California Rice

Snow geese over harvested rice field

When I drive to work in the morning I cross a three-mile bridge over a floodway. This floodway, or bypass, was created early in California’s history to carry water away from the Sacramento River during high flows and prevent the city of Sacramento from flooding and so far it has done its job. Within this floodway a wildlife area was created in 1997, the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. It provides habitat to hundreds of thousands of waterfowl that visit each winter as they travel the Pacific Flyway from Alaska and Canada down into California’s central valley. There are also rice fields alongside the wetland habitats within the bypass. They also provide food and shelter for scores of wildlife species. In fact, California ricelands provide habitat to 230 wildlife species, including more than 30 that have been designated as special status. Ricelands provide more than half of the food needed by wintering waterfowl in the Sacramento Valley.

Rice production also benefits Californians in a big way, it puts more than a billion dollars into our economy, it supports local communities and premium California rice is found in every piece of sushi made in America. So if you eat sushi, you’re eating rice grown right here in my back yard. So, how did rice get to be such an important crop? It certainly isn’t native to our area.

Like so many things in California you could say it all started when Sutter found gold in “them thar hills”. The California gold rush brought thousands of fortune hunters to California. Immigrants from all over the world came, the largest group were Chinese workers hired by the mines and the railroad. Rice was an important part of the Chinese diet and it had to be imported from China or Japan. European and Asian miners who didn’t fair well in their search for gold turned to their previous profession, farming. Some saw rice as a potential crop.

But early attempts to cultivate long grain rice failed time and time again. It wasn’t until 1908 that a USDA soil specialist discovered that a Japanese medium grain variety, Kiushu, was better suited to northern California’s climate and soil. The first successful crop was grown at the Belfour-Guthrie Ranch in the community of Biggs just after the discovery and by 1912 the rice industry was established. Today California’s rice industry flourishes in the Sacramento Valley and a small portion of the San Joaquin Valley. About half of the rice produced in California stays in the US, the rest is exported to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Middle East. Rice is also produced in two other principal areas of the United States: the Grand Prairie and Mississippi River Delta of Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri and the Gulf Coast of Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

One of the things I like to make with California short grain rice is risotto. I’ve been using it for years now and prefer it to the more traditional Arborio rice from Italy. To me Risotto is a comfort food, much like mac-n-cheese.

Farmhand Risotto

Tonight I put together a risotto hearty enough to satisfy a hungry farmhand or just a very hungry gal looking for some comfort food. It combines short grain rice, chicken stock and vegetables fresh from this morning’s Farmers’ Market, fresh carrots, crimini mushrooms, onions and tender spring spinach. I also used celery and country sage sausage, a touch of fresh thyme from my garden, a pat of sweet butter, some baked garlic cloves I had on hand, and a sprinkling of grated Asiago cheese just before serving. Served with a simple mixed green salad and a glass of wine it was the perfect dinner on this rainy spring evening.

Additional information and recipes for California rice can be found at California Rice Commission.

3/10/11 – Annie’s article  for step by step information on how to make risotto.

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Monday’s Two-fer

Ok, so it’s been forever since I’ve posted. I could sit here and give you a hundred reasons why I haven’t but I’m not going to. I’m only going to say that this winter has been very mild, in fact it is Spring here in California’s Central Valley and has been for over a month. I have Spring fever so bad that I can hardly get anything done that doesn’t have to do with fiddling around outside and since blogging and cooking are indoor activities they are both down the list of fun things to do, at least to my thinking lately. But as sometimes happens, guilt shows up and I start to rethink my priorities. A very nice email from a blogging friend in Texas, Jack Mathews of Sage to Meadow, recently arrived. It was Jack’s choices for his 2011 Prairie Sagebrush Awards for blogging. The award recognizes bloggers Jack follows for their excellence in writing, photography and art on the blog. He included Anniespickns. That heated up the guilt. An award for blogging should be given to those who blog and that hasn’t been me lately.  It was also a nice reminder to myself that I do miss the writing, the research and discovery and I miss interacting with you, my readers.

So as I started to think about dinner tonight a post was born.

