Chef JJ Johnson’s new cookbook celebrates rice, the humble grain that feeds the world

Chicago
By Chicago 9 Min Read

NEW YORK — Chef JJ Johnson uses rice at home in many different ways — making crepes with his kids, using leftover rice for his wife’s salad and frying it for dinner multiple ways. “Rice is a Swiss army knife. It can do so much for you,” he says.

This fall he’s tried to prove that with the cookbook “The Simple Art of Rice,” an embrace of how the world has used the humble grain in everything from Seafood Paella to Thai Sticky Rice.

“I wanted people to realize that rice isn’t just a side dish, “ he says. “You can have it for breakfast and dessert. It’s a salad. It could be a side, it could be a magnificent side, and it could be a complete dish.”

Johnson, who co-authored with food writer Danica Novgorodoff for Flatiron Books, begins with tips on mastering the basics — they endorse the washing of rice, for instance — as well as exploring the different kinds of grains you might encounter, like Carolina Gold, Jefferson Red and Thai Red Cargo.

“The Simple Art of Rice: Recipes from Around the World for the Heart of Your Table,” a book by JJ Johnson and Danica Novgorodoff.

“The Simple Art of Rice: Recipes from Around the World for the Heart of Your Table,” a book by JJ Johnson and Danica Novgorodoff.

AP

Then it’s off to the heart of the book — an exhilarating tour of dozens of global rice dishes, from fried balls of Mushroom and Goat Cheese Arancini from Italy, Chawal Roti using rice flour from India, and Spanakorizo, a spinach and feta dish from Greece.

“You see a lot of Caribbean rice. You see a lot of Latino rice. You see a lot of American rice dishes because that’s who I am. But then we dive into the Middle East, we go into China, we go to Peru, we go into a lot of places like that that celebrate rice,” he says.

Johnson leaned on his trips to rice-eating cultures like Israel, India, Singapore, Ghana and west Africa. He and Novgorodoff also include conversations with chefs David Chang, Pierre Thiam, Parisa Parnian and food historian Jessica B. Harris.

“The conversations were just great and joyful and delightful. And I think some of those conversations then shaped recipes we might have been missing, or took us in a good direction or told us we were at the right place,” he says.

Settling on a single representative dish to showcase took time and effort. Take jollof, a classic dish from Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal. Johnson chose Liberia’s version, which is close to jambalaya.

“It was hard. I’m not going to lie. Every time that I thought I was complete, I wasn’t,” says Johnson, a James Beard Award -winning chef who co-wrote “Between Harlem and Heaven” and is the founder of FieldTrip rice restaurants in New York City.

“What I did was, I was like, ’OK, where are the places I’ve been that I’ve celebrated rice and had rice touch me? Where has rice been where I know it has touched people? And where are there rice dishes that we don’t know about that we need to learn how to cook at home?”

The gumbo he chose was the one his grandfather preferred, a Mississippi version with okra. “I wanted to tell that story. That gumbo is very unique to me and to my family. And there’s another gumbo that will be very unique to somebody else’s family and be celebrated.”

Johnson playfully says he’s ready to be challenged on his selections of gumbo or jollof or arroz con gandules — Puerto Rico’s signature dish of rice and pigeon peas. (Johnson chose not to wade into Japan’s love affair with rice, which could be an entire book on its own.)

“People are going to tell me I ain’t cooking the rice right. People are going to challenge me on washing rice,” he says. “I look at it as like, a beautiful thing. Rice is a conversation starter. It’s getting people talking. It’s getting us to learn new cultures.”

Rice in America has gotten a bad reputation, Johnson says, with some nutritionists disliking its starchiness and tendency to cause spikes in blood sugar. “I think rice is the most disrespected of ingredients,” he says.

He urges rice-lovers to bypass the supermarket offerings and instead seek out local rice from farmers like Blue Moon Acres in Pennington, New Jersey; Ralston Family Farms in Atkins, Arkansas; and Lundberg Family Farms in Richvale, California.

Johnson hopes one day people will fuss over and compare rice varieties like they do coffee beans. “It could become a very fun approach to rice, where people then get to brag like, ‘Oh, what kind of rice you got there?’”

Try this rice recipe from Chef JJ Johnson:

This image shows collard greens and rice soup, a recipe from “The Simple Art of Rice: Recipes from Around the World for the Heart of Your Table.”

This image shows collard greens and rice soup, a recipe from “The Simple Art of Rice: Recipes from Around the World for the Heart of Your Table.”

Beatriz da Costa via AP

Chef JJ Johnson created this soup so that he could incorporate some of the most basic ingredients he loves in one pot.

Potlikker is the term for the juice left from cooking seasoned collard greens, and that’s what he used here to build the broth. Revered in Southern cooking, potlikker is super-flavorful and packed with vitamins and minerals. It was originally eaten for its nutritional value by enslaved people on Southern plantations, and to this day some people drink it straight.

The paprika adds a hint of smokiness, and finishing it with sherry vinegar gives the soup a bit of tang. You can find bunches of collard greens at the grocery store or farmers’ market, or buy it pre-cut in a bag to make this simple recipe even quicker. After you add the collards and rice, the soup becomes thicker and less brothy. Any leftovers freeze well for future meals.

Collard Greens and Rice Soup

Serves: 4

INGREDIENTS

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium white onion, finely chopped
  • 2 large carrots, finely chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 5 cups trimmed and sliced collard greens or one 12-ounce bag pre-cut collard greens
  • 6 cups chicken stock
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt (preferably Diamond Crystal), plus more to taste
  • 3 cups cooked long-grain white rice
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
  • Chili oil, for serving
  • Sour cream, for serving

DIRECTIONS:

1. Add the olive oil to a large pot set over medium heat. Add the onion, carrots, and celery and sauté until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and garlic and cook for another 2 minutes, until the tomato paste has darkened slightly.

2. Add the paprika, coriander, and cumin and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes, or until fragrant. Add the collard greens, chicken stock, and salt and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes. The collard greens should be tender to the bite.

3. Add the rice, parsley, and sherry vinegar, stir well, and season with salt to taste. Simmer until the rice is heated through, 2 to 3 minutes.

4. Serve the soup in individual bowls, topped with chili oil and sour cream.

From “The Simple Art of Rice” by JJ Johnson with Danica Novgorodoff, Flatiron Books 2023.

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