Kitchen Focus

When you hear about an appliance named a "rice cooker", you would naturally think that it's used to make ... surprise! Rice. And that's true. But in addition to being able to make a perfect pot of rice, a rice cooker is a secret meal helper in kitchens all over the globe. Everything from rice-based stews to soups to legumes to specialty grains can benefit from a rice cooker and a creative cook.

Rice cookers operate on a very simple principle. Water boils at a specific temperature and, in the absence of it, a dish will rapidly rise in temperature. Add a method for registering that temperature change and a way to switch into a warming (or off) mode, and you've got a basic rice cooker. It's an ingenious way to make perfect rice -- brown, white, sushi or basmati -- it can handle it all.

But, you can also use the same appliance to make any number of other great dishes. Since there's no substitute for getting into the fray, I'm going to offer a few great dishes to illustrate my point and introduce you to the joys of a rice cooker.

Chicken Biriyani

Formerly relegated to a special occasion dish because of its long preparation time, a rice cooker makes fast work of this lovely Indian favorite.
  • 1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into pieces
  • 1 c. fat-free plain yogurt
  • 1 T. vegetable oil
  • 2 T. garam masala -- look for this in the ethnic section with the spices
  • 1 tsp. cumin seeds
  • 2 T. minced ginger
  • 1 T. minced garlic
  • 1 finely diced onion
  • 3 tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 tsp. red chile powder
  • 2 tsp. tumeric
  • 2 c. basmati rice
  • 5 c. water
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 6 green cardamom pods

The night before you intend to make biriyani, combine the chicken and yogurt in a dish. Refrigerate until you are ready to make the biriyani.

Pour the oil into a rice cooker turned on the HIGH setting. Add the spices (garam masala through garlic) and the onion. Sauté until the onion is golden and the spices are fragrant.

Add the tomatoes, chile powder and turmeric; cook until the tomatoes are soft, about 5 minutes.

Add the chicken and yogurt; cook for an additional 5 minutes.

Add the rice, water, cinnamon sticks (break them into two pieces each) and cardamom pods. Stir, cover and cook until the rice cooker switches itself to the WARM (or OFF on some models) position.

Serve hot and garnish with golden raisins, hard-boiled eggs and nuts.

  • Yields: 6 servings
  • Preparation Time: 20 minutes plus steaming time -- approximately 45 minutes total

Wheat Berry & Cranberry Salad

Wheat berries are a terrific way to increase fiber in your diet and a wonderful way to let your rice cooker do the work for you!
  • 1 c. wheat berries -- find them at the natural foods section of your grocery store
  • 2 c. water
  • Pinch salt
  • 2/3 c. dried cranberries
  • 2 green onions, bias-sliced
  • 1/2 c. raspberry vinaigrette -- choose your favorite variety

Place the wheat berries in a rice cooker bowl. Add the water and salt; cover the cooker and turn on the HIGH setting.

When the rice cooker switches itself to the WARM (or OFF on some models) position, remove the berries and rinse them under cool water and allow them to drain.

Place the drained wheat berries and the remaining ingredients in a bowl and stir to combine. Serve as a unique side dish with chicken or pork.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: about 40 minutes

Simple Sausage & Lentil Soup

This is a great stick-to-your-ribs soup that can be put together in less than an hour. The leftovers make great fare for lunches.
  • 2 c. red lentils
  • 6 c. water
  • 8 oz. smoked sausage, cut into small slices
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 carrots, halved and sliced
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
  • 1 bay leaf

Place all of the ingredients in the rice cooker. Cover and turn on the HIGH setting. Set a timer for 45 minutes.

When the timer sounds, check the soup for doneness. The vegetables should be soft. Adjust the seasonings as necessary and remove the bay leaf before serving.

  • Yields: 4 servings
  • Preparation Time: 45 minutes

If there's a topic that you'd like to see covered in this column, let me know. You can always post comments in the discussion board using the forms provided in the articles or email me directly at .

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