Monday’s Two-fer

Sometimes its just time to gather the leftover this-n-thats from the fridge and either toss em or get creative. Tonight was one of those times. Luckily the this-n-thats were worth saving so I got creative. I sliced the handful of Brussels sprouts, about the same amount of crimini mushrooms; some pieces of fried bacon along with half an onion then added a few cloves from some baked garlic.  First I fried the mushrooms, next the onion, then the sliced Brussels sprouts. Chop the bacon and garlic and toss with the other ingredients and there you have it. I had a little brown rice that I warmed up and served with this. That’s what you call a two-fer, clean fridge and full tummy.

There was even enough natural light coming in the kitchen window to shoot a quick photo.

How I learned to Love Brussels Sprouts – Anniespickns

Soup – The Perfect Food

The weather here in sunny Northern California has definitely changed.  Night temperatures have been in the 40’s, with the last couple of days barely hitting 60 with no sun to speak of.  Not exactly my favorite kind of weather. I much prefer the sunshine.  It’s these crisp fall days that remind me it’s time to start making one of my favorite meals again, soup. To my mind there is nothing better on a cold drizzly day than a hot bowl of homemade soup.

Soup was one of the things my mom often made during the late fall and winter months. It was the perfect way to feed eight growing children a healthy nutritious meal on tight budget. Sometimes it was made using beef bones, sometimes she used chicken or turkey and often it was with split peas or beans and veggies, lots of different veggies. Her soups were always delicious, filled you up and made you warm inside.

According to ehow\’s The History of Soup , soup making is considered to be as old as the history of cooking. Soup was and still is inexpensive to make; it’s filling and easy to digest making it the perfect food for young and old and all those in between.

I’m not much on canned soups. For me, they have far too much salt (needed as a preservative). But for many it is the only kind of soup they have ever experienced. I hope if you are one of those who has only experienced canned or processed soup you will try this simple soup recipe. It will provide you with a delicious soup in about a half hour. I know it takes more than opening a can but I promise you the little bit of work you do will be well worth the effort.

Chicken Vegetable Soup

First pour yourself a nice little glass of wine. Take a sip and then pour a little olive oil in a two-quart pot, add about a cup and a half of quartered crimini mushrooms and sauté until they just begin to brown. Remove to a bowl. Next add equal amounts of chopped carrot, onion and celery (this is called mirepoix) I added about a cup of each. Sauté the mixture until the onion softens, the celery and carrot may not be soft but that’s OK. Then add about a quart of chicken or vegetable stock (your preference homemade or canned, but be aware of the salt content if your using canned) a diced potato (firm red or white skinned variety is preferred) and some fresh herbs, I used sage, thyme and parsley and bring to a simmer. Cook until the vegetables are just tender when you pierce them with a fork. With a potato masher, mash the mix a little to thicken the soup. Don’t mash too much unless you want a thick soup. At this point if you have mashed the stock and veggies a lot and want a thicker soup like chowder you can add some ½ and ½ and make it a cream stock and then add some diced cooked chicken or turkey. I didn’t go that route, but the more I write about it and think how tasty that would be, I may be trying that soon. Along with the chicken I added some leftover cooked green beans. Once it’s all together give it a good stir, let the chicken and green beans warm up and your soup is ready to serve. For a delicious topper I added some fresh sage leaves that I had sautéed in butter until they were crisp.  Shredded Parmesan cheese is also a nice addition to this soup but I didn’t add it this time.

Remember the mirepoix, it’s a basic for many soups and sauces.  Add some stock, fresh herbs, vegetables, grains, and meat if you wish and in about 30 minutes you’ll have an economical meal that will warm your soul and make you smile.

“What’s in the Fridge?” Salad.

Today is our second day of 100+ temperatures. Last week it was the 80s so we really haven’t had time to adjust to days in the 100s. Truth is, I never adjust to that kind of heat. The only good thing about hot days is the mornings. I love puttering in my garden or sometimes just enjoy sitting in my swing drinking coffee and watching the birds on their morning quest for seeds or nectar. It’s definitely my favorite time of day during the summer months.

My appetite and energy related to cooking takes a nosedive during the heat (I consider heat any temperature over 90). So today when I was hungry but didn’t want to heat up the kitchen by cooking I decided to make one of my “What’s in the fridge?” salads. I like this salad because it’s light, refreshing and uses up of all kinds of veggies. It’s also a good place to use leftover chicken or chunks of cheese. If I have leftover cooked bacon that’s a definite addition.  It’s literally what ever I have on hand in the fridge, hence the name.

