Hold up, no need to throw away that day-old pot of rice. Heat up that wok or sauté pan, grab whatever sounds good from the fridge, and you're on the way to making some tasty fried rice.
Fried rice comes in all kinds of flavors: Hawaiian style with Spam; Chinese fried rice with bits of barbecued pork and scrambled egg; sweet and spicy Thai fried rice. It doesn't take much to whip up a batch. Chop up some veggies, improvise with other ingredients you have on hand, and you're pretty much good to go.
"Fried rice is a peasant food," said Suleka Lindley, chef and owner of midtown's Thai Basil restaurant. "It can be made with leftovers and any kind of sausage or vegetable."
No matter what, you'll need some rice and the Sacramento region is especially awash in rice right now. According to the California Rice Commission, this area is home to 97 percent of California's rice production, with about 5 billion pounds of rice harvested annually.
So, what are the best methods for making this simple yet tasty dish? Here are some cooking tips from Lindley that'll result in fantastic fried rice.
Choose a rice that's nice
Fried rice textures can range from well cooked and slightly crispy, to dense and slightly sticky, especially if mixed with egg. But no matter what, the best rice is day-old and slightly dry.
"Leftover rice is good," said Lindley. "If there's too much moisture it will stick together. Before cooking, the rice should be room temperature. If you need to, heat it up a little to get it lukewarm."
Not all rices are created equally for frying. Sticky rices meant for sushi and other Japanese dishes, even as leftovers, will result in mushy fried rice. Lindley recommends using long-grain rices, especially the fragrant jasmine rice commonly used in Thai cooking. For healthier fried rices, Lindley likes to use a half-and-half mixture of brown rice and jasmine rice.
"The more glutinous the rice, the less it will work," Lindley said. "It gets soggy and soft. Uncle Ben's would be just fine. Just don't use too much water when you're cooking it."
A word on oils
Oil's an essential ingredient for cooking fried rice, and many types can be used. Vegetable oil will work just fine, but peanut oil is especially prized for its ability to withstand high temperatures. Grapeseed oil also boasts a high smoke point, though its equally high price tag doesn't make it practical for many.
Sesame oil is typically used for Chinese-style fried rices but may need to be used sparingly. The prominent flavor of sesame oil can sometimes overshadow ingredients, especially if you're aiming for a spicy fried rice.
Whatever oil you opt for, make sure you have plenty on hand.
"You have to be generous with oil in fried rice so it won't stick," said Lindley.
Let's fry some rice!
The actual cooking time of fried rice doesn't take more than a few minutes. With plenty of heat and a well-seasoned wok, your batch of fried rice will be finished in a flash. (See story on Page D2 for tips on choosing and seasoning a wok.)
Most of the work comes from prepping ingredients beforehand. The approach doesn't need to feel fussy. Just look through the fridge and see what produce and proteins you have on hand.
Lindley demonstrates by whipping up a pineapple fried rice that takes about 5 minutes to cook. Chopped onion, chopped garlic, cashews, pineapple chunks, dried cranberries and raisins, plus prawns and small strips of uncooked chicken all wait on her mise en place.
She adds a dollop of vegetable oil to the wok, bringing up the heat until the oil's about to start smoking.
"When you're working with a hot wok it takes no time at all," said Lindley. "It's the prep that takes time."
Once the wok's heated, Lindley cracks an egg into it, where it immediately starts sizzling. The egg cooks quickly, in about 30 seconds, and then Lindley takes out the egg and sets it aside.
Next, she adds chopped garlic to the wok and gives it a quick sauté. A combination of chicken, prawns and chopped onion follows, all cooking quickly and creating a savory-smelling steam. The key here is caramelization, or browning any meats in the wok with through high heat. For more flavor, she adds sauces including Golden Mountain soy sauce and a light mushroom sauce to the mix.
And now, the rice. Lindley reaches for a bowl of jasmine rice that's topped with the egg she cooked earlier, plus dried cranberries and raisins for added texture. It all goes into the wok, where she distributes the rice evenly with a wooden spatula. The rice needs to make plenty of contact with the wok's hot surface to promote uniform cooking, and Lindley stirs regularly to make sure all the ingredients are properly integrated.
The pineapple is added at the end. Otherwise, the heat would drain much of its juices and possibly make for a mushy dish. A little oyster sauce gets mixed in for color, with cashews and diced green onion added to the top. And there it is pineapple fried rice.
The finished dish should showcase a rice that's tender, but not too sticky and clumpy. For those who like a drier fried rice, cook it in the wok a little longer but watch out for the rice sticking to the bottom of the wok, or signs that other ingredients are getting overcooked.
"You don't want to overcook the veggies," said Lindley. "You want them to stay crunchy."
Final thoughts on flavors
Fried rices can be made with all kinds of approaches, from hearty versions with meats and oodles of ingredients to lighter dishes that are more of a quick snack.
For a spicy fried rice, Lindley likes to combine a chopped serrano chili with a chopped clove of garlic, and then add to a wok with more chopped garlic. A little bean sauce can also go a long way toward boosting flavors. Consider adding peas and carrots, which provide a tasty and colorful touch.
Thai-style fried rices give extra considerations to flavor profiles that complement one another. Lindley likes to serve her fried rices with a side of fresh cucumber a pleasing palate cleanser with spicy fried rice or slices of tomato. Cashews and peanuts offer a crunchy contrast with tender fried rices.
"Thai food is all about texture and contrast," Lindley said. "There's hot and cold, spicy and sweet, sour and salty. And you can always add fresh vegetables when you want to counter the heat."
Different kinds of soy sauces can also impart various flavors. Lindley prefers Golden Mountain, a Thai soy sauce that's less saltier than many others and without monosodium glutamate with an especially savory and deep flavor. It can be found in Asian grocery stores and many major supermarkets, too.
"You can't cook Thai food without it," said Lindley. "Every Thai dish has to have Golden Mountain."
Most of all, Lindley encourages home chefs to experiment and just have fun with fried rice. There's no need to overthink it.
"That's what cooking should be, to see whatever's in the fridge and be able to make something out of it," said Lindley.