Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Use the oven, Luke (or how to make rice kasha)

Did I ever tell you how much I love my oven? Rarely a day goes by when I don't use it. Not just roasts and stews, but most of my steaks, fish, and rice dishes are cooked in the oven. This doesn't mean that there isn't a quick sear in the beginning or the end, but bringing ingredients up to temperature works so much better with indirect heat. I never think twice about it. Just set the oven dial to the desired temperature and start your prep.

For some reason, I get occasional requests from my students to adopt my recipes to the stove top, eliminating the oven use. I think oven is one of the most under-used pieces of kitchen equipment. Everyone has it, so why not use it. Sorry guys, there is no way to make it taste the same way without the oven.

In some cultures, the oven is reserved for special occasions. My Chinese and Japanese students often tell me that turning it on seems like a big deal because their Moms only used it for the holidays. Most of Chinese and Japanese dishes don't rely on the oven, so that's understandable. But why do I hear the same argument from the Russian cooks, beats me. The oven is such an integral part of Russian culture that it even appears in fairy tales as a walking, talking character. Why do the soups, stews, and kashas that require even, indirect heat all end up on the stove top in modern Russian households is a mystery to me?

This weekend, I decided to try a new approach to kasha. I made it in the oven. I bet that's how it was done hundreds of years ago, yet it felt completely untraditional. That's not how my Mom or Grandmothers used to make it. But let me tell you... Now that I tried it, I don't think I'll ever go back to the stove top version.

First things first. Kasha is not buckwheat. Kasha is a grain dish that can be made of rice, millet, oats, barley, wheat, buckwheat, and any other grain. It's a very broad category of dishes, like Italian pasta. Not all pasta is spaghetti, and not all kasha is buckwheat. The kasha I made in the oven was one of my favorites: rice and pumpkin.

This dish always came out great when my Mom made it, but never worked well for me. My Mom's secret was a double boiler. Without it, the rice sticks and the milk burns on the bottom unless you are willing to stir non-stop for almost an hour. I am not that diligent of a stirrer, and I couldn't bring myself to buy a double boiler for this one dish. It finally dawned on me to try it in the oven and voila! Perfect texture with absolutely no stirring. I used Carnarolli rice, usually used for risotto, but cooked it long and slow to achieve a soft texture (al dente is not the goal here). The final result is similar to a rice pudding, just not sweet.

I got this idea from Cook's Illustrated. Their oven method works so well for brown, basmati, and sushi rice, that I thought it might work for kasha as well. I know what the purists will say: "Cooking sushi rice and kasha in the oven is a ridiculous idea. You should use a rice cooker for the former and a double boiler for the later." If you already have that equipment, by all means, use it. But if you didn't spend your money and kitchen space on them yet, I suggest you don't bother. The oven does as good of a job, and you probably already have it.

Rice and Pumpkin Kasha

A note about pumpkin: pumpkin in Russia tastes more similar to Butternut squash or Sunshine squash than it does to American pumpkin. I suggest using those or some other winter squash whose flesh is not stringy. Winter squash are hard to grate by hand, so I suggest you use a food processor with a grating disk attachment. Alternatively, you can cut the squash in half, remove the seeds, and roast it cut-side down in 400F oven until tender, 30-40 minutes. Then scoop out the flesh and break it up with a fork. If you pre-roast the squash, cook kasha without it, and add it to the rice in the end of cooking time.

About the equipment: You'll need an oven-proof 4-quart pot. Do not overfill the pot! The contents should fill it at most 2/3 of the way. The rice will expand in the oven. The last thing you want is for the milk to boil out of the pot. It makes a huge stink when it burns.

Serves 4

4 cups milk (ideally whole or at least 2%)
1 cup risotto rice (Carnarolli, Arborio, or Vialone Nanno)
2 cups shredded butternut squash from a peeled and seeded squash (see note above)
1 tsp table salt (2 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt) (this is a lower amount after comments from readers)
1/2 cup raisins or dried cranberries or dried cherries or a mix (optional)
2 Tbsp butter
  1. Set the oven to 350F with a rack in the middle.
  2. In a 4-quart oven-proof pot that can later be covered, bring the milk to a simmer on the stove top. Watch it carefully so that the milk doesn't boil over.
  3. Add the rice, butternut squash (if using shredded), and salt. Make sure the contents fill the pot at most 2/3 full. The rice will expand in the oven. The last thing you want is for the milk to boil out of the pot. It makes a huge stink when it burns.
  4. Stir the rice, cover, and place on a rimmed baking sheet (in case of drips). Place in the middle of the oven. Cook until almost all the milk is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 1 hour.
  5. Remove from the oven. If you are using pre-roasted rather than shredded squash, stir it in now. Taste and add more salt if needed. If using dried fruit, stir it in, cover the pot, and let kasha rest for 10 minutes.
  6. Divide between plates, topping each portion with 1/2 Tbsp butter. If you prefer your kasha on the sweet side, sprinkle with granulated sugar or maple syrup.
Leftovers can be cooled and refrigerated for up to 2 days. The easiest way to warm them up is in the microwave with a little bit of added milk, stirring occasionally.


Unknown said...

hmmm, i didn't know that about kasha, i though it was roasted buckwheat! learn something new everyday :) this looks great i'll have to give it a go!

Kathryn said...

Wow! This sounds totally crazy but looks delicious! And very coincidentally, I happen to have a butternut squash already roasting in the oven. I just may have to try this tonight. Thanks for the idea. I love your blog :-)

Ed said...

I definitely agree about the oven. One thing I've been meaning to try and haven't yet is to get as close as possible to a classic Italian risotto using the oven instead, and avoiding all the stirring.

Helen said...

Hi Ed,

I bet with a little experimentation that might work. People do it in a pressure cooker, so why not oven.

I'll try that next time I make risotto too.


Kathryn said...

So I did make this last night with my roasted squash - and it was delicious. I would use a bit less salt next time, but other than that, it was fab. I had leftovers for breakfast this morning with a bit of brown sugar sprinkled on. Filling and tasty and kind of like eating rice pudding for breakfast - in a good way. Thanks again for the timely inspiration. :-)

Helen said...

Hi Kathryn,

I guess we had the same breakfast this morning :)

Thank you so much for giving me feedback on salt. I reduced it in the recipe by 1/2 tsp since not everyone likes salt as much as I do. You can always add more salt in the end, but you can't take it out.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I am one of these Russian cooks that do not cook enough in the oven. You comments about fairy tales made me smile and think. I cooked this recipe last night and it was absolutely wonderful. My 5 year old had two bowls for supper and one for breakfast. I am reformed :-). Thank you!


Helen said...

Hi Tatiana,

So glad you enjoyed it :)


Anonymous said...

Your blog is super. So are your photographies. They make me hungry. I have spent a nice moment when seeing them. Thanks a lot.

Anonymous said...

Though I would love to use my oven more, it's the cost of utilities in my neck of the woods that keeps me down to using the oven just for special occasions. The kasha sounds great regardless.