Ode to a Rice Cooker

Guest blog post from Ellen Garcia, a Leah's Pantry facilitator, curriculum developer, and rice cooker extraordinaire!

IMG_3761.jpg

I’d already had my own kitchen for several years when I bought my first rice cooker, the most inaccurately named of all cooking appliances. When I was younger and living in dorms and shared apartments, and therefore sharing a kitchen, I’d assumed that like the microwave bacon bowl the rice cooker was a single-use tool I had no space for. Even later when I could afford my own (tiny rented) place, the appliance still seemed extraneous. Only a suburb-dweller with an oversized kitchen could accommodate an object that cooks only rice, I thought. Or perhaps the owner of a sushi restaurant.

Then in 2013 I began volunteering for Leah’s Pantry workshops. I figured I was an accomplished enough home cook to offer wisdom to workshop participants, some of whom had either never cooked for themselves. And I believed in Leah’s Pantry’s mission of making home cooking accessible for anyone with a knife, a pot, and a source of heat. But I soon learned that although a good knife and a pot were often easy enough for participants to procure, a source of heat was not. Most of our workshops took place in after-school classrooms, senior housing, or residential hotels in San Francisco— places where the kitchen and therefore heat source was often in disrepair, or there simply wasn’t one.

So in the spirit of demonstrating ingenuity, Leah’s Pantry workshop facilitators improvised. This was the first time I witnessed a rice cooker being used for something other than rice. My mentor Vivian demonstrated how to make pumpkin oatmeal in the cooker instead of on the stove. She also demonstrated lentil stew. And polenta. And quinoa. Suddenly the rice cooker seemed a lot more useful. And I was learning as much as our “official” workshop participants. 

Eventually I had assisted with enough of Vivian’s classes that she suggested I could lead my own. I went out and bought a rice cooker at the small Chinese home goods store across from my apartment. This 6-cup cooker was the polar opposite of “smart” technology: it had no features whatsoever except a Cook/Warm button. One simply put the food in the cooker, pressed the button, and waited. The button popped up when a sufficient amount of steam had been released. The cooker cost about $30 and I named her Bertha. 

Over the next 3 years, Bertha and I fed literally hundreds of people in San Francisco. We demonstrated recipes in supportive housing, food pantries, public parks. I used Bertha in my rotation of portable appliances along with an electric skillet and crockpot, but she was the one people were most interested in. So inexpensive! So lightweight! So versatile and easy to clean! And perhaps most importantly for folks living in old wooden buildings, extremely safe; the rice cooker has no exposed heating element and shuts off automatically. Even sometimes when you don’t want it to. 

Meanwhile I learned that any dish that produces steam at medium heat can be prepared in a rice cooker, with delicious if not authentic results. Bean dishes, soups, and quick stews, like chili, work beautifully. Ditto steamed foods, like vegetables and fish, which can be placed in a basket above some water in the pot. Mac & Cheese is delicious though on the soft side. Smaller pieces of meat like chicken tenders caramelize nicely in the rice cooker. Pancakes and quick breads can be made by pouring all the batter into the pot at once, then popping out the finished result like a layer cake. The texture is more steamed than baked.

Of course, because the rice cooker is not as “smart” as the cook, it’s also a bit temperamental. The more water in the pot, the longer the cook cycle. It occasionally shuts off before the liquid inside is fully evaporated; Bertha always shut off 3 or 4 times while making pancakes and had to be switched back on, sometimes after cooling for a moment. Milk tends to scald on the bottom. 

In all, I discovered that the only “gourmet” quality item Bertha could produce was… rice. But no matter. With a little creativity, I could prepare a comforting tuna noodle casserole on a cold day. It may be extra saucy, but who cares? I cooked it on a folding chair in my closet! If you’re reading this and you are used to having your own well-appointed kitchen, this may sound bizarre. But if you live in a dorm room, an apartment with 6 people to one filthy kitchen, or small San Francisco studio, you just might get the appeal. 

Recently, after dropping Bertha one too many times on the sidewalk, she finally died. I replaced her with a similar model from the same woman at same mom and pop store where I’d bought Bertha. Perhaps recalling that I’d been there before, the woman asked if I eat a lot of rice. I explained how I use the cooker and she laughed. 

“Well you know then to let finished food warm in the pot for a few minutes before opening the lid. So it won’t stick to the bottom. Also, be careful cooking anything with sugar because it might burn.” Aha! Pearls of wisdom from someone who shared my hacker’s enthusiasm! 

Then she whispered with a smile, like sharing a secret, “Though my favorite is rice. It comes out perfect and goes with everything.”

Tips:

  • Cooking times vary depending what’s in the pot. 
  • If you open the lid during cooking, the cycle will take a little longer.
  • Cookers with stainless steel pots costs more than nonstick, but they last longer.
  • Choose a rice cooker with detachable lid or lid insert. Then store leftovers by cooling them in the pot, covering with the lid/insert, and placing in your fridge.
  • Position the cooker on top of a cloth during cooking to absorb escaping liquid.
  • Beans and grains require extra cooking time when prepared with pre- salted ingredients like canned stock. 
  • The rice cooker is especially handy when weather is hot, since it doesn’t add much heat to a space the way a stove or oven can.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist.