

As many of you know, I am currently enrolled in culinary school (I have a blog - CookingSchoolconfidential.com - where I talk about the craziness of it all).

I promised to post some of the good tips I learned from the chef's here.

So I thought I'd start with tips on how to cook rice, pilaf, pasta, and potatoes to perfection. These are the insiders' tricks you wished someone had told you years ago.

Well, now someone has!

Rice me up, Scotty
The first starch we learned about was white rice. And the recipe for it could not be simpler: 1 cup rice + 2 cups water.

Here’s how you cook it. First, rinse the rice. Pour off the water. Be horrified at the dirt in the water. Rinse again, if needed. Put the now clean rice and a matching amount of water into your pot. Bring to a boil. Put a lid on your pot, and then (and pay attention class, this is the first of a series of brilliant tips) pour some cold water onto your lid.

That cold water does two things. First, when the steam inside the pot hits the lid, the cold water on the outside makes it rain back down on the rice. Second, an easy way to tell when your rice is ready is to watch that cold water. When it is evaporated, you know your rice is done.

Not sure? Peek into your pot. See wells in the rice? Yep, it’s done.

Now, don’t go stabbing your big wooden spoon in there, crushing all your nice grains of rice (like I, ahem, used to do, oh dear). Instead, take a spatula and run it around the edge of your pot, turning your rice gently over into the center, giving it a soft stir as you go. See, lovely taste and lovely texture.

Next, let’s meet polenta
There is only one trick to polenta: Stir, stir, stir.

Wanna try your hand? Then the formula is as easy as the rice formula, only, in this case, it is 1 cup polenta + 3 cups water + more water as needed.

No lid; no cold water. Just rinse (might as well rinse all your grains before you use ‘em, what can it hurt?) bring to the boil, don’t forget to stir, lower to simmering, and, did I mention you needed to stir until it is done?

See, I told you that was easy.

Let me introduce pilaf, Edith Pilaf
Dreadful joke. So sorry. But read on if you want to pilaf.

Beyond your grain and your liquid, you only need three things for a successful pilaf:

  1. fat
  2. aromatics
  3. herbs / spices

The grain can be anything from rice to barley. The liquid, anything from chicken stock to water. You decide.

Here’s how we made it. First, we heated the pans. Then, we added the fat. In this case, it was butter. The Nepal chef made us all listen to the sizzle of the butter. “See,” he said. “It is singing.” And it was.

Next, we added the aromatics which, in our case, was minced onion which we sweated at low heat. Then we added water and herbs. For herbs, we used a bay leaf and a sprig of thyme. On with the lid and into a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven and 20 minutes later we were all singing (so sorry) the praises of pilaf.

The best homemade pasta tips, ever

  1. Pasta tip number one: The trick with pasta is to use as little oil as possible. See, oil is a shortening. Shortening because it shortens strands of gluten in your flour. This, in turn, will make your dough tough. Great in bread, yes, but not in a nice, soft pasta.
  2. Pasta tip number two: If you want to make a long strand of pasta but you don’t have the elbow room those TV chef’s have, thread your pasta partway through your machine and stick one end of your pasta to the other end (think that classic picture of the snake eating it’s own tail). You keep feeding your loop round and round without having to deal with an unwieldy long strand. Brilliant, yes? Indeed, yes.

One potato, two potato, three potato, four
As an interesting demonstration, the chef made peeled and cubed potatoes boiled in water, whole potatoes boiled in their skins, and baked potatoes baked in their skin. Then she removed the skins from any potatoes that had ‘em, and ran each of the potatoes through a food mill, so she ended up with three piles: One per cooking method.

The cubed potatoes had, as you can guess, lots of water, making them mushy and unable to hold any yummy butter (assuming you wanted to add butter, and why wouldn’t you, I ask?). The whole boiled potatoes fared better - held less liquid - but the best potatoes, by far, where the baked ones: Dry and fluffy and waiting to absorb as much butter as you wanted to add. Yum yum.

See. Great tips, eh? I've got a million more on Cooking School Confidential. In fact, my goal is to write about 'em whenever I can remember 'em. So we can all benefit.

It's like you're going to culinary school with me!