Saturday, August 23, 2008

Fried Rice Cakes

I still remember the risotto cake.

I ordered it 12 years ago while having lunch with a friend. A golden brown, perfectly shaped hockey puck of warm risotto arrived at our table, resting on a bed of greens. The outside was crunchy and just thick enough; the inside was creamy and melting.

I have chased that memory throughout the years. Even at the time, I made risotto cakes — it’s the best way to use up leftover risotto — but mine were always sloppy and unevenly cooked. That lunch gave me a goal.

And I think, over time, that I have reached that goal. By now, my technique is almost mindless, though it can be derailed by taking away my customary tools. If you find yourself with leftover rice, you should give these a try.

The easiest rice to use for fried cakes is leftover risotto. The starch that leaches into the cooking liquid makes for a creamy dinner but transforms into glue overnight in the refrigerator. You can shape this rice into cakes without even trying.

But with some extra work, you can even use regular rice. I made a pot of Massa rice last week, and the next night I mixed in an egg and a tablespoon or so of flour: Add enough so that the rice holds together when you squeeze a bit into a ball.

One of the turning points in my rice-cake explorations came when I decided to use a circle mold — a round cookie cutter — to shape the patties. Before that moment, my patties still had ragged edges that marred the aesthetics and varying thicknesses that created irregular cooking times. After that moment, I made perfect disks of goodness.

Take a cookie cutter, put it on one edge of a plate, and smush your rice in. Push it into the corners, pack it down, and scrape any extra off the top. Remove the mold, repeat around the plate, and then put the plate in the refrigerator: You want to keep that starch gluey.

What better way to reheat buttery, cheese-soaked risotto then frying? You’ll end up with a crusty exterior and a creamy interior, just like that risotto cake I had so many years ago. (You can bread them before frying, but usually I don’t.)

You can use any fat for frying, but I prefer butter. As the butter heats up, I skim the foam off the top to make it semi-clarified. Clarified butter can go to higher temperatures without burning. You want enough butter to come halfway up the cake. Any more and you get a dark band around the middle; any less and you get a light band of cooler rice.

Once the butter reaches the right temperature — a water drop flicked in should sputter loudly — I add the rice cake. I let the butter bubble and pop around the edges until the bottom half has formed a nice crust, and then I gently flip the cake with a spatula. When that half has formed its harder exterior, I pull the cake from the pan and place it on a paper-towel-lined plate to drain for a few minutes.

A simple salad of crunchy greens is a nice complement to this rich dish. I like to serve this as a light dinner, but smaller rice cakes make for a nice appetizer.

A crisp, aromatic white wine with a bit of weight — an Austrian Riesling, perhaps, or a white Rhône; — is usually my choice for the accompanying drink. The acidity cuts through the fat, while the weight and aromas weather the onslaught of rich flavor. But you would probably do just as well with a lighter red such as a Cru Beaujolais.

Only two or three more weeks until my life returns to what passes for normal around here. Thanks for your patience with the long lags between posts.