It recently became fashionable to celebrate our obsession with list taking. You know the books: 1000 Places to Visit Before You Die, 1000 Things To Do and even the movie, The Bucket List, a melodramatic journey of Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson as two old men revisiting dreams and rekindling failed relationships. Even Oprah Winfrey’s O List has a way of magically transforming the item mentioned into an instant best seller, whether it is a book, a product, or a personality like Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz. We are a culture obsessed with lists: little items, thoughts, or deeds we must write down to check off and feel a sense of accomplishment. I’m not knocking it; I am a list queen myself. If I don’t write it down (to then check it off), it doesn’t get done. And then, sometimes it still doesn’t get done! I have pads of paper at my nearest reach: lost in the scary place that is my purse, scattered about my vehicle, fighting for space amongst half forgotten water bottles (baking for hours in the hot Florida sun), and then there is the grocery pad list on the fridge AND the iPhone application lists, iGrocery and To Do’s, respectively. Lists are a necessity. A requirement. So, why don’t I have one for food, I wondered out loud the other day while tackling the careful balance of tastes in my refrigerator (breathe the wrong way and my leaning towers of food will collapse)?
The answer for this one is a no-brainer for me: my tastes are too erratic, too temperamental, too unconfined to confine them to a list. That is the answer I want to give: it sounds cosmopolitan and articulate, the only snag is that it is, well…wrong.
Whereas I pride myself in being a culinary adventurer (I’ve yet to turn anything down, although I may take pause with the live cockroaches in China), I find myself headed down the road of comfort time and time again, back to meals that intrinsically make me feel better because of the emotional connection I have to them. Meals with a childhood story woven into them have me hooked, regardless if they are far from Michelin stars, and the older I get the more I seem to crave them.
So, while, yes, I do enjoy greatly a reduction of lamb with truffle foam and a sprinkling of fresh dandelion (it’s good, trust me) I am proud to say I happily gobble up a bowl of Spanish rice, not only because it is hot and filling and good, but also because each bite is brimming with stories my mother told me as a youth: stories about her adventures as a young adult in New York City, where money didn’t go far and to splurge on a meal meant to buy ground beef for a fancy dish of, you guessed it, Spanish Rice (always made to impress boyfriends, no less.) These were tales of adventure, resilience, and determination, not cuisine.
My mother, allegedly could not boil a pot of water before she got married, a detail I always questioned and deemed as wildly exaggerated for my mom was not only a cook, but a chef, creating delightful surprises meal after meal after meal. Yet I felt hugged and loved and nourished by the simplicity of her big bowl of Spanish rice which she’d happily plop in front of me, year after year and I’d ask, each time it seemed, I’d ask, for those stories of her in New York with her best friend Virginia and the endless amounts of Spanish rice. And so in my safe, comfortable home in Venezuela, where I would want for nothing and, quite frankly, was spoiled rotten as the youngest of three girls, I envisioned my tall and beautiful mother in her dank apartment on the Upper West Side (and not the chic part) scraping up enough to splurge on this delightful feast of Spanish rice, the same I would be spooning up happily in her company all those years later.
Spanish rice is not fancy. It’s not emulsified. It’s not even on a restaurant menu. But that doesn’t stop it from being top on my list, especially when paired with a nice green salad, a glass of hearty red, and the memory of a great story.
What’s top on your food list? Let me hear from you!
Marilyn's Spanish Rice
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup uncooked regular long grain rice
1 medium onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 pound ground beef
2 cups water
½ cup white wine
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cumin powder
½ cup chili powder
1 small green pepper, chopped
¾ cups Spanish green olives, whole
8 ounces tomato sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Heat oil in 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Cook rice and onion for about 5 minutes, until rice is golden. Add garlic and cook, stirring frequently, another minute.
Add beef and cook, stirring frequently, until all the pink is gone.
Stir in remaining ingredients. Heat to boiling; reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer about 30 minutes until rice is tender.