#CoronaCooking: Rice-a-Roni and Other Delicacies

I was a typical child of recent immigrants, in the sense that while I loved the food my parents cooked for me, the curries and bhajis and rice and biryanis on special occasions, I longed, too, for "regular food." Food, that is, that my white friends ate—sometimes homemade (like the pierogies and cabbage rolls that their moms and grandmas use to make), but all too often purchased in a box or a can. Hamburger Helper was one of my favorite meals, and I loved pork chops cooked with a can of Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup. I would love it when my parents went out in the evenings, leaving us with a babysitter and, if we were lucky, a frozen TV dinner; I only regretted that we didn't own any of those TV trays on which to eat it. My mom, a full-time doctor with two young kids, rarely resorted to these processed but coveted things; instead we were tortured with fresh food, cooked from scratch, in interesting ways. Poor us.

But the thing I loved most—partly because of the catchy jingle, I have to admit—was Rice-A-Roni. This magical melange of rice and vermicelli and chickeny goodness was the San Francisco treat, after all! (My first babysitter used to call me Rice-a-Rooni, just FYI. Not sure of the correlation-causation link there.) Every once in a while my mom would give in to my requests at the grocery store and she and my dad would nibble at it politely while I enthused, childishly. "Isn't it sooooo delicious?!" I would beam proudly. My parents were no doubt thinking that what they were basically eating was a rice pilaf—made of rice, noodles, and a seasoning packet—and that India does rice pilaf like nobody's business.

Imagine my surprise when I found out, as an adult, that Rice-A-Roni was simply a commercial version of a common Middle Eastern dish—not a San Francisco treat after all! Armed with this knowledge, when my kid requested a meal organized around her craving of creamed spinach, I threw together a homemade version of my favorite childhood delicacy to go with. I made a glazed ham steak to round out our Sunday supper.


Serves 6

2 TB butter
1 TB olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced small
1 minced garlic clove
salt and pepper
1 tsp dried herbs—thyme or herbes de Provence are both good
1/2 c orzo, spaghetti or angel hair pasta broken into short lengths, or other small pasta
1 c long grain rice
3/5 c chicken, beef, or vegetable stock
chopped parsley for garnish

1. Melt butter and olive oil in a heavy pot. When butter is melted, add onion, garlic, a generous pinch of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Sauté until onion is softened and translucent. Add dried herbs to the pot and stir till combined.

2. Add pasta to the pot, and sauté until it turns toasty brown. Then add rice and sauté until well coated with the butter and oil and slightly translucent. 

3. Add stock to pot, stir well, and allow to come to the boil. Cover pot, turn heat to medium low, and simmer for about 15-20 minutes, until the liquid in the pot has been absorbed and the rice is tender. Turn off heat, and let sit, covered, for a few minutes to finish steaming.

4. Serve, garnished with parsley if you have it.

Creamed Spinach

Serves 5

My farm sent me home with two large bags of spinach, freshly harvested. You could also use frozen spinach here, thawed and drained.

1 large bag spinach (about 12 oz), washed well and chopped
kosher salt and pepper
1 TB butter
1/2 medium onion, minced
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 c heavy cream

1. Throw the freshly washed spinach, with water still clinging to its leaves, into a large pan with a pinch of salt. Turn heat onto medium high, and cover. Allow to steam, mixing occasionally to make sure all the leaves get steamed evenly. Turn off heat and puree with a stick blender (you could also dump the whole shebang into a food processor and whirr.)

2. In a sauté pan, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and a pinch of salt, and sauté till translucent and soft. Add spinach, pepper, nutmeg, and another pinch of salt. When well-combined, add cream, and mix until well combined. Allow to heat through, test for salt, and serve.

Glazed Ham Steak

Serves 4

I had never eaten ham steak until I started buying a half-pig a year from a local farm—Square Roots Farm in Cheshire, Mass. The butcher who breaks down the pig smokes the ham and the hocks, and cuts some ham steaks as well. It's a quick and easy meal, and looks quite impressive.

1 ham steak, 1-1/4 lbs
1/4 c orange juice
1 TB brown sugar
1 TB maple syrup
1 TB mustard
1/4 c water

1. Combine glaze ingredients (OJ, sugar, maple syrup, mustard).

2. Heat a large frying pan over medium high. Add ham steak. Pour glaze ingredients over and around ham steak. Cover until the liquid comes to a boil, and then lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes.

3. Uncover pan and allow liquid to evaporate and glaze the ham steak. Keep turning to coat the steak while the sauce gets sticky and caramelized. Once the steak looks lovely and caramelized, remove from heat, cut into pieces, and serve.