A while back, I was in Eataly in Soho and picked up a box of Italian black rice. I was a bit surprised to see it on the shelf because the only black rice I’d ever seen—as far as Italian cuisine is concerned—was risotto that had been cooked with squid ink. I was too intrigued not to buy it.
Black rice was first cultivated in China, but is currently cultivated in other parts of Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as in Italy near the Po River (hence its appearance in Eataly). Black rice is often called “forbidden rice” because, according to legend, it was so rare, nutritious, and precious, only the Chinese Emperor was allowed to eat it.
Black rice is a whole grain that contains anthocyanins, antioxidants found in purple, blue, and red produce, such as blueberries, cranberries, grapes, red cabbage, blackberries, acai, and others. This anti-cancer agent has also been linked to decreased risk of heart disease, increased memory function, and lower blood pressure. It also helps with urinary tract infections and has antibacterial and antiviral properties.
There are different types of black rice, some short-grained, some medium-grained. Black sticky Thai rice (sometimes called sweet sticky Thai rice) is short-grained and glutinous, which is what makes it sticky (akin to Arborio rice, used to make risotto). The one I picked up is medium-grained and although short-grain rice is usually used for risotto, I wanted to try and make a black rice risotto this medium-grain variety.
Black rice, also known as japonica rice, is firm and chewy and takes a bit longer to cook than regular rice. So my dish ended up being sort of a cross between risotto and paella. I began by adding broth a half-cup at a time, as if making risotto, to coax out the starch; then I dumped all of the remaining broth in, as when making paella, to get it cooked through.
I started out browning mushrooms in a cast iron skillet and decided to just keep using it to make my risotto rather than switch to a more traditional pot. A cast iron skillet is a great cooking vessel, but I soon realized it’s not so great for photography purposes. Not when cooking black rice, anyway. You can choose to sauté the mushrooms in a skillet and start the risotto in a sauce pot, if you prefer.
The end result was not quite as creamy as a risotto should be but was quite tasty. One thing you should know is anything you cook with black rice will turn black. The only way to have that not happen is to cook the rice separately, as you would any other rice, then mix in other ingredients. This is also why it doesn’t matter whether you use red or white wine, except where personal taste is concerned.
As for the herbs, I used what I had in my garden, which was basil, savory, and sage. Feel free to use any herbs you like, or none at all.
By the way, if you ever see “black pasta” on a menu, that still means that it was made with squid ink.
Black rice is usually available in Asian markets, but make note of what the package says: If it says “sweet” or “glutinous” then it’s short-grain, which is fine, but it’s not japonica. I hope you can get some and that you try out this recipe. Enjoy!
Black Rice Risotto with Peas and Mushrooms
12 oz. white mushrooms
¼ cup olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2½ cups vegetable broth
½ cup chopped red onion
¼ cup chopped red pepper
5 large garlic cloves, minced
1 cup black rice
½ cup red or white wine
1 cup frozen peas
Freshly ground black pepper
Herbs of your choice
Choose a few nice mushrooms, slice thinly, and set aside. Coarsely chop the rest.
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a wide cast iron pan. Add mushrooms and a teaspoon kosher salt. Sauté over medium heat until mushrooms are nicely browned on both sides, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a bowl. Add reserved sliced mushrooms and gently sauté until browned on both sides. Transfer to a small bowl.
Bring the broth to a boil in a small pot; lower the heat very low and keep it simmering.
Add another tablespoon oil to the pan and heat. Add onion; sauté over medium heat a couple of minutes until softened. Add red pepper and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and 1 teaspoon salt and sauté another 2 minutes.
Add rice and stir until all grains are coated with oil. Let rice toast for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring often.
Stir 1/2 cup of broth and let it be absorbed; repeat with another ½ cup. Stir in the wine and let it be absorbed. Pour in the remaining broth; cover and lower the heat to medium-low. Cook until most of the liquid is absorbed. Mix in the chopped mushrooms and peas and continue cooking until all liquid is absorbed. If the rice is still not fully tender, add a little more broth or water. The rice should be firm and chewy. Season with salt and pepper and stir in herbs, if using.
Transfer to a serving bowl and place browned sliced mushrooms on top.
Makes 4 small servings or 2 main dish servings.