Pandemic pantry recipe: Crispy fried rice with crunchy golden crown

  • Crispy fried rice is made with leftover rice, frozen peas and window sill scallions, plus fresh spring asparagus and radishes. (Louisa Chu/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

When microwaved leftovers trigger flashbacks to sad desk lunches, but aspirational coronavirus cooking feels like too much work, you might try what’s become my go-to pandemic pantry nonrecipe for crispy fried rice.

A hidden golden crust distinguishes this technique that’s far easier than even nontraditional fried rice and grants you permission to stop trying to recreate your favorite restaurant’s dish.

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Rice cookers have eliminated scorched rice, the toasted layer left behind in a cooking pot. That is unless it’s created with intent. Every rice culture shares a variation, from Chinese claypot rice to Korean dolsot bibimbap to Spanish paella socarrat to prized Persian tahdig.

A nutty hard bite as satisfying as a kettle potato chip or crackling pork rind transforms leftovers simply layered over rice. Use a nonstick pan or well-seasoned cast iron, and enough oil to barely coat the bottom, a ratio of about 1 tablespoon oil to 2 cups cooked rice. Top with whatever leftovers you have, and add fresh or frozen ingredients if you want.

In our heightened waste not, want not moment, remember to reward yourself that first bite of crunchy crust, which always belongs to the cook.

Fried rice with asparagus and radishes

This recipe takes about 40 minutes to prepare and serves 3 to 6

1 bunch red radishes with green tops, about 1 pound, halved as needed to bite size

1 bunch asparagus, about 1 pound

3 tablespoons oil

6 cups cooked rice, hot or cold

1/4 cup frozen peas

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon soy sauce

3 scallions, greens sliced thin (save white roots to regrow in a jar of water on your window sill)

Butter plus lemon or white rice vinegar

Soak the radishes to wash well of sandy soil; separate the greens from the red roots. For the asparagus, snap off tough bottoms for compost; snap spears in half, separate stems from tips.

In a cold wok, skillet or wide-bottomed saucepan, add oil then swirl to coat. Add rice, then red radish roots and asparagus stems. Season with half of the salt and pepper. Cover, then turn heat on medium high. Cook until you hear sizzling and smell rice toasting, about 5 minutes.

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Turn the heat down, then carefully uncover. Scrape down any stray rice grains. Re-cover, then turn heat to medium and cook, about 10 minutes. Turn heat down again, uncover, break up any clumps of rice and check that a crust is forming underneath. Add a little more oil as needed. Add radish greens, asparagus tips and frozen peas, plus remaining salt and pepper. Re-cover, then turn heat to medium; cook, about 5 more minutes.

Turn off heat, uncover, add soy sauce around the edge of rice, then slide your spatula around the bottom crust. Garnish with scallion greens and butter; season to taste with lemon or vinegar for bright acidity. Serve directly from the pan, breaking crunchy crust as needed, golden side up.

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