Right after I graduated college in 2010, I joined a yearlong nonprofit fellowship program. Along with my public service job I got a spot in one of the organization’s group houses, each planted in a “vibrant” (euphemism much?) Philly neighborhood. There were vermin, there were muggings. But at least there was a kitchen. After four years of cafeteria food and oven-less dorms, I would finally have the chance to cook.
My five new housemates and I decided that we’d sit down for group dinners twice a week to bond and talk shop. We would pair up and take turns cooking. I pictured myself rambling through West Philly’s farmers’ markets like a young, urban Julia Child, searching for ingredients and then whipping them up into a feast for my new best friends, armed with my one cookbook: How To Boil Water. But that is not what went down.
For the first meal, my cooking partner and I decided to make coconut rice. It was July and about 110 degrees in our house, so that sounded like a simple and appropriately tropical option. My job was to “get the rice going.” But by the time my co-chef turned around, we had gummy grains and a scorched pan. The evening culminated in bad pizza, hard looks, and my roomies’ unspoken concerns about sharing a stove with a loser like me for the next 12 months
So when I implore you, my fellow novice cooks, to buy a rice cooker, it’s because I want to spare you a similar incident. And you’ll find that not only does the device turn out perfect rice every time with the flip of a switch, it is the key so many crafty kitchen shortcuts, you may never need to turn on the oven again.
Rice cookers run from 15 bucks for the simplest one-button model to a few hundred for those with fancier settings. The little Cuisinart I use includes a special veggie-steamer compartment and cost about $40. Choose one based on size—are you feeding a pair or a posse—and on whether you plan on tackling complex or temperature-sensitive dishes. The nicer models will have more precise (and sometimes faster) heating systems.
Some more unconventional ideas:
Polenta: This cornmeal mush/ultimate multicultural comfort food normally takes forever to make, so you’ll feel particularly handy when you pull it off in the rice cooker. Send 1 cup of cornmeal and 3 cups of water through one rice cycle along with some parmesan or herbs (or at least a hefty pat of butter). Then let it sit for 10 more minutes to soak up all the moisture.
Oatmeal: Put one part steel-cut oats and three parts water into the cooker with a pinch of salt. Add mix-ins like fruits, nuts, or spices, but keep an eye on the liquid level. Before cooking, keep it below the halfway mark or you might end up with a Vesuvius situation. If your cooker has a porridge setting, use it for an especially oatmealy texture. If not, the white rice setting will work just fine.
Eggs: An idiot-proof way to make a frittata (aka an Italian omelet). Coat the cooker’s inner bowl with butter and then pour in 4 beaten eggs. Mix in anything you might toss into an omelet, like spinach, mushrooms, onion, cheddar, or herbs. Cook for about 15 minutes on the white rice setting, or until the top is set and no longer liquidy. Excavate and serve. Mine pop right out in a cute mini-Frisbee shape.
Quinoa: This proteinaceous grain will help you build huge biceps or at least feel healthy and hip. And it’s as simple as rice: one part quinoa, two parts water. You can try chicken stock as the liquid for a heartier flavor. Either way, rinse these grains before cooking to slough off a bitter coating that packagers don’t always remove.
Mac ‘n’ Cheese: Combine 2 cups of uncooked elbow macaroni with a can of chicken broth in the cooker and set it to the “cook” setting. When the machine switches to the “warm” setting, or after about 15 minutes, stir in one cup of half-and-half and two cups of your favorite shredded cheese. (Gruyere and jack cheese both melt especially well.) Give it a few more minutes to get gooey.
Fruit: Poaching fruit just means bubbling it around in hot liquid to soak up flavors. Fill the cooker with a few cups of juice, wine, or sugar water. If you ever open a bottle of wine and can’t finish it (because some people, I’m told, do that), this is a great way to use the rest. I like to combine about a half a bottle of a fruity red with 3/4 cups of sugar and a few squirts of fresh lemon juice and vanilla. Cook 3 or 4 pears, peeled, halved, and cored, for about 30 minutes. If you space out and leave them in longer, never fear, they’ll just end up sweeter and boozier. If you’d like them chilled, refrigerate overnight. Apples or peaches work, too, for a fresh and summery dessert. A scoop of ice cream on top never hurts.
Coconut rice: To successfully make coconut rice, combine 2 cups of white rice (not brown!) with 2 cups of water and one cup of coconut milk in the cooker. Add a pinch of salt. If you like the texture of shredded coconut, add 2 or 3 tablespoons. Cook for one cycle and let it sit for another 5 minutes to get sticky.
Illustrations by Diane Pizzuto