It is infinitely surprising to me the connections you can make through food.
Kacouchia talks about how the dish was a favorite of hers growing up in Ivory Coast in West Africa and says she added spinach to the rice-vermicelli mix when she started making it for herself.
I’m going to warn you, the connection may seem tenuous, but here is where her story immediately took me:
When I was in high school, my mom started working outside the home. As the oldest of three kids, I was tasked with cooking dinner for my siblings a few nights a week. At least once a week, that meant I made what became my specialty: chicken with barbecue-flavored Shake ’n Bake with sides of canned spinach (doused in vinegar) and a box of Rice-A-Roni.
If you’re not familiar with Rice-A-Roni — well, I’m pretty surprised, because I considered it one of the major food groups until I was about 20. But here’s a primer: It’s rice with broken vermicelli in it. You saute them for a couple minutes until the pasta browns, then add a seasoning packet and water to cook it. Pretty simple.
The nights I made that meal, I always thought the chicken was fine, but I loved the rice, and I used to mix the spinach into it on my plate. I knew virtually nothing about cooking or the cuisines of various cultures, but I always liked how the texture of the pasta was a little different than that of the rice, and then how the spinach added a different dimension to the pairing.
I can’t remember the last time I bought a can of spinach, much less a box of Rice-A-Roni, but reading this recipe put the taste of that combination in my brain in a way that left only one option: I had to make it.
You can guess where this is heading. It was terrific. Kacouchia, who writes that the dish she enjoyed as a child originated in Lebanon before being adopted through West Africa, doesn’t call for browning the vermicelli, so I tamped down my impulse to do that. Curry powder and ginger add personality to the broth, and wilting the fresh spinach into the rice codifies the personal preference I developed decades ago.
The cashews fill the protein role from the chicken in a way that makes a lot of sense for the way I like to cook lately. I haven’t done it yet, but I’ve even considered embellishing the roasted nuts with a dry barbecue seasoning, and maybe hitting the final dish with a dash of vinegar, slightly bending Kacouchia’s memory just enough to meet my own.
Maybe I’ll do that sometime when my brother and sister come over for dinner.
Joe Yonan will return in May.
Vermicelli Rice With Spinach and Cashews
NOTE: If using regular spinach, roughly chop it.
Storage: Refrigerate for up to 4 days.
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- 1/2 cup unsalted cashews
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 scallions, thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced or finely grated
- 1 1/4 cups white rice, preferably basmati or jasmine, rinsed until the water runs clear and drained
- 4 ounces vermicelli or angel hair pasta, broken into 1-inch pieces (about 1 cup)
- 2 teaspoons curry powder
- 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon fine salt, or more as needed
- 3 cups no-salt-added vegetable broth, divided (may also use homemade)
- 1 pound baby spinach (see NOTE)
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
In a large, dry skillet over medium-high heat, toast the cashews until they become dark brown in spots, about 2 minutes. Keep the pan moving, as they can burn quickly. Transfer the cashews to a bowl.
Return the skillet to the stovetop and reduce the heat to medium. Add the oil, followed by the scallions and garlic, and cook, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the rice, vermicelli, curry powder, ginger, sugar and salt, and stir to combine. Add 2½ cups of the broth and increase the heat to high to bring to a boil. Cover the skillet, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the broth is absorbed and the rice is mostly cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Add the spinach, a handful at a time, and stir it into the rice until it starts to wilt. Keep adding handfuls of spinach until it is all incorporated, then add the parsley and the remaining 1/2 cup of the broth. Cover and cook until the spinach is wilted and the rice is fully cooked, another 3 minutes.
Serve hot, with cashews sprinkled on top of each portion.
Per serving (1⅓ cups), based on 6
Calories: 379; Total Fat: 14 g; Saturated Fat: 2 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 347 mg; Carbohydrates: 59 g; Dietary Fiber: 4 g; Sugar: 4 g; Protein: 12 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
Adapted from “Vegan Africa” by Marie Kachouchia (The Experiment, 2022).
Tested by Jim Webster; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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