Roger Ebert hasn't had a bite of food in four years.
Thyroid cancer took away the venerable film critic's ability to eat and speak, but it didn't lessen his love of food and, of all things, rice cookers.
In a blog post in 2008, Ebert extolled the virtues of his favorite one-pot cooking device, and the post garnered enough comments and media attention - after all, how does a man who is fed through a tube in his stomach become the unofficial spokesman for a cooking utensil? - that he expanded the online manifesto into a book, "The Pot and How To Use It: The mystery and romance of the rice cooker," ($14.99, Andrews McMeel) which comes out next month, just in time for the shiny newness of back-to-school to have worn off and the routine of many parents and college students scrambling to get dinner on a plate to have officially set in.
Ebert claims that the rice cooker is the only cooking device you really need. For decades, during all those years he was dishing out thumbs-up or thumbs-down with Gene Siskel, he was perfecting the art of cooking just about every kind of food imaginable in a rice cooker: steamed vegetables, soups, fish, oatmeal, grits, risottos, stir-fries, beans, potatoes, eggs, pot roasts, pasta.
He lugged a cooker to the Sundance Film Festival every year to cook meals in his hotel room between screenings, and to this day, even though he can't eat, he still occasionally prepares rice cooker meals for guests who come to his Chicago home for dinner.
I don't share the same love of rice cookers that Ebert does. In a small kitchen like mine, every square foot counts, and for the past two years, I've had my eye on the square foot underneath a rice cooker that my mother-in-law gave us a few years ago.
Like most rice cookers in America, mine has sat unused for almost as long as we've had it. I steamed a few pots of rice when it was new, but quickly realized that it was easier and faster just to keeping making rice on the stove like I always had. The resulting rice wasn't as perfectly al dente or fluffy, but it was good enough. No special measuring cups. No need to remember a new ratio of water to rice. With one pot, one lid and an adjustable heat source, I had complete control over the process.
If I want a one-pot meal, I'll pull out a slow cooker, which, unlike rice cookers, maintains a level of heat until you turn it off. Rice cookers automatically turn off when the all the liquid inside has evaporated or been absorbed by the rice. This causes the temperature inside the cooker to rise above the boiling point, which triggers the machine to turn off.
Ebert and his followers (both philosophically and literally; he has more than 212,000 followers on Twitter and his blog - blogs.suntimes.com/ebert - regularly wins best blog awards), call this the magic of The Pot, because the Pot knows before the cook does when something is ready.
To me, it's maddening. It's hard enough for me to outsmart my kid; I don't need another challenger.
This back-to-school season was going to be the perfect excuse to regift my rice cooker to my college-bound cousin who just last week moved into an apartment for his first year at the University of Texas at San Antonio. (Rice cookers, like nearly every other cooking appliance, aren't allowed in most university residence halls, including those at the University of Texas, Texas State and St. Edward's.)
But then along comes Ebert, a man who has won a Pulitzer Prize for giving out his opinion, encouraging me to give the rice cooker another chance.
I put his book to the test, preparing non-rice dishes like soup, oatmeal, steamed broccoli and even an egg and potato frittata to see what this "mystery and romance" was all about. Turns out, I'm not as smart as my pot. The dishes required as much attention and more time (21/2 hours in the case of the frittata) to complete than if I'd just cooked them on the stove or microwave.
Even though I'm pressed for time and have a small kitchen, I'm not a fix-it-and-forget-it type of cook. I like to be involved in the cooking process, even if it's just sautéeing garlic in a saucepan before making rice, but Ebert didn't write this book for me. "I am thinking of you, student in your dorm room. You, solitary writer, artist, musician, potter, plumber, builder, hermit … You, teenager home alone. You, rabbi, pastor, priest, nun, waitress, community organizer, monk, nurse, starving actor, taxi driver, long-haul driver," he writes. "Think what a treasure the Pot is for Asians who don't have kitchens as big as an indoor skating rink."
For fans of Ebert's writing and deadpan humor, the book is worth reading if only for his health-conscious, Zen-like approach to cooking. "Every recipe is only a suggestion … Change anything or everything in the recipe and cook it your way," he writes. "I mentioned the life-extending benefits of a low-salt, low-fat diet. This is up to you. Throw in salt by the handful if you want to. I don't care. Aunt Mary would get nervous: `Don't you think that's about enough?' "
He offers a number of tips for saving money and time when preparing dishes (see box), but the most valuable for people who are new to cooking or merely burned out is his encouragement that you don't need fancy equipment or ingredients to make a great meal. "I am sure this sounds barbaric, but I have been known to enjoy a can of tomato soup with just some frozen peas added at the last moment."
In fact, on the final day of my rice cooker experiment, just as I was about to pack up my cooker for good and let Ebert and his fans keep their Pot and its mystery, I made the most delicious chicken and rice dish in memory. Tender, fragrant, perfectly cooked and fluffed rice topped with succulent bites of chicken and strips of steamed red bell peppers was good enough to make me want to keep the rice cooker on hand just to make this one infinitely adaptable dish.
