Seasonal pantry: Roll out the spice for Dirty Rice

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When it is impossible to either visit New Orleans or head to The Parish Cafe in either Healdsburg or Santa Rosa for a delicious fix of Cajun/Creole food, the next best option is to prepare something yourself.

If you can put some Swamp pop on whatever sound system you use and crank it up loud, it’s even better. Fats Domino, Dr. John, and Jessie Hill will have you dancing between the stove, sink, and counter, and the time will fly by, so don’t be intimidated by the long list of ingredients for Dirty Rice, a favorite regional dish that is popular throughout much of the south, not just southern Louisiana.

If you’re heading to a potluck, the dish is easy to transport and equally easy to reheat, if need be.

When it comes to rice, some people from New Orleans recommend Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice, as the grains do not stick together or form clumps. I sometimes use Himalayan basmati rice, which comes in a white cloth bag and is available at Oliver’s Markets. When you follow the instructions and both rinse and soak the rice before cooking, it is so delicate and ethereal that it almost levitates out of the pan. It has become one of my favorite varieties and brands of rice.

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Dirty rice, a classic Cajun dish, is delicious with roasted or fried chicken, grilled sausages, pork chops and such. It is also excellent topped with boiled crawfish or with Gulf shrimp, the bigger the better, cooked simply in butter and Tabasco sauce. To use this to make Dirty Rice Boulettes — think meatballs or arancini — it is best to prepare it several hours or the day before you plan to enjoy the boulettes.

Dirty Rice

Makes 6 to 8 servings as a side dish

For the spice blend:

2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more as needed

1 teaspoon ground cayenne, plus more to taste

1½ teaspoons ground black pepper

1½ teaspoons sweet Spanish paprika

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon dry mustard, such as Colman’s

½ teaspoon dried thyme

½ teaspoon dried oregano

— For the rice:

½ pound chicken gizzards

2 tablespoons chicken fat, duck fat, lard or mild olive oil

½ pound ground pork

2 tablespoons butter

1 green bell pepper, cut into small dice (see Notes below)

1 small white or yellow onion, minced

3 celery stalks, minced

5 garlic cloves, minced

3 cups homemade chicken stock

2 bay leaves

1¼ cups long-grain white rice (see Notes below)

½ pound chicken livers, ground in a food processor

2 green onions, trimmed and very thinly sliced

— Tabasco or Crystal hot sauce

For spice blend: Mix together the spices and herbs. To do so, put the 2 teaspoons of kosher salt along with the cayenne, black pepper, paprika, cumin, thyme and oregano into a small bowl or glass jar, stir or shake, and set aside.

For the rice: Rinse the chicken gizzards, cut them into chunks, and put them into the work bowl of a good processor fitted with its metal blade. Pulse several times, until the gizzards are finely ground.

Put the 2 tablespoons of fat into a heavy skillet set over medium heat, scrape the ground gizzards into the skillet, add the ground pork, and cook, stirring frequently, until the meat is browned, about 6 to 7 minutes. Add the butter and when it is melted, stir in the spice mixture and the onion, celery, bell pepper, and garlic. Cook over low heat until the vegetables are limp and fragrant, about 8 to 9 minutes. Scrape the bottom of the pan frequently so that the vegetables do not stick.

Add the stock and the bay leaves, increase the heat to medium, and simmer for about 8 minutes. Stir in the rice, cover, and cook for 7 minutes. Uncover, stir in the chicken livers, cook for 2 minutes, reduce the heat to very low, cover and let simmer very slowly for 7 minutes more. Turn off the heat and let the rice rest without lifting the lid for 10 minutes.

Uncover and use tongs to remove and discard the bay leaves. Fluff the rice with a fork.

Taste and correct for salt and for heat, adding more ground cayenne if you like. Transfer to a serving bowl or platter, sprinkle the green onions over the rice and enjoy right away, with hot sauce alongside.

Notes: Green bell peppers are essential to New Orleans cooking. If you sense an unpleasant, overpowering taste, as I do, sear the skins over a high flame, let the bell pepper rest, use your fingers to peel off the skins, and remove the stem core. Continue as directed in the main recipe.

If you use Himalayan basmati rice, rinse it several times and then soak it in water for about 10 minutes; drain it and then use as described in the main recipe.

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In Sicily, arancini — risotto that is shaped into balls and deep fried — are sold on the street as a delicious snack and also offered in bars and cafés. These deep-fried balls of dirty rice are similar but, if you choose, can be fiery hot, which makes them perfect on a hot summer night. A good sour beer, one that has little or no hops, is an ideal accompaniment, as is a bone-dry cider.

Dirty Rice Boulettes with The Devil’s Mustard Sauce

Makes 12 to 16 balls

1 recipe Dirty Rice, chilled

2 large pastured eggs

½ cup heavy cream

— Tabasco sauce

3 cups panko

— Mild olive oil or other vegetable oil, for frying

¾ cup creme fraiche

¼ cup Dijon mustard, plus more to taste

Put the dirty rice in a mixing bowl.

Break one of the eggs into a medium bowl, beat it well with a fork, add it to the rice, and mix well.

Break the remaining egg into the bowl, add the cream and beat together well. Add several generous shakes of Tabasco sauce, mix thoroughly, and set aside.

Put the panko into a wide shallow bowl.

Cover a baking sheet with wax paper.

Pour 2½ to 3 inches of oil into a deep pot and set over medium-high heat until the temperature is between 365 and 370 degrees.

Set absorbent paper next to the stove.

Meanwhile, use a 1½-ounce ice cream scoop to shape the rice mixture into balls, pressing to compact the rice; set each formed ball onto the wax paper.

When all the balls have been shaped, roll each one first in the egg mixture and then in the panko, pressing into the panko to be certain each ball is completely covered.

Using a slotted spoon, lower the rice balls into the oil, one at a time, and waiting for the oil to return to temperature before adding the next ball. Work in batches and do not crowd the balls.

Cook until golden brown all over, turning the balls now and then so that they cook evenly. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the cooked boulettes to absorbent paper to drain. Continue until all have been cooked.

Working quickly, make the sauce. Put the creme fraiche into a small bowl, add the mustard and several shakes of Tabasco sauce, and stir well. Use as much or as little Tabasco as you like to suit your preference.

Serve the boulettes hot, with the sauce alongside for dipping.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “More Than Meatballs,” from which these recipes are adapted. Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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