How to make the perfect rice and peas

Rice and peas

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As anyone lucky enough to have spent time soaking up the sweet, sweet sun of the Caribbean will know, rice and peas (or peas and rice, if you’re in the Bahamas), is more than just a side dish. As Jamaican author Helen Willinsky explains, it is the “staple of our diet”. No traditional Sunday lunch would be complete without a steaming bowl of moist, fluffy rice and starchy beans, but now you’ll find it on the weekday menu too, and having just eaten it every day for a week, I can’t say I’m surprised; it goes with everything.

Similar recipes are found throughout the region, from southern US dish Hoppin’ John to the Cuban Moros y Cristianos, suggesting African origins; certainly the humble main ingredients are things that slaves were allowed to cultivate on their own meagre plots of land. As with similarly bland, starchy dishes such as polenta, or indeed mashed potato, the simplicity is the main attraction. Stodge this may be, but a bowl of rice and peas still brings a touch of tropical warmth to a chilly autumn afternoon in the northern hemisphere.

The rice

Plain old long grain is the default here, though fancy pants Levi Roots calls for basmati and maverick Shivi Ramoutar writes in her book Caribbean Modern that she “loves the stickiness and bite of brown rice”. The delicate fragrance of basmati is easily lost among other, heavier flavours, so it seems a needless extravagance, but, like Ramoutar, I’m very taken by the nutty chewiness of the brown. Ordinary long grain is still the best choice for optimum fluffliness, but I would urge anyone to give brown a try sometime.

For best results, the long grain should be gently steamed, rather than boiled in excess water: too much liquid and you’ll end up with a sloppy mess, rather than slightly sticky separate grains. To this end, rinsing well before cooking, as Roots and Vanessa Bolosier, author of Creole Kitchen suggest, will see off any excess surface starch.

The peas

The peas in question are generally beans; only Gora de Coteau, whose recipe I find in a little booklet of Grenadian recipes, uses anything even vaguely pretending to be a pea in the form of pigeon peas, also known as gungo. She calls for the fresh variety but, unable to track any down, I have to make do with the tinned sort, which experience suggests may well be a poor substitute.

Roots uses black beans, Ramoutar tinned kidney beans, and Willinsky and Bolosier the dry kind, soaked overnight then simmered until tender. Generally, I’m sceptical of claims that dried pulses and beans are so superior to their more convenient counterparts, but here it must be admitted that they make a real difference, because their earthy, slightly sweet cooking water then flavours the rice, and indeed the entire dish.

What sort of pulse you use is a matter of personal taste, but I’d recommend kidney beans, because their larger size commands greater presence in the dish. They also have the distinct benefit, as far as I’m concerned, of turning the rice a pleasingly dirty pink (though that’s maybe not be a colour that appeals to everyone).

The liquid

The beans are, of course, cooked in water, but the rice allows for a bit more creativity. Generally, or at least in the recipes I try, that creativity centres on the rotund figure of the coconut. Willinsky uses a mixture of coconut milk and the bean cooking water, Ramoutar both coconut milk and cream, and Roots demands I track down a fresh coconut, saw it open with a bread knife (here, I ad-lib with the tools available) and drain it of all liquid, including that in the flesh. It’s hard to resist just drinking the coconut water, and for all the flavour it gives the rice I rather regret not doing so; it’s subtle, bordering on buried (which may say something about my coconut-squeezing skills).

Bolosier and de Coteau eschew coconut altogether, which alters the dish completely, making it far more savoury – still indisputably good, but I miss its tropical taste. Cream gives the rice a delicious richness, which other recipes replicate by adding butter, in Roots’s case, and oil in de Coteau and Bolosier’s. For a more everyday dish, I’d leave it out, but for a special occasion, like Sunday lunch, a little butter or Ramoutar’s coconut oil, is not an unwelcome addition.

The fat

Pork fat is a traditional part of many such recipes, though only two of the ones I try use it, in the form of smoked bacon, both in relatively small quantities that seem designed more to add flavour and fat than actual meat. Though I tend to prefer my stodge simple, I’m won over by the smoky richness of Bolosier and Willinsky’s recipes, particularly the former, who simmers the bacon with the beans for half an hour before adding the rice to extract as much of its porky goodness as possible. If you’d prefer to keep it vegetarian, however, I’d recommend cooking the rice in Ramoutar’s mixture of vegetable stock and coconut cream instead, to replicate the savoury flavour of the meat.

The seasoning

Roots stresses the importance of “a well-flavoured base to cook the rice in”, and with two such bland main ingredients, you can afford to throw a few big hitters into the pot. Bacon clearly has a part to play here, but garlic and onion are also popular choices; the softer flavour of the yellow onion proves a mellower choice than Willinsky’s spring onion and chives. Thyme is mandatory, and it, and Roots and Ramoutar’s sweet, peppery allspice both remind me happily of my jerk chicken bonanza.

In contrast to jerk, however, heat is not on the agenda here; Willinsky, Ramoutar and Roots all use scotch bonnet chillis, but stress that they should be left whole and unpierced for the flavour without the heat. It’s thus important to push the pepper down into the rice to extract as much of this as possible, but ideally not to cackhandedly pull it out by the stem afterwards, so it disintegrates into mush, strewing its incendiary seeds throughout the dish.

The garnish

Rice and peas is not a dish, I suspect, that generally merits a garnish, but nevertheless, Ramoutar admits she’s taken yet more liberties by strewing the rice with pomegranate seeds and fried lime peel; both “bring a great tang and cashew nuts add a pleasant crunch”. They do indeed; not canonical, perhaps, but if you’d like to dress up a dish which is (and I say this very fondly), not a looker, then a scattering of garnet seeds and lightly toasted nuts does work wonders. To my mind, though, rice and peas are beautiful just as they are; served in a great big bowl, accompaniments entirely optional.

(serves 6)

200g dried kidney beans, soaked overnight

1 garlic clove, squashed

1 onion, finely chopped

180g smoked bacon lardons

400ml coconut milk

¼ tsp ground allspice

400g long grain rice

2 sprigs of thyme

1 scotch bonnet chilli

2 tsp butter or coconut oil (optional)

Put the soaked, drained beans in a large pan with 1 litre water and the garlic. Bring to a simmer, then turn down the heat, cover and cook until just tender; depending on the age of your beans, this should take between 1 and 2 hours.

Add the onion and bacon and cook for another 30 minutes. Meanwhile rinse the rice well in cold water until the water runs clear.

Stir in the coconut milk and allspice, followed by the rice, then tuck the thyme and whole chilli into the rice and add the fat if using. The liquid should come about 3cm above the level of the rice and beans. Season, bring to a simmer, then cover tightly, turn the heat right down and cook for about 30 minutes without removing the lid.

Locate and carefully remove the chilli, garlic and thyme. Fork through the rice to fluff it up, then season to taste.

Rice and peas, peas and rice; even, perhaps, stretching the concept a bit, risi e bisi: how do you make it, and what does it mean to you? How does it vary from island to island, even continent to continent, and do you still save it for Sundays?

Powered by article was written by Felicity Cloake, for The Guardian on Thursday 8th October 2015 08.45 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010