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A renaissance for rice

Southern chefs are stirring up new ways to savor timeless heirloom grains


At Two Brooks Farm in the Mississippi Delta, 10th-generation farmer Lawrence Wagner and his sister, Abbey, grow remarkable strains of basmati, jasmine, red and brown rice. There’s even a black rice, a grain they call Sable. Lawrence says it’s a superfood that gets is vivid noir tint from anthocyanin, the same antioxidant pigment that makes blueberries blue.

The Wagners’ rice is coveted by chefs all over America, including Edouardo Jordan, a St. Peterburg, Fla., native who showcases Southern heirloom rice at JuneBaby, which won this year’s James Beard Award for best new restaurant in the country. (Jordan also picked up the Beard for Best Chef: Northwest, for his cooking at his first restaurant, Salare.)

Jordan is a rice magician.

He fries duck confited turkey legs and pairs them with Two Brooks’ brown basmati, confit carrots and grilled broccoli tossed in turkey jus. He makes a hoppin’ john-like dish with Sable, Sea Island peas and pig trotters. And he calls on Jacksonville-based Congaree and Penn to send him beautiful pearl-like white grains from his home state, then mixes the rice with the likes of poached chicken and herbs. Or flaky white Pacific Northwest crab.

As Karen Hess documents in her prescient “The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection” (1992), rice has been a staple of Southern cuisines since the 1700s. There’s a horrific aspect to Carolina rice, though. It was cultivated, and cooked in plantation kitchens, by slaves.

In recent times, Glenn Roberts, the seed-saving founder of South Carolina-based Anson Mills, plucked Carolina Gold from obscurity. Top-tier chefs, including Atlanta’s Steven Satterfield and Todd Richards, embraced the grain.

Though Anson Mills pioneered the Southern rice renaissance, other growers have joined the club recently, and now we are seeing a kind of second wave of rice farmers and chef advocates. Some of them frame their recipes as lessons on history, politics, agriculture, and health.

“Americans eat a lot of rice, and they don’t know the history of some of the first rice that landed here in America and why it landed here and how America was built on rice,” Jordan said in a telephone interview. He believes that many people aren’t aware that Southern rice is inextricably bound to slavery. “We were a rice country before a corn country and a cotton country. I guess it’s important for me to share that story.”

Through food.

One thing Jordan taught me: You can concoct a heavenly rice-forward melange by making a plain pot of grains, then stirring in fresh herbs and cooked protein. Not to dismiss the magnificent biryanis of India, polos of Persian, paellas of Spain and pilaus, purloos and pilafs of the South, which generally require that everything be simmered together in the same pot. But you will get an ethereal dish if you follow Jordan’s smart approach of considering components separately.

Toward that end, he sent me his red-rice base recipe, an easy sauce of bacon, tomatoes, stock and spices, and suggested I stir in white rice. Indeed, that’s a marvelous side dish. But with a cup or two of cooked chicken, sausage, shrimp or crab, it makes a company-worthy main and — pssst, don’t tell your guests — is a great way to use up leftovers. I chose Prairie Ronde rice out of Louisiana, a relative newcomer but one that I think we’ll be hearing a lot more about in the near future.

Closer to home, chef Ron Hsu, an Atlanta native who recently moved back home from New York to start his Lazy Betty popup and future restaurant, moved me with the tale of his mother’s sticky rice. Betty Hsu, who ran Hunan Village in Stockbridge from 1983 to 2008, mixed rice with meat, Chinese sausage and aromatics, steamed it in a bamboo leaf, and fed it to her family. Later, when Hsu worked at fancy-pants Le Bernardin in New York, he adapted this comforting food from his mom, serving it to hungry colleagues as a staff meal. Only he used foie gras instead of Chinese sausage.

He also baked it in the oven, covered, and after trying this method, I must say: It’s my new favorite way to make rice. For testing purposes, I used Two Brooks’ jasmine, and it cooked up like a dream. Each little grain stood out like a precious gem. No lumps, no clumps! And it’s wonderful with the sweet-tangy lap-xoung (Chinese sausage) that you can find at Asian markets. Will have to report back on the foie gras.

When I jokingly asked Jordan if he thought rice was the new grits, he gently reminded me about rice grits (aka middlins). As luck would have it, PeachDish culinary director Seth Freedman sent me his fallish Stuffed Delicata Squash with Beef, Rice Grits and Manchego Cheese, and I’ve got to tell you: Rice and cheese, as Todd Richards points out in his book “Soul” (Oxmoor, $35), are natural and delicious bedfellows.

Make Freedman’s keeper for the kids, and I guarantee it will go into regular rotation. Just be sure to try it with some Southern rice middlins from Prairie Ronde, Anson Mills, Two Brooks or Congaree and Penn. Then you’ll understand what all the fuss is about.

Recipes

Here are three delicious and easy recipes for cooking with Southern heirloom rice.

Asian Delight with Jasmine Rice and Sweet Chinese Sausage

Ron Hsu, the chef behind Atlanta’s Lazy Betty popup, prepared this baked rice as a staff meal when he was at the famed Le Bernardin in New York. We made it with Two Brooks Farm’s white Mississippi jasmine rice.

<<Click here to see the full recipe on mobile

Stuffed Delicata Squash with Beef, Rice Grits and Manchego Cheese

Atlanta-based meal-kit-delivery company PeachDish frequently procures rice from heirloom growers. Culinary director Seth Freedman shared this easy recipe that he created. We made it with Jacksonville, Fla.,-based Congaree and Penn’s Jupiter Rice Middlins.

<<Click here to see the full recipe on mobile

Red Rice with Butter Fried Shrimp and Herbs

Chef Edouardo Jordan sent us his tomato sauce recipe for making red rice. This dish is great for using up any leftover cooked chicken or other meat you happen to have on hand. We chose Prairie Ronde Long Grain Rice from Louisiana; stirred in shredded cooked chicken and fresh herbs; and topped the dish with shrimp fried in butter.

<<Click here for the full recipe on mobile

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