Fancy Rice for a Fancy Price
A month or so ago I binge-watched the second season of The Mind of a Chef. The first half of the season centered around master Southern chef, Sean Brock. He is pretty much an expert in all things Southern and his main restaurant, Husk, makes an effort to bring back old world Southern food.
In almost all of the episodes, Chef Brock would spend time talking about his love of heirloom grains. He’s a dedicated seed saver and has a serious passion for bringing back strains that have almost been pushed to extinction.
It’s an honorable goal, for sure, but I was left wondering if it was worth it for the average home cook to search out these grains and use them regularly.
Carolina Gold Rice
In more than a few episodes during the season, Chef Brock talks (and visits) a small mill called Anson Mills that focuses exclusively on bringing back these almost lost heirloom strains of rice and other grains.
The grain he focuses on the most is the rice that Anson Mills first brought back into production, Carolina Gold Rice. It used to basically be the only rice you could find in the south, but then it slowly got pushed out by other, more economical strains.
So, I ordered some!
Note: This is not a sponsored post or anything. I was just curious.
I was very curious if this rice could hold up in a blind taste test with just plain old long grain white rice. After all, the Carolina Gold rice set me back $7 for 14 ounces while normal rice is about 99 cents per pound. Plus, I had to pay for shipping on the rice to get it to my door!
When I looked at the grains compared to normal rice, there was a small difference, but nothing major. The Carolina gold did seem to be a bit larger.
The blue bowl on the right has the Carolina Gold rice in it and the bowl on the left has the cheap bulk rice.
Cooking the Rice
Chef Brock recommends cooking the Carolina gold rice in a very specific way. Ironically, it’s basically how I cook all my rice these days plus a nice little touch at the end that involves baking the rice on a low temperature with butter and herbs. We’ll get there.
But first, you bring some water to a simmer with a bay leaf and a pinch of salt and pepper. Once the water is simmering, add the rice. It’s important to use a lot of water here so the grains have room to move around. 6 cups to 1 cup of rice is a good ratio.
I cooked the Carolina gold rice and the normal rice in the exact same way. The Carolina gold rice took about 15 minutes to get to an al dente texture, while the standard rice cooked a bit quicker and was done in about 12 minutes.
Drain the rice well after it’s done boiling and spread it out on a large baking sheet.
I had never done the following step for rice, but it’s an awesome trick. Preheat your oven to 300 degrees F. and dot the rice with butter and a few bay leaves.
Stick this in the oven and let it bake at 300 degrees F. for about 15 minutes. This will dry out the rice and separate the grains but also infuse them with the butter and bay leaf flavors. All good things.
Again, I did this with both versions of rice for my taste test.
My finished version of rice was wonderful. The rice was light and fluffy. The grains were separated nicely (not sticky at all) and it was really flavorful. It was actually some of the best rice I’ve ever made!
Here’s the problem though: Both versions were really good. Even the standard rice, when cooked like this, is pretty delicious.
It was pretty impossible for me to judge the two versions without bias. I was pretty sure that the Carolina Gold rice had a slightly sweeter flavor and had a different texture to it, but I didn’t know if it was just because I expected it to have those things.
So I asked Betsy to come try the two versions.
Betsy knew absolutely nothing about this experiment. She didn’t watch the show with me, didn’t know anything about Anson Mills, and definitely didn’t know what Carolina Gold rice was (she also didn’t know that I spent $40 on rice the week before…)
Anyway, she tried both and I asked her to pick her favorite. She immediately said the Carolina Gold rice was better. Not even close.
Carolina Gold Rice tastes better than standard rice.
But, here’s the important part of this post:
You Probably Shouldn’t Buy It
Carolina Gold rice is obviously very important to Southern culture and history. It’s also important to the story Chef Brock is trying to tell at his restaurant. There’s value in that and I totally support it. I would love nothing more than to go to Husk and see how Chef Brock treats this and other heirloom grains.
But, it’s such a high end grain, painstakingly harvested by Anson Mills, that I don’t think it makes sense for most home cooks to use it regularly (unless you can find it at reasonable prices). Occasionally, if you’re really interested in trying different grains, I absolutely recommend you try out some of the grains offered by Anson Mills (I also ordered their popcorn which is pretty stellar).
But there’s really no reason for the average person, struggling to put dinner on the table, to use this stuff for their weekly stir-fries or whatever. Cooking is stressful enough already and it’s my job to try to make it easier. So, it’s important to remember that the perfect is often the enemy of the good and rice is supposed to be one of the most economical meals you can make.
Plus, hey… you can use Chef Brock’s method with any rice. Check it out:
1) Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. In a large pot, add water, one bay leaf, and a big pinch of salt and pepper. Bring the pot to a simmer.
2) Add the rice and stir once to separate the grains. Then reduce the heat to around medium and simmer the rice until it’s al dente, about 12-15 minutes depending on the exact rice. Drain off a grain or two occasionally and taste it. It’s done when it has a slight bite to it.
3) Drain rice well and spread it out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cut up the butter into small chunks and dot the rice with the butter. Also place a few bay leaves in the rice. Bake rice for 12-15 minutes until butter is melted, rice is mostly dry, and the grains are separated.
4) Serve rice right away while warm. If you want to get fancy you can dot the rice with various small flowers and herbs or you can just eat it with a big ole spoon.
Check out the printed version of the recipe for step-by-step directions.
If anyone has tried this rice, watched the show, or has any thoughts on the subject of heirloom grains, leave a comment!
PS. Putting edible flowers on a bowl of rice is damn silliness.