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Cooking 101: How to Chop Vegetables (Lowcountry Red Rice)

I like knives. Some people collect shoes–I have friends with more than 300 pairs of shoes. I have 20. I have at least 10 knives–chef, santoku, boning, etc. A good knife is useless if you don’t know how to use it correctly. When I visit other folks who are doing cooking, especially ones who have a nice knife, I cringe inwardly at the following scene playing out in their kitchen:

 

Yes, I’m talking about the “whack all the bits to hell and back and dull the blade!” orchestrating itself on a cutting board near you. I want to throw my hands up, pull the fire alarm and head for the nearest exit. There’s hope–we can learn how to use our knives properly and save our veggies from destruction and our fingers, too. I’ll show you how as we prepare a southern soul food dish – red rice.

 

In my knowledge, this dish exists along racial boundaries–the white folk I know eat this with oysters or a frogmore stew after a day of shrimping. The black folk I know eat this with greens, smoked turkey wings and cornbread at any meal, usually without the sausages. Every cook has his or her own recipe or way of doing this – most of it is baked, although some recipes cook like paella over a burner in a wide heavy pan.

 

Red Rice begins with aromatics.  We will use the cajun trinity–two parts onion and celery to one part green bell pepper.  My celery is at the end of its life so we use it up.  Celery can be a bit dirty at the root end, so we wash it.  There’s no harm in using the leafy inner bits, they’re good.  We need to break these into manageable slices else we’ll have chunks instead of dice.

 

 

Each stalk has been sliced into a thinner strip by running the tip of the knife down it.  Then we repeat until we have small thin strips.

 

Move the knife across the strips using your crumpled fingers to feed the celery into the blade.  The blade never moves.  You end up with dice.  Your knife should move against the board like these locomotive wheels–in two motions–front to back and up and down.  See:

 

Next, we’ll mow through this onion.  It’s a vidalia onion, which means it’s very sweet.  The end facing up is called the root end.  The other end is the stalk end.  You want to keep the root end intact at all times.  I’ll slice a bit off the stalk end to help me peel it.  I’m a bad onion peeler.  I should lose my card for that.

 

Slice.  Peel.  Or attempt to.

 

It’s hard to work with a round, roly-poly onion, so we cut in half.  Notice we’re keeping the root end away from the knife.  We won’t need the entire onion for the dish we’re making.

 

Make cuts through the onion like so, careful not to cut through the root end.

 

Then, make 2-3 slices through the onion in the opposite plane.  Yes, we’re using geometric words in the kitchen.  Just imagine if your kids were cooking with you what they could learn in both areas.

 

Mow through it, using the same railroad motion as with the celery.  Chop until the remnant becomes unwieldy.  See, two more big words!

 

Turn the remnant over and finish it off.  Twist it and whittle it down until only the root nub remains–waste not, want not.

 

All done!  Half an onion doesn’t make much.  Repeat with the other half if you need lots.

 

This is a bell pepper.  I cut it in half and scooped the seeds out of it and then promptly deleted the pictures of the chopping.  Maybe next time, eh?  Our foray into choppage has ended.  Now we begin to make our Red Rice.

 

This is bacon drippings.  I save some from each frying in a jar for times like this when I don’t want to actually have bacon with the meal, but need some pork fat.  Every good southerner has it.  My mother kept a teacup with solid pork fat above her stove with a bit of foil on top for years.

 

Get the bacon fat going in a big skillet–over medium-ish heat.  Here’s my stainless steel friend that’s hard to clean.  If you have a paella pan, perfect!

 

Add the holy trinity – half cup each of onion and celery, and quarter cup of bell pepper.  Saute until they soften and take on some color.  No sweating today.

 

Because we didn’t use all of what we chopped, we become economical and freeze for another day.  Perhaps when we make etouffee in the fall?

 

Mow through an entire package (two links) of smoked sausage.  I like a brand called Ekrich.  No, I don’t care for Hillshire Farm.  Use your chef’s knife and do the same railroad motion through the sausages.

 

Add to the trinity and get some color on the sausage bits.

 

Normally, I would NEVER use rice from a box, but this is an exception, and here’s why.  There’s a thick sauce coming, and in order to get the rice done without turning the sauce to crud involves using parboiled or “converted” rice, a la Uncle Ben’s.  Basically, the rice has been pre-steamed in the husk to make it fluffier.  It is beige, not white, and has 80% of the nutrients of “brown” rice.  People will tell you that this converted rice takes longer to cook than white rice, but I have tried this recipe with white rice and it does not cook in time.  Just trust me on this one.

 

Add 2 cups of the converted rice to the pan.

 

Stir in two cans of a good quality tomato sauce, a pinch of cayenne pepper (or some hot sauce), salt, black pepper, and a pinch of sugar depending on how acidic your tomato sauce is.  Cooking is about using the senses.  When you taste your tomato sauce, if it reminds you of chewing on aluminum foil, it’s too acidic.  Add some sugar.  If there’s no sharp tang, you’re fine.  I’m a metaphor/simile whore today.  Turn the heat down and simmer this in the pan for 10 minutes or so, stirring often to avoid the rice sticking.  While this is cooking, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

 

Pour into a 13×9 dish.  Attempt to get the giant skillet into the sink or the dishwasher.  Fail miserably and get tomato-y rice all over the sink, counter, floor, and you.

 

Lots of foil, and a lid if your casserole has one.  Mine doesn’t, so we go into the oven on a wing and a prayer.

 

After one hour, it’s all done!

 

Om nom!

 

Lowcountry Red Rice
by Jason Osborne
serves 4

1/2 cup onion, diced
1/2 cup celery, diced
1/4 cup green bell pepper, diced
2 links smoked sausage
2 tbsp olive oil or bacon fat if you can get it
2 cups converted rice
2 small cans tomato sauce
cayenne pepper, to taste
salt and black pepper, to taste
sugar, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Sautee vegetables in olive oil until they begin to take on some color. Slice sausage into rounds and sautee with vegetables. Add rice and stir. Add tomato sauce, salt, peppers, and sugar then reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Pour into a 13×9 baking dish and bake for one hour tightly covered with foil or a lid. Fluff with a fork before serving.

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