This lemony-perfect pot of rice sits cozily next to chicken, fish or roasted vegetables

Michael W. Twitty's secrets to maximum flavor — and the roots of a Southern staple

By Kristen Miglore
Published April 10, 2021 5:31PM (UTC)
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Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop stylist: Amanda Widis. (Julia Gartland / Food52)

This story first appeared on Food52, an online community that gives you everything you need for a happier kitchen and home – that means tested recipes, a shop full of beautiful products, a cooking hotline, and everything in between!

Every week in Genius Recipes — often with your help! — Food52 Founding Editor and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.

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If you struggle to make the rice that you want — the proud, resolute grains, the bright flavors that carry them from side to plate-center — you are not alone. And I know who can help.

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Culinary historian Michael W. Twitty has just written the literal book on rice — titled, simply, Rice — with richly flavored, repeatable recipes for everything from Hoppin' John (and its lesser-known cousin Limpin' Susan) to rice waffles and his grandmother Hazel's Country Captain.

He also tells the stories of where these rice dishes find their roots, and, notably, of the impact African cooks and farmers from the aptly named "Rice Coast" of West Africa have had in the centuries following their enslavement in the United States. Twitty's grandmother's red rice (sometimes misnamed Spanish rice), uncoincidentally, has much in common with the jollof rice of his distant ancestors in Sierra Leone.

In a similar way, this week's Genius Recipe stems from a sweeping category of Southern rice dishes called pilaus or perloos — "seasoned rice cooked in stock, often with other ingredients," as Twitty describes them. But this one isn't canon: It came from playing with the Meyer lemons he loves and the herbs shooting up in his garden. "That's just me messing around in the kitchen—that's just me being silly," he told me as we chatted for this week's episode of The Genius Recipe Tapes podcast. "I would love to be able to say 'Yes, it's from the lemon people of the lemon island and their lemon ways, their lemon heads,' but that's not where that's going."

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But Twitty's recipe builds on pilaus past, and has come out brightly flavored and perfectly cooked in every pot I've made, single and double batches alike. He starts by rinsing the rice a few times, as so many cultures do, so that the grains shed any loose starches brushed off in transit. Then he adds them to an already-simmering base of stock, lemon juice, fresh herbs, and salt. "It's about making that rice ready to just be a sponge for the flavor," he told me. At the end, a little butter, lemon zest, and chopped parsley gloss it up, and every grain is plumped with flavor, yet wholly distinct.

Then he pairs it with a sleeper-hit topping: candied garlic — which requires no candy thermometers and is as simple as simmering the crushed cloves in a lightly sweetened stock, then crisping in olive oil. It will remind you of the melting, savory swell of roasted garlic, but with bronzed, sticky-crisp edges. You will want more.

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Altogether, this rice sits cozily next to fish, chicken, chickpeas, or roasted vegetables, but doesn't demand all that much of them. They don't need to bring fireworks of flavor: The lemon rice — or lemon perloo, if you like — has done all of that for them.

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Recipe: Meyer Lemon Rice With Candied Garlic From Michael W. Twitty

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 35 minutes
Makes: 3 to 4 servings (and doubles well)

Ingredients

For the rice

  • 2 cups fish stock (or chicken or vegetable stock), homemade or store-bought
  • 2 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 sprig lemon thyme or lemon basil
  • 1 1/4 cups long-grain or extra-long-grain white rice, washed in 3 to 4 changes of water and drained
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated Meyer lemon zest
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For the candied garlic

  • 3/4 cup vegetable, chicken, or beef stock, homemade or store-bought, or water
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Directions

  1. For the rice: Place the stock, lemon juice, salt, and herb sprig in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan with a tight-fitting lid over high heat. Bring to a boil, uncovered, then add the rice, cover, and turn the heat down to low. Simmer until the liquid is absorbed, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the lemon zest and let the pan stand, covered, for another 10 minutes. Stir in the butter and parsley and season to taste with pepper.
  2. While the rice cooks, make the candied garlic: In a small saucepan, combine the stock, sugar, and salt and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Place the saucepan over medium heat and add the garlic. Cook the garlic for 15 to 20 minutes, or until soft. Place the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the candied garlic to the skillet and lightly sauté until it turns a light golden-brown, about 5 minutes. Watch closely, as the sugars can burn quickly. Dot the rice with the candied garlic before serving.

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