The mark of a paella that’s good enough to reserve a place in your mental drawer of fried Spanish rice dishes is how much you get of that caramelized to a golden crisp, glued to the pan, nutty crust around the edges. The mark of the universal popularity of such a cooking outcome is the number of cultures around the world that have designated to it a special word.
Referring to those crispy rice edges, the Spanish word socarrat comes from the verb socarrar, meaning ‘to toast lightly’. In Chinese the word is guoba meaning ‘pan scrapings’. In Persian it’s tahdig meaning ‘bottom pot’. In Korean it’s nurungji for ‘scorched’. In Baghdadi it’s hkaka, which refers to the sound of a spatula scraping the rice from the bottom of the pot. In the Philippines, it’s customary to actually disable the automatic shutoff button on rice cookers in order to get the coveted dukot. The list, I’ve discovered, goes on.
Whatever the name, evidence suggests that everyone everywhere is on to the same thing – the brittle, glutinous, crackly portion of an otherwise not dish; the exciting byproduct of a traditional method of cooking; the sideshow that’s a bigger crowd-pleaser than the show itself. It’s a similar thing that has us hooked on the crackling of pork, the sear on a cut of meat, the crispy edges of a pan of lasagna or the thick crust on a loaf of bread.
All are examples of the results of the chemical changes that take place when foods are exposed to high temperatures, collectively referred to as the Maillard Reaction. Much of the appeal here is due to the deepening and complicating of flavors, which takes place as sugar and protein compounds shift, but an entirely separate variable also joins the team when this type of transformation takes place.
Texture isn’t talked about as much as flavor and smell when it comes to food, yet it’s tightly wrapped up with these concepts. Chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco’s Coi sees texture as ‘the delivery mechanism for flavor’. Texture can also be seen as a way to trap and transport aromas to the mouth - think about the holes in a loaf of sourdough that trap warm, yeasty fragrances. And while much of our perception of texture takes place on a subconscious level, we’re nevertheless extremely sensitive to and particular about the feel of food in our mouths.
As humans we’re born with a ‘deeply ingrained need to chew’ as food scientist, Malcolm Bourne observes in his book Food Texture and Viscosity, a fact which becomes apparent when you consider how much chewing infants do – on toys, chewing rings, fingers. We’re wired to start chewing almost immediately and as a result we develop a long history of close familiarity with different textures – creamy, chewy, springy, gritty, spongy, slimy, etc. – and very specific preconceptions about which foods should fall into which categories.
A well-crafted dish will speak to this range of experience and offer contrast between, for example, things that crack and things that flow, things that linger and things that dissipate quickly. This salad attempts to do just this. It will make you chew like an infant all over again. The inspiration for the paella-less fried rice comes from Jessica Koslow – owner of Los Angeles’s famous eastside brunch spot Sqirl – and her Crispy Rice Salad, which is served at breakfast with ‘the works’ – a fried egg and sausage.
Here, I wanted to pair the pop of the ‘socarrat’ fried rice with some items from today’s farmer’s market haul – the smoothness of the butter leaf lettuce, the starchy chew of the sweet English peas, the snap of the root vegetables and the delicate give of the dill. The creaminess from the vinaigrette helps bind it all together, giving something in common to each of the otherwise disparate ingredients.
And once you’ve mastered this crispy rice technique, you can use it for anything – as a garnish for creamy soups, atop a morning yogurt bowl, baked into chocolate chip cookies…as with the names around the world for ‘crispy rice’, the list of possibilities goes on.
CRISPY RICE SPRING SALAD
3/4 cup long grain brown rice (here I’ve mixed in some daikon radish seeds for variety)
1 cup vegetable oil (or other high smoking point oil for frying)
half a small red onion
1/2 lemon and ice water to bathe onion
2 cups mixed variety beets, scrubbed
half a fennel bulb, shaved
1 1/2 cup fresh English peas, shelled (2 pounds peas in their pods will yield 2 cups shelled)
1 head butter leaf lettuce, leaves washed and dried
1/2 cup fresh dill, roughly chopped
Rinse rice under cold water. Transfer to a large saucepan of boiling salted water and cook until tender, 25-30 minutes. Drain any remaining water, return rice to the pot, cover, and let sit for 10 minutes. Spread the rice out in one layer on a large baking sheet, and let it stale for several hours or overnight in the oven. Drying out the cooked rice is a critical step in achieving desired results in fried rice.
Once rice has dried out, pour vegetable oil into a frying pan and heat over medium-high heat. You want the oil at 350° F, which you can determine either with a thermometer or by inserting a wooden spoon, which will bubble around the stick when oil is ready for frying. Cook rice in four batches until puffed and golden, about 1 minute per batch. Remove from the oil using a fine mesh sieve and allow to drain on a paper towel. Season with salt and allow to cool.
Preheat oven to 350° F. Place whole beets on a piece of foil. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Wrap foil into a sealed pouch with a small opening at the top. Through the opening pour a small amount of water. Wrap pouch up securely and place on a baking sheet. Roast for 20-25 minutes, until slightly softened but still firm. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Once cooled, using a mandolin on the thinnest setting, shave beets into thin slices. Alternatively, slice as thin as possible with a sharp knife.
Using the same mandolin setting, slice onion. Transfer to a bowl of ice water with lemon (this helps to remove the pungency of the onions).
Shell and rinse peas. Bring a pot of water to a boil and quickly blanch the peas for about 1 minute. Transfer immediately to a bowl of ice water.
Using a vegetable peeler, shave little slices off of the fennel bulb.
To assemble, toss all ingredients with vinaigrette, recipe below.
LEMON ZESTED VINAIGRETTE
zest of half an unwaxed meyer lemon
juice of 1 meyer lemon
1/4 cup plain greek yogurt
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
flaky sea salt
fresh ground pepper
Whisk lemon, zest, honey, yogurt and vinegar together in a small bowl. Continue to whisk as you slowly add the olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.