Today’s mix included sliced Crimini mushrooms, shredded carrot and summer squash (from my garden), sugar snap peas, sliced at a diagonal into 1/2″ pieces, spinach, chard, radicchio leaves torn into bite size pieces  and a mix of baby lettuce leaves. I chop and shred the veggies, holding the leafy veggies and meat cheese, etc aside and place it all in a bowl. Then I toss the mix with a nice vinaigrette (I make my own using 6T olive oil, 3 T red wine vinegar, 1 t Dijon mustard and one crushed garlic clove), then add the chicken, bacon or cheese (today a very nice crumbly Gorgonzola) and toss again. I always add the leaf veggies last and toss the whole mixture just before serving. If you want to expand beyond the fridge for ingredients you might check your cupboards for croutons or toasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds. They are all nice additions. Be creative and just use what you have.

Annie’s Asian Slaw is another favorite hot weather meal of mine. You can find the recipe for that one here.

The forecast says the weather should start to cool down after tomorrow. I hope so! Meanwhile, I’ll be heading to the fridge for ice cold peppermint tea and salad ingredients.

Mange-tout – Eat The Whole Thing

Sunday while at the Farmers’ Market I bought some Sugar Snap peas. The French call them mange-tout, or eat the whole thing and they area absolutely right, there’s no shelling involved. I love these crisp peas and often eat them raw like carrot sticks. In fact, I’ve had them twice this week in my lunch just that way. But when it comes to preparing them as a vegetable with my dinner I usually sauté them until just crisp-tender. Tonight I sautéed some sliced Crimini then tossed in Snap Peas than had been cut in half diagonally. When the peas were crisp-tender I added a touch of Sesame Oil and a splash of Tamari, quick, simple and delicious.

To make a one-pan meal of this add some cooked diced chicken or pork after you add the peas. You could substitute Snow peas for the recipe above if you can’t find the Sugar Snap.

Peas are a cool weather crop here in the Central Valley. May has a tendency to get much warmer than the peas like so we should be at the end of the season but it’s been cool and rainy so the peas are still happily producing and I’m still buying them and enjoying them.

Here are a couple of sites that I found while surfing around that I thought you might enjoy. The first one is from a blog called Vegetarians in Paradise. The article includes more history than you might ever want to know, but it’s interesting all the same. Included were sections on: Folklore and Oddities, Genetics, Cuisine, Growing, Nutritional benefits, Preparation and Recipes.

Next was Formula For Life, there you can find Nutritional information, Varieties, Selection, Storage, Preparation Information, Historical Information and Recipes.

Last was a very cool historical timeline of the pea (1650 – 2011) on Google. I love timelines so naturally I found this interesting. If you’re not enamored with them, you’ll probably want to skip this one.

Try some peas while they are still in season. You might find you love them too!

A little of this, a little of that and you have the one-pot option.

Have you ever found you have just a few carrots, maybe a little spinach and just a handful of green beans in the refrigerator but there’s not enough of any one of them to feed two people much less three or four?  Here’s an easy solution; The one pan option, or as some might call it stir-fry.

I love stir-fry. I don’t always use it to solve the little of this, little of that problem. Sometimes I choose it because I can cook everything in one pan, which a lot of the time is a huge motivating factor. Whichever reason, I’ve been keeping track of some of the ways I made quick, tasty, easy to clean up meals over the last month and here are the results.

Version 1

A curried version using Crimini mushrooms, onion and garlic, zucchini, carrots and leftover chicken served over brown rice mixed with a little curry sauce.

Version II

An Asian version using Shitaki mushrooms, onion and garlic, snow peas, spinach, yellow summer squash served over brown rice flavored with a little oyster sauce.

Version III

This one I came up with after my experience with the fava beans. In this version I used Crimini mushrooms, onion and garlic, chard and feta cheese served over left over rice penne pasta.

Version IV

A celebration of the first green beans of the season was the occasion for this simple stir-fry of Shitaki mushrooms, onion and garlic, green beans all flavored with bacon bits and served over brown rice.

I start by sautéing the mushrooms, then add the onion and garlic, sometimes I remove those ingredients to a serving bowl then brown the longer cooking veggies like the squash, green beans or chard stems, then I’ll add back in the mushroom/onion mixture put what ever greens I’m going to use on top, add a little liquid (water, broth, wine) to create steam and cover until the greens just wilt and the thicker veggies are just right. If I really don’t want to clean another pan I will sometimes put the rice or cooked pasta in with the thicker veggies and the liquid, cover and let it all steam for a little while then add the greens to wilt them right before serving.

