SAN FRANCISCO — Arroz-- rice--is as important to a Mexican meal as beans and tortillas. So it was a smart move for California rice growers to promote their product by sponsoring a splashy Mexican fair.
The Feria de la Bahia (Fair by the Bay) took place at Fort Mason Center, where San Francisco's Mexican Museum is located. The museum organized the daylong program of cultural lectures, cooking demonstrations, craft exhibits and entertainment. And the Rice Growers Assn. of California underwrote it as a museum fund-raiser and as a showcase for the association's Hinode-brand long-grain rice.
Hinode long-grain rice was introduced in 1984. Before that, California produced only medium- and short-grain rice. These rices are members of the Japonica family and do well in cooler climates. Long-grain rices of the Indica family thrive in tropical areas.
California plant breeders brought these opposites together gradually. First they singled out the longest, slimmest kernels of medium-grain rice. These were planted and the longest kernels selected again. After a succession of such plantings, the kernels were crossed with a variety of Indica long-grain rice. The resulting rice was bred again with Japonica medium-grain rice. The goal was to achieve the best of both rices--the appearance and texture of long-grain rice, which turns into flaky, separate grains when cooked, and the richer flavor that is associated with medium-grain rice.
The Mexican fair was an appropriate vehicle for Hinode because long-grain rice is favored south of the border. The hundreds who attended received packets of rice and tasted rice dishes at booths sponsored by Bay Area restaurants. Pepito's Mexican restaurants of San Francisco poured horchata, a milky drink made from ground rice. The New Central City Cafe set out little cups of arroz con leche (rice pudding); Compadres Mexican Bar and Grill presented arroz con pollo (chicken with rice), and Casa Madrona served quail mole on steamed white rice.
The Rice Growers Assn. brought in Patricia Quintana, author of "The Taste of Mexico" (Stewart, Tabori and Chang), to lecture on Mexican regional cookery and to talk about rice.
According to Quintana, rice came to Mexico aboard the Manila galleons, which landed along the coast of Colima, Sinaloa and Guerrero starting in the 16th Century. In certain parts of Mexico, rice is still steamed Oriental-style, she said. In most of the country, it is customary to fry the rice first, then cook it with broth or water.
Mexican cooks usually wash and soak the raw rice to remove dirt and excess starch, Quintana said. Cleanliness standards in the United States make this step unnecessary. Quintana tried omitting the soaking and said she was pleased with the results.
She was not pleased with the rice she has tasted in Mexican restaurants in the United States. "They use the wrong procedure," she said. "They don't saute the rice and they don't cook it enough. The rice is not fluffy." Another mistake is to add tomato sauce and then water without allowing the rice to absorb the sauce.
Use Lots of Oil
Quintana showed fried, tomato-soaked grains that appeared almost caramelized, the way rice should look before liquid is added. The frying gives "a wonderful taste," she said. "It also makes the rice more flaky." The traditional way is to use a large quantity of oil, then drain it off. Contemporary cooks reduce the oil for a lighter dish.
Quintana followed traditional Mexican cooking techniques as she prepared Arroz Verde (green rice). First she soaked the rice, then washed it until the water ran clear. Next she fried onion and whole garlic cloves in a cup of oil to add flavor. Then she browned the rice, draining the oil off when the rice began to make "a noisy sound" (crackling).
For green coloring, Quintana pureed poblano chiles, green pepper, onion and cilantro and stirred this into the rice until absorbed. When the rice began to sizzle, she added water, noting that less water is needed at sea level than in the high altitude of Mexico City, where she lives. For still more flavor, she set two jalapeno chiles and a bunch of Italian parsley on top of the rice before covering the pan and simmering the rice until tender. Quintana allowed the pan to stand off heat for 10 minutes, then shook it briskly to fluff up the rice. "Don't stir with a fork or you will have mashed rice," she said.
The following recipes for white, red and green Mexican rices illustrate the variety of techniques that Quintana discussed. When making white rice, brown the rice only lightly in order to maintain the pale color, she said.
ARROZ ROJO (Red Rice)
2 1/2 tomatoes
3 cloves garlic
2 cups long-grain rice
1/3 cup oil
1 1/3 cups water
Small bunch cilantro or Italian parsley
1 jalapeno chile