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Rice Cookers and Beyond

wolfgangFor decades now, we food lovers in the Western world have been learning more and more from Japanese cuisine. For years, we've loved teriyaki and sukiyaki. In more recent years, we learned to enjoy raw fish in sushi and sashimi.

Then, there are Japanese cooking tools. Little square or rectangular hibachi grills taught us that you don't need a lot of space to enjoy food cooked over an open fire. Recently, more and more western chefs and home cooks have been discovering what a wonderful job Japanese-style kitchen knives can do in prepping food.

Then there's the humble rice cooker. A standby in almost every Japanese home, this little electric appliance produces perfectly cooked rice every time. All you do is measure the rice and water, put them in, secure the lid, push the "cook" or "on" button, and go about making the rest of your meal.

More and more of us on this side of the Pacific are using rice cookers, too, including me. I find it so convenient to get perfect rice every time, while freeing up another burner on my stove, and my attention.

What most people don't know, however, is that you can use your rice cooker to cook other delicious dishes -- anything for which you combine all the ingredients in a single pot at the same time, heat them up quickly (as a rice cooker automatically does to get the water boiling for rice), and then cook gently over low heat (as the rice cooker also does). All kinds of simple soups, stews, and casseroles can be adapted to work in a rice cooker, and many manufacturers now include such bonus recipes along as part of their instructions.

One of my favorite rice cooker dishes is macaroni and cheese. In the recipe I share here, pasta, broth, cream, and cheese all go into the appliance together and, less than half an hour later, you have a beautiful pasta dish bathed in a creamy sauce.

Once you've made the basic recipe, it's easy to come up with variations, like stirring in garlicky sauteed mushrooms as I do here. You could also include diced cooked ham or leftover chicken or beef, or flaked cooked fish. Try adding diced roasted chilies for a spicy version, or stir in small bite-sized pieces of broccoli or cauliflower. You might also like to try substituting your own favorite cheeses, from Cheddar to Gruyere to blue cheese, individually or mixed.

And there's one bonus to making macaroni and cheese this way: It forms a golden-brown crust along the bottom and sides where the mixture touches the inner pan. Inverted onto a serving dish, this crust not only looks beautiful, but also it makes this very convenient recipe even more delicious.

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RICE COOKER MACARONI AND CHEESE WITH WILD MUSHROOMS

Serves 4

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

2 medium shallots, finely chopped

1 large garlic clove, finely chopped

1/2 pound fresh wild mushrooms such as shiitakes, portobellos, cremini, or chanterelles, trimmed, any tough stems removed, mushrooms cut into slices about 1/4 inch thick

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 cups dried elbow macaroni

1-1/2 cups organic chicken broth or vegetable broth

1 cup organic heavy cream
1-1/2 cups shredded Fontina cheese

Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, until tender, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and stir until tender and fragrant, about 1 minute more.

Add the mushrooms, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pepper to taste. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring continuously, until the mushrooms have begun to soften, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Put the macaroni, broth, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a rice cooker. Secure the lid and press the "cook" button.

Leave the rice cooker undisturbed until it switches to its "keep warm" function, about 15 minutes. Carefully open the lid and stir in the cooked mushrooms along with the cream and the cheese.

Secure the rice cooker lid again. Press the "cook" button and continue cooking until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the bottom of the mixture is lightly browned, about 10 minutes longer. If you'd like even crustier results, cook for up to 5 minutes longer.

Open the rice cooker. Spoon the mixture directly from the rice cooker onto individual serving plates; or, if you prefer, carefully invert the macaroni and cheese onto a serving platter. Serve immediately.

(c) 2010 WOLFGANG PUCK WORLDWIDE, INC. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.

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