Monday, 19 October 2020

Rice Cooker Meals

Introduction

There are so many ‘Instant Pots’ and “Rice Cookers’ and ‘Eco Pots’ out there nowadays, and most of them are quite economical on energy use, produce ideal cooking conditions, and can be used for trouble-free meal preparation. If you have an available power socket, you can produce a meal.


There are a few gotchas, of course. With the exception of Instant Pots, most of these cookers have just one simple program, and that is to boil the contents until water evaporates and the temperature then rises (because no more water to keep it under 100C) to around 110C - 120C for most of them. That happens naturally because while ever there’s still water on the bottom of the cooking vessel, water boils at 100C and so the temperature CAN’T go any higher. Once the water is all boiled away, the temperature rises, and at some point - usually set at the factory - the unit kicks into ‘Keep Warm’ mode. 

A quick Glossary

of these versatile cooking utensils might be in order here.

First Principles - Crock Pots (Slow Cookers)

These kinds of cookers are members of a class of electrical cooking pots whose roots go all the way back to Vilna Village, Vilnius, Lithuania, in the late 1800s - 1900s. Because the Jewish faith requires a good Jewish person performs no operating of devices on Shabat, (for a range of reasons) they would take the next day’s one pot meal to the local bakery ovens in a heavy crock that would hold the residual heat of the oven to slowly cook overnight and thus require no operating anything, just pick it up, wrap it in cloth to insulate it and have a cooked warm meal ready to go.


A gentleman and prolific inventor by name of Irving Nachumsohn in Chicago in the 1900s had learned of that Jewish innovation and thought how perfect this method of making the cholent was for Chicago’s summer heat. He developed the device, filed patent #2,187,888 in 1936 and was granted it in 1940. It for unknown reasons took him over ten years to start producing the slow cooker, but in the 1950s we saw the first commercial ‘Crockettes’ hit the selves of stores and a new era of cooking began. -- https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/brief-history-crock-pot-180973643/


The original Crockette had a ceramic, stoneware, or pottery based inner pot, and as its popularity rose, it begat a slew of new cooking devices. It had an insulated outer body that the inner liner pots were placed (or sometimes permanently fixed) in, a good solid lid to prevent heat loss, and generally had two or three settings only. They can be used for literally hundreds of recipes, from cakes and desserts to meatloaf and stews and soups, to caramelising onions. 


The great appeal of the crock pot, in the start of "dual income families" times, was that you could place the ingredients in it in the morning, come back in the afternoon - and have a hot meal ready to go. 

Rice Cookers

The slow cooker was joined in December 1956 by the first commercially-produced domestic automatic rice cooker, made by Toshiba Corporation. All their successors have pretty much used similar basic construction ever since, and can take between 20 and 60 minutes to cook a pot of rice. The advantages are that they produce consistent results and need a minimum of attention to do so. The disadvantages are that these results can include consistently burning the bottom layer of rice, consistently drying out the cooked rice rather quickly with some models with poorly fitted lids, and similar little niggles.


By 1965 most of these bugs were eliminated in newer and improved models, and these days you can get a perfect 2litre capacity rice cooker for $13 AUD, under a tenner in the UK or USA (making them cheaper than conventional stovetop saucepans) and inventive cooks began developing one pot simple meals.  -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rice_cooker


And look - Asian people, to whom rice was a staple dish and something households prided themselves for, took up the rice cookers in great quantity because once you worked out how to prevent those issues (stirring the rice briefly with a plastic spatula, using a tea towel to keep the heat and steam in, and so forth) they DID produce a consistent good quality food.

Eco Pots

Most ‘eco pots’ are basically a smaller version of a rice cooker with a capacity of 0.6 - 1.9litres. They can perform much the same functions but for a much smaller quantity of food.

Instant Pots

It took a forty year hiatus (ca 2006) for Canada to patent the next innovation, the Instant Pot. -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Instant_Pot


The first model was recalled for electrical issues, but by 2013 I’d been able to buy a device based on the IP and made in China (which is my nice way of saying "ripped off"...) for only $60AUD at a then common chain of warehouse outlet stores (Sam's) and despite quite heavy use it is still working well today, and newer replacement models can still be found for under $160AUD for a generic unit with ALL the program features +++ then some.


