Sri Lankan Rice

Sri Lankan Rice

Yesterday (2 March 2015), The Taster had a crack at Sri Lankan rice parcels, which is handfuls of spiced rice bundled up in banana leaves.

Our efforts were inspired by the discovery that leek leaves are a good substitute for banana leaves. The principle is also not so far from Greek dolmades (rice wrapped in vine leaves) or a favourite dish of The Taster’s mother: sausagemeat wrapped in thin cabbage leaf and gently braised in a light broth. (We’ll get the recipe off her one of these days.)

The cooking techniques were straightforward frying and baking. The main hurdle was ingredients. Fresh coconut and rampa were substituted by tinned coconut milk and bay leaf. We could have fiddled around making ghee, but decided ordinary butter would do. (An element of impatience took over after the trek to town for coconut milk.) Also, curry leaves aren’t always the easiest thing to source in a tiny Welsh market town, but luckily Spice Kitchen had just sent us a packet (lovely company; take a look).

So: red onions and spices in the frying pan, joined later by rice, stock and further spices, with cardamom seeds added at the end. The combination of cardamom, lemongrass, cinnamon, bay, cloves and black pepper was significantly different from Indian or Thai spice mixes; particularly the absence of chilli and ginger. And then coconut milk: not too much – just brushed on the leek leaves.

There was a bit of a moment when we realised that, having carefully crumbled dry, spiky bay leaves into the mix, we then had to remove them all with tweezers. (Presumably fresh rampa is less spiky than dried bay.) And then – oh dear – some fool had crumbled up the cinnamon and lemongrass sticks, too. Back with the tweezers.

There was a second bit of a moment when the rice refused to stay put on the leek leaves, but several spearings with cocktail sticks got it in the end.

The final, porridgy-textured dish was warmed in the oven for 20 minutes. It came out steaming, fragrant and delicately flavoured: the absence of citrus, chilli or ginger allowed the lighter, sweeter flavours of lemongrass and cardamom to blossom. The leek leaves, kept sweetly moist by the milky rice, were very pleasant. Rather than have it as a side dish (where other flavours might overpower it), we’d recommend it as a starter, possibly with some crisp lettuce or cucumber to add a bit of crunch.

BOOK Sri Lankan Cookery LRWe took our recipe from Manel Ratnatunga’s book, Step-by-Step Sri Lankan Cookery (reviewed in our summer 2015 issue). If you want to try it yourself, it’s on Gazelle Books for £5.99 (use their search options to find the title). It’s an uncompromisingly authentic cookbook, but it’s been reprinted every year since it was first published 13 years ago and it contains many cool hipster cookery terms to amaze & astound your friends (siyambala is tamarind; cadjunut is cashew). It’ll keep any enthusiastic cook happily occupied in the kitchen for hours — and, should success strike, impart a wonderful sense of satisfaction at having produced a genuinely novel dish.

As ever — have a good one!

Leeks recipes 1.3.15

1 March is St David’s day. In honour of the patron saint, we offer a few words about leeks (the national emblem of Wales) plus which to choose, and a few recipe suggestions we hope will provide inspiration for a lovely Sunday lunch or two.
Around 30AD, the Roman Apicius compiled arguably the world’s first most snobbish cookbook, De re coquinaria.
Cabbage was beneath his notice, which may explain why he was forced to use leeks so often. The crazed emperor Nero, incidentally, was nicknamed Porrophagus, meaning ‘leek-eater,’ for his habit of munching leeks in order to improve his singing voice (he was quite mad).

Around 550AD, St David allegedly told the ancient Britons (Welsh) to wear leeks in their caps while battling Saxon invaders. The Saxons lost; soldiers in the Welsh regiments still eat a raw leek on St David’s Day. (Some say daffodills were only chosen to be the second national emblem of Wales, in 1911, because large modern leeks look a bit odd in buttonholes.)

In Medieval days, leeks were categorised as dry and warm (as opposed to wet and cold) and so quite healthful. They have never fallen out of fashion since, largely because they have never quite been in it.

Leeks are related to lilies and a good source of Vitamin C, iron & folic acid.

Pick obviously healthy plants — dark green tops, clear white bottoms, firm leaves. Leeks are very good at resisting pesticidal residues so, if you want to eat organic but money is tight, save your pennies for more susceptible veg such as tomatoes or carrots (see PAN-UK for more info, and lists of veg, on this topic).

The white part of leeks can stand in for onions. To keep leeks bright green, rinse in cold water immediately after cooking. The below are just a few suggestions we hope will serve as a starting point to search for more detailed recipes (more confident cooks may prefer to make it up as they go along, of course!)

The Taster
recommends making leek & potato soup (hot) or Vichyssoise (cold) with mirepoix*, curry spices, chicken stock, cream & lemon juice. ‘Cock-a-leekie’ is just chicken & leek soup, plus rice, barley and prunes. A dash of sherry won’t hurt. Or try five-onion-soup: onion, spring onion, shallots, leeks & garlic, finished with Gruyère croutons. (*Mirepoix: one of the single most useful things a novice cook can learn to make. Sauté chopped onion, carrot and celery, plus mixed herbs and maybe garlic. Use in many, many dishes)

In cream or cheese sauce
Leeks and dairy match well. Try wrapping leeks, parsley, nutmeg and butter in slices of ham; lay them in a tin and bake; then pour on cream and grated cheese, and grill until bubbling

Pies & pastries
The trio of leeks, bacon and cheese is good in pasties, quiches, pies or tartlets. (For bacon, read ham, prosciutto etc; the best cheeses are Caerphilly, goat’s, cream, or blue.) Make veggie samosas out of leeks, cheese & curry spices

Make a plain Cheddar cheese soufflé, mixing in bacon bits and sautéd chopped leeks before baking. Easy to make but sounds mightily impressive

Glamorgan (veggie) sausages
Make ‘sausages’ out of breadcrumbs, leeks, Caerphilly cheese, parsley and seasoning, bound with egg. They do taste spookily like meat sausages

Blend chopped raw leeks with pine nuts, olive oil and garlic until smooth. Salt, pepper & lemon juice to taste. Put on pasta or with salmon or trout

In her 1954 Food in England, Dorothy Hartley says, ‘a single folded leek leaf holds a trout very neatly for grilling’ — the same way palm or banana leaves are used to cradle exotic dishes. Richard Llewellyn noted something similar in How Green Was My Valley. Try it out when cooking Thai, Vietnamese or anything involving lemongrass

We hope this page has provided some inspiration. For more ideas, click back to COOK

Leeks recipes