Ebert and the Pot: Sun-Times film critic puts his love for rice cooker — and cooking — on paper, with delicious results
By Janet Rausa Fuller
September 15, 2010
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I have come to Roger Ebert ‘s home bearing groceries, ready to cook.
We had agreed over e-mail to make Garlic Chicken over Fragrant Rice, one of the 32 recipes in Ebert ‘s new book, “The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker” (Andrews McMeel, $14.99). (Yes, the world’s most famous movie critic has written a cookbook.)
But when I arrive and am greeted by his assistant, Carol Iwata — who is responsible for introducing Ebert to the Pot, as he prefers to call his beloved cooking appliance — it is apparent our game plan has shifted.
I hear the not-so-distant sounds of glass clinking and knives hitting cutting boards. In the kitchen, Iwata and Millie, one of Ebert ‘s nurses, already are prepping ingredients. Chunks of yellow peppers have been set out in one bowl, diced chicken in another bowl. It looks like a Food Network set.
Wait — there’s no yellow pepper in this recipe . . .
Ebert makes his way slowly down the stairs, settles into a black reclining chair in the living room and plugs in a laptop that does his speaking as he types.
There is some confusion — on the part of everyone but Ebert — as to how we are going to proceed. Chaz Ebert , his wife, thinks we should cook first, talk later. Ebert thinks the opposite.
But the rice and the chicken have to cook in the Pot, so why not start in the kitchen, Chaz, a lawyer, reasons aloud. (I silently agree.)
So Ebert asks Chaz to get two Pots started — one with rice, one with SooFoo, a blend of grains that Ebert happily discovered this summer.
Wait, there’s no SooFoo in this recipe . . .
Chaz heads to the kitchen to get the Pots started. “I have a timer set,” she announces when she comes back.
“The Pot knows,” her husband says.
Before and after
The Pot knows. This is one of Ebert ‘s truths.
So are these: He can’t speak. He can’t eat. He can’t smell. He can cook.
Ebert , 68, has not been able to speak, eat or smell since 2006. Cancer, and surgeries to try and help matters, were the culprit.
But food and cooking — the love of it, the memories of it, the physicality and process of it — are still very much with him. He cooks for dinner parties and makes rice-cooker oatmeal, his favorite, in the morning for anyone who’s game.
Ebert cooked before the cancer. In The Pot, he describes his dog-eared cookbooks that carried him through his chicken masala and country captain phases. He was — still is — big into wok cooking.
Bookshelves in his kitchen offer more proof. He pulls out James Beard’s Beard on Bread, out of which falls a yellowed paper, a recipe for “Best Bread Machine Bread.” Inside the cover of Craig Claiborne’s Kitchen Primer, a handwritten message dated 12/15/70 reads, “Merry Christmas. My love always, Mother.”
When he and Chaz got married 18 years ago, Iwata, his assistant, gifted them with a three-cup Zojirushi rice cooker — the revelatory Pot. Ebert ‘s insatiable curiosity in the kitchen had met its match.
He mastered the logic (or magic, he would say) of the Pot, and how to use it to cook oatmeal, soup, eggs, chili and more. The Pot was his and Chaz’s third wheel at the Sundance Film Festival.
“As every good cook does, he improvises,” says Chaz. “For dessert, he cooks couscous and adds different fruits.”
In January, in a post on his Sun-Times blog, Ebert answered a reader’s question of whether he missed eating or drinking.
“Not so much really,” he wrote. “Not anymore.” What he missed, he concluded, was the camaraderie at the table.
Backtrack to November 2008, to another blog post. In it, Ebert made a convincing argument for the rice cooker as the only tool certain folks — “You, solitary writer, artist, musician, potter, plumber, builder, hermit. You, parents with kids. You, night watchman” — need to eat reasonably well.
It is not apparent these are the words of a man who is fed via a tube in his stomach. Some 597 words in, he writes, “To be sure, health problems now prevent me from eating.”
That blog post, to date, has logged 264 comments from readers, some of whom show up as characters of a sort in the cookbook.
Indeed, The Pot is as much his readers’ — it’s mostly their recipes — as it is his, which pleases him.
Robert of Taoyuan City, Taiwan, a frequent commentator on Ebert ‘s blog whose Soy Rice and Chicken is in the book, is a “total Anglophile but has never been there. A Dickens fanatic,” Ebert says. Ina New-Jones, who contributed recipes for beef stew and rice pudding, is Chaz’s niece.