‘Instant Pots’ (‘IPs’) became a phenomenon around the early to mid 2010s and have been universally accepted as a Good Thing by most people who’ve used them. Like all three of the devices I’m compiling this list of, they have an insulated body which includes the safety switch, heating element, a thermostat, and a separate spun metal inner pot which is what the food cooks in. Inner pots vary but most are spun aluminium and feature a non-stick liner inside. They have a lid with a vent and a pressure relief, and a pressure seal, all of which have to be kept scrupulously clean and free of food deposits for the IP to function properly.


They have far more functions than a simple rice cooker because they include a program selector and are a pressure cooker as well as a traditional sort of electric boiler. Most can also fry or braise ingredients, be set to start at a particular time of day and run a specified program then keep things warm - they’re a good all-round tool to have, in other words.  You can use them like a slow cooker, pressure cooker, electric saucepan/pot, for braising as pointed out - and many have a program to cook rice, too.


They can have a capacity from 6litres to around 12litres, and as with any pot for the kitchen they need to be around the right size - too big for the size of meals you generally make and the food will cook or burn in a thin layer on the bottom, and it’s recommended that you NEVER - EVER - exceed the safe capacity of the IP you have. In pressure cooker mode, going over or under the limits can result in explosion, injury, or worse.


That said, they’re a very safe device and have a multitude of uses, I’ve used mine to make soups of all kinds, stews, one pot meals, cook silverside perfectly, make a larger than usual quantity of rice or pasta for parties, and slow caramelise onions.


The capabilities and limitations of your IP are pretty much laid out in the instruction manual. My IP, for example, has a series of eight ‘basic recipes’ that I can adjust for length of time / weight of main ingredient etc, and is very easy to use, but doesn’t include a ‘braise’ setting but by using one of the programmed settings and adding fats and vegetables I can get it to braise. You need to experiment a little bit.

Generally

Most of these devices (at least all those with removable inner pots) have a spring-loaded thermostat in the centre of what is in effect just an electric hotplate. Until the inner pot presses down with enough weight in it to depress the spring loaded thermostat, it will either only run at ‘keep warm’ heat, or in many cases not run the hotplate at all. This is done to prevent the device from causing fires if it’s accidentally left on. 


Most inner liners  for rice cookers, eco pots, and IPs these days are made from pressed or spun aluminium with a non-stick coating inside, and they generally have their capacity measurement stamped into the metal in this case.


Less commonly, they can have stainless steel inner pots, which may or may not have capacity markings stamped in them,


For crockpots, earthenware is still the most common inner pot material, and some are permanently fixed into the insulated body, which creates issue with washing-up because you mustn’t submerge the electrical bits (i.e. the whole outer body) or get them wet so for preference a removable inner pot is important.

Example Recipes

The white one was from an opp shop, the black one bought in a market-

place but also in good used condition. Soon as I had two pots,
the first thing I did was to cook rich curry prawns and rice for 
us. Despite these Eco Pots being around 700 - 800ml the meal
was more than enough for two, and left enough for a snack the
next day. That photo above was taken while I cooked this meal.

Principles again

You have at your disposal a cooker that proceeds at high heat until all water has evaporated from the food in the inner pot, then automatically reduces its setting to a lower ‘keep warm’ temperature.


You can control how much cooking time your rice gets by how much water you place in the bowl. You know that (for example) rice absorbs an equal volume of water and needs to cook for a certain amount of time in order to be the perfect cooked texture, so you need to add more water to ensure that the cooker stays at high heat for the required amount of time. 


For most of these devices, they are recommended to never fill them to more than half the total volume, and that’s generally also the safety limit for the device.


Other than the rice cooker, most of these recipes call for no more complicated equipment than a bowl or plate to serve the meal on, a kitchen knife, and a plastic rice spoon, spatula or chopsticks. 


Asian cup measures are different to European (Metric), Imperial British, and US cup measures: 


Asian cups are 180ml capacity,
1 legal U.S. cup = 240 milliliters

1 customary U.S. cup = 236.59 milliliters

1 imperial cup = 284.13 milliliters

1 metric cup = 250 milliliters


Of course, rice cookers use Asian rice cup measures and most recipes use either US ar metric cup measures… 


Understanding that, here’s how to use most rice cookers to cook the perfect rice.

Actually Cooking - Rice . . .

In most rice cookers, twice the volume of water to one volume of rice is about right, maybe minus about a quarter of a volume. 


So - for a 0.9litre eco pot, you can safely put two 180ml cups of rice with ~~270-300ml (approximately one and three quarters as much water) for a total volume in the pot of 450-480ml, which is almost exactly half the volume. Perfect.)

