I love rice. I grew up in Louisiana, which is the country’s third-largest rice producer. (It would be second, after Florida, if those idiots in California would stop growing water-intensive crops in the middle of the desert.) We never ate a lot of pasta when I was a kid. Rice was cheap – and local – so that’s what we ate.
Don’t get me wrong; I like a good spaghetti bolognese and lasagna and even (embarrassing confession ahead) canned ravioli. But retirement in Italy is not in my future. For me, pasta is nothing but a vessel for a thick, hearty sauce, and Italians focus way too much on the pasta rather than the sauce.
To clarify, I love white rice. I’ve tried my best to enjoy brown rice and wild rice, but they just taste too much like, well, grass seeds. And you can’t make a creamy risotto when all the starch is locked up inside a fibrous husk.
Unfortunately, white rice is calorie dense and nutrient poor. It has very little fiber and too many simple carbs, which is why you’re hungry an hour after eating Chinese food. So I’ve been looking for alternatives that will give me the illusion and function of rice without consuming the hundreds of mostly empty calories that come with rice.
A search for rice alternatives on the web gives you a whole list of options, but most of them are other grains or seeds like quinoa and barley. Those don’t even resemble rice, so they just will not do as a substitute in Louisiana cooking – which, let’s face it, is the best-tasting non-imported cuisine America has to offer.
Another oft-cited alternative is cauliflower. Pulse it in the food processor until it’s the size of rice grains. I confess I haven’t tried this yet – never been a big fan of cauliflower. I did try a recipe one time that used mashed cauliflower as a substitute for mashed potatoes in shepherd’s pie, and I hated it. So I’ve been hesitant to replace my beloved white rice with it.
Then one day recently I stumbled upon a raw food blog post that mentioned jicama “rice.” (I don’t remember the blog; it was just a link I followed from another blog somewhere.) After some more reading, I discovered it has about a quarter the calories of white rice and enough fiber to send the bacteria in the colon into a feeding frenzy. It was said to have the texture of a potato but could be eaten raw.
I got curious and headed to the grocery store, and there it was, sitting there next to all the other roots. I’ve probably passed it by a million times while buying parsnips and carrots and ginger root. I’ve skipped over it for the same reasons I’ve skipped celery root and rutabagas and turnips – no idea what to do with them (though now that I think about it, celery root sounds like it might be “rice-able” – I do like celery, which is the basis for a lot of Louisiana cuisine).
So I grabbed a small jicama and brought it home (after paying for it, of course). I first tried peeling it like a potato – with a vegetable peeler – but that was ineffective on the thick, indigestible skin. Turns out you can peel it like bark from a tree – cut into the skin then just pull it off. After I peeled it, I cut off a thin slice to taste it and make sure I wasn’t about to eat something that tasted like, well, brown rice. That’s when I fell in love. The texture resembled a potato but was easier to chew, and the flavor made me think of parsnips, which I love, but without the faint carrot flavor. Slightly sweet but still savory.
I chopped the jicama into large pieces and pulsed it in the food processor until it was about the size of grains of rice, just a few quick pulses. It really did resemble cooked white rice when I was done. A lot of recipes online mention squeezing out the water using cheesecloth, but the result is something that looks mashed rather than riced. That wasn’t appealing to me and would rather defeat the purpose of this whole exercise, so I left it alone.
I decided to try it out on my go-to meal when I’m too lazy to cook anything complicated – stir-fried chicken and vegetables (onions, celery, carrots, and strips of red and green bell peppers – or, really, whatever I happen to have in the fridge) seasoned with garlic, freshly grated ginger root, and soy sauce or orange sauce (orange sauce that night because I happened to have a bottle in the fridge). I piled the jicama on my plate and popped it in the microwave for about 30 seconds to warm it, then added the stir fry on top. I was in heaven – jicama was the perfect substitute for rice, and I wasn’t hungry again an hour later. I liked it so much, the next night I served it with chicken marsala.
Now comes the real challenge: making it work with traditional Louisiana rice dishes. A lot of recipes call for cooking rice as part of the dish rather than a side – it’s integral to the recipe, helping to absorb liquids and thicken the dish. I suspect jicama would just disintegrate during this kind of cooking, just like rice would if you cooked it too long, and jicama is full of water, so it won’t be doing much absorbing. I’ll have to make some modifications, probably just adding the jicama during the last five minutes, or taking it off the heat, adding the jicama, and letting it sit for a few minutes just to warm it.
Tomorrow I’ll start with something simple – red beans and rice. This is a classic Louisiana dish where you don’t cook the rice with the beans, so it should turn out nicely. Then I’ll try something more challenging, like jambalaya. I’m certain I’ll have to reduce the liquids in my usual recipe significantly since I won’t be adding uncooked rice, which absorbs twice its volume in water. I don’t want to remove all the extra liquid, since the extra time required to cook the rice allows the flavors to blend. I’ll start by cutting the liquid in half and letting it cook longer so the liquid boils away and the sauce thickens – and the flavors still have time to come together.
I’ll see how it goes and post my successful recipes. I’m even thinking about picking up a celery root now.
By the way, even though the so-called experts tell you not to put jicama in the fridge before you cut it, I’ve found that it rices better when it’s cold. I just throw it in the fridge a few hours or overnight and rice it the next day. The starches are not going to turn to sugar in a day, and who really cares if they do? And even though jicama is kind of expensive (about $1.29 a pound locally and it’s heavy for it’s size), it makes a lot of “rice” – I’d say it practically doubles in volume when you rice it, though I could be exaggerating a little. And since it’s filled with fiber, you’re not going to eat as much in one sitting as you would rice.