Alaska News

Kim Sunée: Rice pudding, the ultimate comfort food

It's 4 p.m. and everyone is hungry and tired, searching for a quick pick-me-up. Sound familiar? With school in full swing, I hear from parents all the time who say that the never-ending dilemma is how to satisfy their family's "hanger" without overloading on empty calories or caving in to the demand for sugary-sweet snacks. Almond butter and fruit satisfy to a point, but there's a lot to be said for comfort foods, especially this time of year as we turn more to cheese-laden carbs and long-simmered fare.

In response to my own family's hangry demands, I've been making pots of warm whole-grain puddings. It's healthful sustenance as well as a nod to my own childhood comfort cravings. When I was first adopted from South Korea and landed on the new planet of New Orleans, an after-school snack of cookies and milk was so foreign to me. Instead, I often requested a bowl of hot steamed rice with a pat of butter, which my grandmother eventually transformed into rice pudding; warm rice was comforting for obvious reasons. (I was a quick learner, though, and soon dug into my fair share of brownies and powdered sugar-coated beignets.)

I've updated my grandmother's version (rice, milk, raisins, butter and cinnamon) and offer here two different ways with warm pudding. The first enlists fragrant long-grain brown basmati rice and the second features bulgur, made from whole-grain hard wheat that has been parboiled, dried and cracked. The basmati-based recipe doesn't yield a thick, cloying pudding; it's creamy but the grains remain mostly separate. It may seem a bit runny at first but will thicken as it cools and chills in the refrigerator. I've added sweet Alaska carrots and a pop of color and crunch from pomegranate arils. The bulgur version is a little thicker and nuttier-tasting, with bits of dried fruit and nuts. There's no added sugar in this recipe but you could always stir in maple syrup, agave or honey.

There are two basic methods for making rice pudding -- stovetop boiling or baking. What's lovely about rice and milk cooked together is that the combination offers a clean palette for other flavors, so you can tailor it to suit your tastes. Perhaps you feel like adding brown sugar, cinnamon or vanilla. Or you might want to spice things up with cardamom and chopped candied ginger. Or you could top it with poached fruit or a freezer jam of local berries or rhubarb.

I'm not saying this will replace the cry for cookies and milk. But whichever version you choose for breakfast or snacking, the family will love it, you'll feel good about it and there will be comfort in every bite.

Basmati rice pudding with carrot and pomegranate

This is not a thick rice pudding, but the mixture will thicken slightly as it cools or if you chill it in the refrigerator. Alaska carrots add sweetness and the pomegranate arils offer pops of color and texture.

1 1/2 cups water

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3/4 cup fragrant long-grain rice, such as basmati brown rice

1/4 teaspoon salt

3 cups whole (or 2 percent) milk

3/4 to 1 cup heavy whipping cream or coconut milk

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup finely grated carrot (about 2 medium)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

optional add-ins: golden raisins, ground cardamom, chopped candied ginger, a few saffron threads

ground cinnamon and/or fresh pomegranate arils, for garnish

Bring water, rice and salt to simmer in a heavy, large saucepan over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low; cover. Simmer on low until water is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Add milk, 3/4 cup of the cream, sugar, carrot and vanilla. Stir in any of the optional add-ins. Increase heat to medium-low; cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally until rice is tender and mixture thickens slightly to a soft, creamy texture, about 30 minutes. Add a little more of the cream if rice needs longer cooking time or mixture seems too thick. If the pudding seems runny, not to worry -- it will thicken up as it cools.

Remove pudding from heat and let cool just slightly. Serve chilled or warm with a sprinkle of cinnamon and fresh pomegranate arils, if desired.

Warm bulgur pudding with dried fruit and nuts

2 cups water

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups bulgur (medium-grind), preferably Bob's Red Mill red or golden bulgur

3 to 4 cups whole or 2 percent milk (or almond or coconut milk)

1 small orange

1/2 cup dried fruit, such as golden raisins, chopped apricots, dates, or figs

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1/4 cup chopped and lightly toasted walnuts, almonds, or hazelnuts

garnish: ground cinnamon and fresh fruit, such as apple, kiwi, raspberry or and blackberry

1. Combine water and salt in a medium saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Stir in bulgur. When water begins to boil, stir again, reduce heat to medium-low and let cook, stirring occasionally, until the water has been absorbed, about 5 minutes. Stir in 3 cups milk and let cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the milk has been absorbed, about 12 minutes. After 10 minutes, stir in the dried fruit, so it has time to soften and plump up.

2. Zest and juice half the orange; set aside. Remove pith from remaining half of orange and chop the segments into bite-size pieces. Stir in zest, juice, and orange pieces into the bulgur. Divide bulgur among serving bowls and dust with ground cinnamon and top with toasted nuts. This is best served warm from the pot. If making ahead: Store, without the nuts and cinnamon, in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Warm some milk and stir it in just before serving and topping with nuts and cinnamon.

Kim Sunée

Kim Sunée is a bestselling author ("Trail of Crumbs: Hunger, Love, and the Search for Home," "A Mouthful of Stars," "Everyday Korean: Fresh, Modern Recipes for Home Cooks") and a former magazine food editor. She's based in Anchorage. For more food and travel, visit instagram.com/kimsunee.

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