Other Things, Other Tips

BIG tips for rice cookers etc, and a few ‘watch-it’s’ - (there are a lot of things you can do with a rice or eco cooker, but also a few things you have to - watch it! . . . )


For a start, sautee or light frying is sort of possible. The thermostats aren’t instantaneous on the cheaper rice cookers ane eco pots, so they hit 100C and the temperature keeps on rising for a little bit, then the hotplate stays that warm for a few minutes longer. It’s enough to lightly fry ingredients that are chopped small.


And then there’s the second tip - size IS important. Don’t let anyone con you about this. A whole cylinder of carrot will be underdone when your other ingredients are mush. Shredded carrots will be mush before the rice is cooked. Small diced pieces of meat will be perfectly cooked, 2cm cubes will be raw inside. You generally have only about 20 - 40 minutes of cooking time. 


Timing is everything else. I put meats and things that need frying in, put the cooker on high setting (with lid if necessary to provide enough weight to allow it to work) and then come back to it to check doneness, then put in the carbohydrate (rice or pasta, generally) and added ingredients in stages from there on so they are all cooked right. 

Now to the watchits. 

Firstly many of the cheaper rice cookers have cheaper non-stick. It figures, right? And the thing with cheaper non-stick is that it may not be designed to operate at any temperatures higher than boiling water. Check that in the instruction manual, search for information about your cooker online, and then decide if you want to push it into frying temperatures. Or just take the risk that your food will have traces of weird chemicals infused into it. 


Next one is just common sense. NEVER stick metal, ceramic, or hard materials into the inner pot to stir things. Most come supplied with a plastic spoon, and a silicon spatula is cheaper than buying a new rice cooker. With plastic items and pushing the higher temperatures, be aware that most plastics and silicons aren’t designed to frying or oven temperatures and use them safely. 


Never eat directly from the inner pot, you’ll definitely scratch it. Don’t think you can do better than everyone else in the world, a bowl to wash is a small price to pay for the awesome quick meal.

More Tips

The best stirring implements are actually cheap disposable wooden chopsticks. Also, if you have the kind that are joined Siamese-twin-style, leave them together for a slightly larger stirring surface. You can get them with every tub of chinese take-away so you needn’t look too far for them. I have a few sets that I wash and dry between uses and one set’s been in use for six months. 


As a bonus, you can add paste or dry ingredients on them and have some idea of how much you’re adding. The part where they’re joined can hold a half teaspoonful easily in that last solid 1.5 - 2cm section, the points can hold a quarter teaspoon roughly depending how far up the chopsticks you’ve filled. 


Also of course you can just use two normal wooden chopsticks held together if you don’t want to common eco-system-cide by re-using a few single use chopstick pairs a year. . . 

Serving

To access the meal, either spoon it out with the plastic spoon they provide or use a silicon implement. With the smaller eco cooker, I’ve found that a great looking presentation is to use a tea towel or oven mitt, put a plate / bowl upside down over the pot and then turn them both over then give the eco inner a tap with your hand and generally the whole meal drop onto the plate and will sit in a molded shape. 


So there you have it. Some meals have just gone from a huge pile of implements and utensils to a rice cooker, a knife, a bowl or two, and some chopsticks. 

Some Recipes

Must be time for a few recipes… 


Rice, pasta such as macaroni, and noodles such as fine egg noodles or ramen, have been a stock food for many of us and are always good standbys. And because a) ramen has always been associated with penniless students, really primitive cooking facilities in dorm rooms, and half-inebriated snacking after a hard night out, I’m going to make the recipes a bit like that, just cheap and quick and easy enough to get one’s hands on.


I’ve tried the ones as written and declare that they’re tasty and filling. I’ve also tried hundreds of variations on them over time, using a small milk saucepan before I discovered my rice cooker and eco pot, so you can easily adapt these to an army surplus nesting cooking set if you need to, or go large and make the recipe in a bigger pot and multiply the ingredients for a family dinner.


I also like chopsticks because they’re a cooking utensil, a measuring utensil, AND an eating utensil - what more do you need? 


These recipes are presented as inline ingredients recipes, that is, there’s no separate ingredients list so read them through before diving in, to make sure you have everything. I’ll use the Asian rice cup as standard (180ml) because there’s generally one included with your rice cooker or eco pot. I’ll also use the good old rule of thumb ‘double chopstick’ measures for most everything else. 


