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.
You can also substitute brown or basmati rice, but watch closely as the cooking time will change. Feel free to add some ground cumin but avoid oregano. Warm tomatoes and oregano together will always remind you of spaghetti sauce. I like a touch of smoky chipotle in the rice.
2 tablespoons olive oil or bacon grease
1 1/2 cups long-grained rice
2 medium onions, finely diced
1 1/2 cups red, yellow and green bell peppers, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 (15-ounce) can crushed tomatoes, with juice
2 cups chicken, beef or vegetable stock
Paste from a can of chipotles in adobo
1) In a large, heavy-bottomed sauce pan, heat oil or fat over medium heat. Add rice and sauté, stirring constantly, until rice turns translucent.
2) Add onoins, bell peppers and garlic. Sauté until onions are softened.
3) Add tomatoes, stock and a small amount of the chipotle paste—you can always add more later. Stir well and bring to a boil.
4) Reduce heat and simmer, covered, about 20 minutes. If all the liquid has been absorbed into the rice, it's done. If not, put the lid back on and keep cooking for a few more minutes.
5) Fluff with a fork and serve. If you have leftovers, serve them for breakfast with fried eggs and chile.