Where does it come from and how do you make it right?
From a reader: “I wuz wonderin' if you could tell me where Spanish rice comes from. This is a question that has bugged me for some time. Is rice actually cultivated in New Mexico? If not, how is that it has become a staple but other Spanish imports such as olives, saffron or garbanzos are not? Also, why is it called Spanish rice since as far as I know it is unlike rice in Spain? If you could tell me I'd appreciate it. Thank you, Ben.”
What, have you not seen the rice paddies of Belen, Ben? Just kidding. I seriously doubt that rice is grown anywhere in the high desert of New Mexico. Rice cultivation takes water—a lot of water—and we simply don't have that much of it. But as for the origin of Spanish rice, the answer is more complicated. An afternoon of research reveals that pretty much everyone claims to have invented Spanish rice, except the Spanish. No, Spain makes no claim on the tomato-based dish that bears its name. Mexicans, New Mexicans, Texans, Southerners, Cajuns and Africans all have recipes that involve cooking rice with onions and tomatoes.
What a coincidence, right? Who would ever have guessed that more than one person would fry up some rice with tomatoes. It's shocking, really. No, not really.
The basic idea for this dish is to take medium or long-grained white rice, sauté it with onions in olive oil (better yet, bacon grease or the grease left from frying chorizos), add water or stock and tomatoes. Optional ingredients include carrots, peas, chiles, bell peppers, cilantro and cumin.
It's a simple dish that is abused by mediocre restaurants serving bad rice tossed with just a kiss of bland tomato sauce. They probably figure that they can charge more for a plate of enchiladas if they're served with Spanish rice rather than plain white rice. Some restaurants do it well and certainly it's possible to make great Spanish rice at home. Try this method.