This is one of those things that you’ll want to play around with. There is no wrong way. Just think of the colors and textures of what you have on hand and what might taste good with them as a flavoring. I used curry sauce, oyster sauce, feta cheese, and bacon in these versions but  you might want to try soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, or even a BBQ sauce. Herbs are also a good addition.  Nuts and seeds are good ways to add protein if your not adding cheese or leftover meats. And, don’t forget tofu. Tofu is really great in these stir-fry dishes. I usually don’t cook rice or pasta for this dish I usually have some leftovers that I use. If you do cook pasta especially for this, use some of the pasta water when you do the steaming.

I am using a wok style pan but a large fry pan can work too. Just make sure you have a lid that fits the pan you are going to use. For oil I use either olive oil or canola oil. The addition of a little sesame oil to an Asian style version is very nice.

Just use your imagination, the options are endless and now that we have a whole new selection of summer vegetables coming to market I’m sure I’ll be trying some new combinations. How about you? Let me know what you come up with. I love trying new ideas.

How I Learned to Love Brussels Sprouts.

To a lot of folks just the mention of the words Brussels sprouts may bring about memories of being served soggy, mushy, strong tasting little cabbages. Not pleasant memories. Well, you can strike those awful memories from your mind. I’m here to tell you that if you give them another chance you might learn, just as I have, that they can be delicious. There three keys to a successful Brussels sprouts experience. First, buy them fresh; second select sprouts that are small in size; and last don’t over cook them. Brussels sprouts taste best cooked quickly. Here are four ways to enjoy Brussels sprouts.

My favorite way to fix them is to toss about 1 pound trimmed Brussels sprouts that have been cut in half lengthwise into a large Ziplock bag with one onion, that has been quartered, then cut into 1/16’s, about ½ pound Crimini mushrooms, quartered, some olive oil and a little sea salt and cracked black pepper. Toss to mix all the ingredients.  Next, I preheat my little BBQ and put my stir-fry basket on the grill. When the grill and the basket are nice and hot I dump in the Brussels sprout mix and close the BBQ lid. I check back every 5 min or so and toss the mixture so it can cook evenly. It’s done when the mixture is browned and the sprouts are crisp tender. Another nice addition to this mix is to toss in some chopped crisp cooked bacon just before serving. You can also roast this mixture in a 450° F oven for about 45 minutes. For me, this recipe seems to come out much better when I use the BBQ.

They can also be pan browned. Trim ½ pound Brussels sprouts and halve lengthwise. Cut 2 large garlic cloves into very thin slices. In a heavy 10-inch skillet melt 1 tablespoon butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil over moderate heat and cook garlic, stirring, until pale golden. Transfer garlic with a slotted spoon to a small bowl. Reduce heat to low and arrange sprouts in skillet, cut sides down, in one layer. Sprinkle sprouts with 2 tablespoons pine nuts and salt to taste. Cook sprouts with turning, until crisp-tender and undersides are golden brown. About 15 minutes. Transfer sprouts to a plate, browned sides up. Add garlic and ½ tablespoon butter to skillet and cook over moderate heat, stirring until pine nuts are more evenly pale golden brown, about 1 minute. Spoon mixtures over sprouts and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper.

They are also delicious in what I call a stir-fry style. First separate the sprouts into just the leaves and set aside. Next, in a little olive oil, saute some diced onion and pancetta or bacon until softened. Add the sprout leaves and stir-fry until just tender.

For the simplist version try this; Steam 2 lbs of trimmed Brussels sprouts until just tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Toss with butter and salt and pepper to taste. For this version use the very tiniest sprouts, less than three quarters of an inch in diameter. It the sprouts are larger cut them in half.

The season will be ending soon. At some markets you can buy the entire dramatic-looking stalk and pluck the sprouts off when you get home. Look for stalks that have small sprouts; they will be sweeter than the larger ones. Choose those that feel firm and heavy. Avoid any that have any wilting or yellowing leaves, or that do nor form a tight head. If you haven’t tried Brussels sprouts in a while why not give them another chance? You just might find out how really delicious they can be.