Cooking, no matter the vessel or technique, is a necessary and empowering task. Anna Thomas, author of "The Vegetarian Epicure" who is also an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and a friend of Ebert's, isn't quite convinced of the Pot's power either, but she nails it in the book's introduction: "Never mind the Pot. What I hear you saying is this: Cook! Cook to be useful, cook to take care of yourself, cook to be healthier, cook to feed the ones you love, cook to celebrate." Even Ebert encourages readers to push themselves beyond the rice cooker: "A confession: The Pot may be all you need, but it needn't be all you want."
Rice cooker tipsYou can cook more than rice in a rice cooker, even though some manufacturers might discourage you to do so in the instruction manual because you have to override the settings that are established to cook brown and white rice. If you're cooking something like pasta or soup and the cooker switches to "off" or "warm," you might have to switch it back to "cook" (or "white rice" or "brown rice") to turn the heating element back on. Depending on your model, you might even have to unplug the cooker and plug it back in to reset it if you've switched back and forth enough times.Rice cookers double nicely as vegetable steamers. Just place the cut-up vegetables in the pot and add about a half cup of water. Close the lid, turn the pot on and check back in 10 minutes to see if they are done.Frozen peas are a cheap, easy addition to just about any dish you make in a rice cooker because you can mix them at the last minute and let them thaw on the way to the table.To get a jump-start on a soup, start with a low-sodium canned soup or instant soup mix (Roger Ebert's favorite is Bean Cuisine). Then you can play around with whatever proteins, vegetables, spices and sauces you have on hand.To caramelize onions for a soup, mix diced onions with a little oil in the bottom of the pot, close the lid and turn on the cooker. Every five minutes or so, open the cooker to stir the onions and eventually they will soften and turn brown.
Green soup, the original, the elixir. If this one couldn't be made in the rice cooker, well, friends - the rice cooker and I would have to part ways.
8 oz. bunch chard or spinach
8 oz. bunch kale
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
1 large yellow onion, chopped
11/4 tsp. sea salt or more to taste
2 garlic cloves, chopped
3 Tbsp. Arborio rice
3 cups water
3 cups vegetable broth
4 to 5 green onions, sliced
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
pinch of cayenne
2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice, plus more to taste
freshly ground black pepper
crumbled fresh white cheese such as cotija, feta or queso fresco and croutons, for garnish (optional)
Wash the greens thoroughly, trim off the tough kale stems and slice the leaves. Put olive oil in the bottom of the rice cooker and set it on the highest heat setting. Add the chopped onion and a big pinch of salt and cover the pot. Every five minutes or so, lift the lid and give the onion a stir, and then cover again until the pot switches itself to "off" or "keep warm." Turn it back to high heat and add garlic. (If the pot switches back off, keep turning it back to high heat, even if you have to unplug the machine to reset it.) Cook until the onion is soft.
Add the rice, water, broth and a teaspoon of sea salt. Cover and set on high. As soon as the liquid is simmering, which shouldn't take longer than about five minutes, start piling in the chard, kale, green onions and cilantro. Push the greens down into the liquid with a spoon and cover the pot. Cook for half an hour.
Purée the soup with an immersion blender. (If you don't have an immersion blender, you can purée it in small batches in a blender and return to the rice cooker.) Add cayenne, lemon juice and black pepper. Adjust seasoning to taste and garnish with cheese, croutons or a drizzle of olive oil.
- Adapted by a recipe from Anna Thomas in 'The Pot and How to Use it'
Chipotle Corn Chowder
1/2 Russet potato, diced
1/2 onion, finely diced
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1 pint chicken stock
4 oz. heavy cream
1 dried chipotle pepper, cut in half
1/2 tsp. minced garlic
1 can corn, sauce drained
kosher salt, to taste
black and white, to taste
grated Cheddar cheese, for serving (optional)
Begin with the potato, onion, onion powder and water to cover. It just needs to simmer long enough for the potato to cook and the water to evaporate. Then add the other ingredients.
I purée the soup after cooking it into a nice corn chowder. Serve with freshly grated Cheddar cheese on top if you like.
- Adapted from a recipe by Robby Millsap in 'The Pot and How to Use it'
Garlic Chicken on Fragrant Rice
1 cube chicken bouillon
11/2 cups warm water
11/2 cups jasmine or basmati rice
1 Tbsp. sesame oil
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 green onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, minced
1 chicken thigh, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
a handful of vegetables such as bell pepper, broccoli, squash, asparagus, cut into pieces
Dissolve the bouillon cube in the water. Place all the ingredients except the chicken and vegetables in the rice cooker. Stir, then place the chicken and vegetables on top. Turn on the rice cooker. When the rice is done, mix the rice so that the oil will be evenly mixed with the rice.
- Adapted from a recipe by John in Calgary in 'The Pot and How to Use it'