These recipes are really basic, you can embellish them or alter them, mainly it’s the techniques and some basic easy ideas for flavour combinations that work.

Spanish Chorizo Rice

Slice about 8cm of chorizo into half centimetre slices. Put a splash of olive oil in the bottom of the pot, add the chorizo slices laid flat, put the lid on and run it on high for 5 minutes or until it switches the warm setting, whichever comes first. Add 1/4 tsp of smoked paprika powder, (two chopsticks together, tip end) and  1 tsp of minced garlic (2 lots that will fit on the last cm or so of the flat end of two chopsticks) a half tsp of salt, minced chilli to desired spiciness, then tip in 1 cup of washed rice, two cups of water, put the lid back on and let it cook until the rice is almost done and the water is almost all gone, then chop up half a small brown onion , stir it in and stir everything well with the chopsticks or whatever you’re using, put the lid back on and  flick it to the keep warm setting and let stand for another 10 - 20 minutes before serving. Serve as a moulded rice meal. (See “Serving” above.)

Chicken Noodle Soup

Take a small handful of shredded leftover chicken and put it in the inner pot along with a splash of oil (sunflower, vegetable, olive - your call) a 1/4 tsp salt, half a small onion diced, a few corn kernels (the tiny sized tin is perfect for making two of these soups with so if you have two cookers you can make a yummy meal for two) and a tablespoonful of your choice of green vegetable shredded or sliced/diced thin, start the cooker on high, using the lid to make sure it’ll switch on.  Get a ‘nest’ of egg noodles (these come in big bags, generally a few dozen to the kilo, makes for some cheap meals!! Two nests broken is generally close to a full Asian cup full. and by your choice, either crunch it up or leave it whole, add to the pot, add 2 cups of water and a small (or half of a) chicken stock cube crushed fine, and close the machine and let it come to the boil (you’ll see steam escaping at a fair rate) then flick it to low, maybe add some chopped fresh or dried parsley, and let it sit with the lid on until the noodles are done to your taste. Serve in a bowl and enjoy immediately.

Asian Style Pork and Rice

Add a splash of peanut oil, some fine diced brown onion and garlic, and some fine diced pork (5mm cubes) up to three tablespoonfuls. You can use leftover cooked pork, or just dice up some meat scraps and remnants left from preparing another meal. Usual procedure, allow to come to temperature and fry, then remove the lid so the hotplate stops. Add half a cup of rice and a cup and a bit of water, put the lid back and switch to high setting, allow to cook for 15 minutes, ten check the rice, which should still be a little bit grainy in the middle. Dice a stem and leaf of pak choy or similar, add a few drops of sesame oil, 2 tsp soya sauce, a few drops of fish sauce if you like, and put the lid back and let it stand on warm setting for another 10 - 20 minutes until the rice is to your liking. Serve however you like. You can also make this with two nests of broken egg noodles. 

Corned Beef

Similar to the above recipe, make everything but the pork, and add a crushed beef stock cube, and maybe vary vegetables as suits you. While that’s cooking, get a tin of corned beef (the drier and more solid it is, the better) and cut two 1.5cm thick slices, then cut those in half lengthways and each strip into four cubes, place them at the bottom of your serving bowl, then upend the pot on top of that. Let stand for another few minutes and enjoy.


Yep you could do this with fried Spam cubes or similar but don’t fry the corned beef as it’ll fall apart - take this on trust - and look unappetising. 

The Kitchen Sink

When I cook, anything that isn’t plated for that meal gets the freezer. So I’ll quite often have several (re-usable of course) storage baggies or tubs. These little silicon things with ziplock and cliplock seals respectively are just the best - a large one holds washed raw vegetable ‘scraps’ -  things like celery crowns / roots, trimmings off root vegetables, cabbage hearts etc - for making soups and stocks each time I accumulate enough. Slices of leftover roast pork, that chicken drumstick that was left on the serving platter, half a cup of minced (ground) beef that was surplus to the meatballs recipe that time. I estimate that I have between 2 to 4 kilos of such odds and ends left from time to time. And when I do, I raid some of those ingredients for a Kitchen Sink Noodles breakfast.


You literally need only a tablespoon’s worth of each ingredient, broken from the rest of bits, one or two nests of noodles, two cups of water, and a few condiments. One of my favourites involves a few spoonfuls of small-diced roast pork (including the fat and skin) a few shreds of some leftover roast chicken, a fish ball cut into eight, some cabbage / leafy green, and a LOAD of different condiments like a chilli-garlic paste, Indian garlic pickle, sriracha, ketchup manis, fish sauce, sesame oil, peanut oil, a stock cube - pretty much to your taste - and then cook the ingredients in the two cups of water until it starts boiling, then open, add a nest (or two) of noodles, close up again and let cook for five more minutes, then serve. 


Watch-it: When ‘liberating’ a small quantity of an ingredient from a larger quantity, take care not to introduce contamination to the rest, I find that if I store those ingredients in layers as thin as possible, it’s generally easy to snap a small quantity of while it’s still in the freezer pouch. DO NOT thaw the whole pouch just to get a tablespoonful of it. 


ProTip: Remember I mentioned minced meat? I put that in the pouch then roll it into a thin (less than 5mm thick) sheet inside the pouch, and use several pouches if there’s to much for the one alone. Similarly I slice leftover raw or cooked vegetables into thinner slices and use more pouches if I have to. As a bonus, those thin flat packs take up little space in the freezer compared to the old take-away or freezer tubs. I write what it is and the date I froze it on the pouch and a smidgen of methylated spirits in a piece of paper towel cleans the writing off when washing the pouches for re-use. 


ProTip: Most discount and $2 stores these days have these silicon ziplock pouches. I just bought one or two each time I has a spare couple of bucks and now have around twenty of them in various sizes. 


If I store something larger (such as a litre of concentrated home-made chicken stock) I still use the rectangular storage containers, also anything awkward shaped or chunky that I don’t want to flatten or slice thinner. Those ingredients are just not for eco pot mini-meals. . .  On a positive note, when I cook for my wife and myself, I have to hand a dozen or more ready meals that just need heating and maybe some carbohydrate (pasta, potatoes, etc) for saving time, and enough frozen meats, ingredients, and (shamed to say but we all have our weaknesses) frozen commercial pasta meals and meat pies etc, to 

Variations

You can make purely vegetable bowls with rice or noodles in the same way, also I’ve used TSP (Textures Soy Protein) to make vegetarian versions for friends, you can use macaroni and once it’s cooked add some diced ham, grated cheddar or some similar cheese, a dollop of cream and let it sit and it makes creditable mac and cheese. 


When making the Spanish style, add a teaspoonful of tomato paste for a richer flavour, or make a recipe using egg noodles (or macaroni) a few tablespoons of minced (ground) beef or some other meat and half a cup of store bought bolognese sauce spooned over just before serving. 


I’ve made Mexican/Spanish style rices and pastas using every meat imaginable, just adding spices, tomato, fresh vegetables, peppers, as the Spanish Chorizo recipe above. By changing the flavour profiles to tomato, basil, garlic, and parmesan, you can make passably and unmistakeably Italian flavoured meals. 


Beans. You can add tinned or precooked beans (baked beans, red kidney beans, black beans, etc) but dried beans can’t be cooked in a rice cooker in any reasonable time so I recommend those tiny tins, they’re easy to store, one tin can generally be used for one or two meals, and they add much-needed protein and nutrients to a meal. 


Also you can make mild flavoured meals using a mostly clear soup and Japanese soba noodles broken to size, garnished with all sorts before serving. 


I’ve also made just a nest of egg noodles in two to three cups or water with a stock cube, then added meat and vegetable leftovers from dinner to make a healthy and filling morning tea or lunch soup. (See The Kitchen Sink above.)


The most important thing to know is the different flavour profiles or different world cuisines. Asian cooking has a particular set of spice combinations, Thai is a different set, Indian, Italian, Greek, German, Dutch, Mexican, each State of the USA has a particular set of specialty flavours - once you’ve read a few recipes you’re pretty well equipped to ‘fake’ your noodles, pasta, or rice flavour profile. 


I may write up flavour profiles as a separate post sometime. Stay tuned. . . 


The next most important thing is to understand how the rice or eco cooker works, and work with it. Cheap easy and nourishing meals are easy to make, and while the cooking time may be an hour, your time preparing and stirring need only be fifteen minutes. 


In conclusion, let me say that when I make one of these meals as a savoury breakfast, I find I don’t feel hungry again until late afternoon, and if I have this as a work lunch, I can almost skip dinner in favour of a light salad - there may only be a small quantity of different ingredients but add a few of those to half a cup of rice or two nests of noodles and  it cooks up to around half a kilo (one pound) of a meal. 



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