The 111-page book reads much like the blog post that inspired it, which is to say it will make you laugh out loud. It will make you refer to the rice cooker as the Pot. And if, like me, you’ve never cooked anything but rice in the Pot, it will make you want to try cooking something other than rice in it.
Which is exactly the point.
“I love the attitude that ultimately comes through, which is cook at home . . . Be flexible. Don’t be afraid. Do what appeals to you and what’s the worse that can happen?” says Anna Thomas, Ebert ‘s friend and author of several cookbooks, including the classic “Vegetarian Epicure.”
Thomas wrote the introduction to The Pot and developed three soup recipes for it. These are the most involved of any in the book, but Thomas guarantees they’ll work and taste delicious. (She also still argues for caramelizing onions in a pan rather than the Pot.)
“That’s where some of the weakness of the book is,” Thomas says. “It has this wonderful message all throughout about cooking, but the recipes were just sort of whatever blew in.”
The publisher, Andrews McMeel, enlisted professional testers to try the recipes from readers, a spokeswoman says.
Then again, as Ebert writes in the book, “Try to think of the Pot as a recipe-neutral utensil. When somebody gives you a skillet, do you ask if it comes with a cookbook? No. Form follows function.”
At the table
Ebert is standing at his six-burner Gaggenau stove, browning the chicken in a wok. In go the yellow peppers, chopped scallions, a little soy sauce. He’s improvising. Garlic Chicken over Fragrant Rice — what’s that?
He checks the progress of both Pots. “Too much water,” he writes on his ever-present pocket notepad, his voice when his computer isn’t around.
He goes back to the wok where Chaz, to move things along, has added the frozen peas. It’s too soon. Ebert stomps his foot, shakes his head.
“Put corn and peas into the Pot at last minute to keep them crunchy,” he scribbles to me.
He divides the cooked chicken mixture between the two Pots and closes the lids again.
How long until it’s ready?, I ask.
“The Pot knows,” he says.
A bit later, Chaz and I taste. We’d like more minced ginger. “Don’t want a raw piece,” he says. He goes to the fridge and takes out a well-used bottle of sriracha.
In goes a touch, along with several shakes of garam masala, a dousing of sesame oil and 6 spoonfuls of peach salsa. Stir, close the lid, click.
“Just throw it in,” he writes. “It all turns out OK. Could add snow peas, squash, anything. Longer cooking first, then shorter.”
The Pots are done. We transfer the SooFoo and rice, colorful as confetti, to white serving bowls and bring them to a table set with stemware, yellow lilies and orange placements.
We — the Eberts, Iwata, Millie and Sun-Times photographer Rich Hein — sit and dig in. Chaz laughingly suggests everyone try the rice before the SooFoo dish because it’s blander.
Ebert writes down more rice cooker tips for me.
“Can be very cheap to feed a family this way,” he says. “Buy rice in a 10 lb bag, cut meat small and stretch it like the Asians do. Chinese consider meat almost a flavoring. Sesame is last minute for flavor + aroma, not a cooking oil.”
We talk about blogging, and about the merits — or lack thereof — of that other one-pot wonder, the slow cooker (“takes too long,” he says).
Ebert jokes that he is going to post a baby picture photo on Twitter that shows him learning to use a pot of a different kind.
“That baby picture . . .” Chaz murmurs, not catching on at first. But then she does, and she laughs. We all do.
PRINCIPLES OF THE POT
- The simplest rice cooker — one with two settings, Cook and Warm — is just fine. A fancy “fuzzy logic” cooker will do the job, but it’s not necessary to spend that much money.
- Add ingredients in reverse order of cooking time — beans, meat and/or grains first, longer- then shorter-cooking veggies later.
- It is possible to caramelize onions in the Pot, if you’re making soup or stew and the Pot is all you’ve got. Add some oil and chopped onions, cover and turn to Cook. Every few minutes, open and stir. Keep going, clicking the Pot back to Cook if need be, until onions are golden and soft.
- It isn’t possible to cook a souffle or a steak in the Pot.
- To make oatmeal, combine oats and water — Ebert uses a ratio of 2.2 cups water to 1 cup oatmeal — and turn to Cook. If desired, add diced fruit of your choice just before cooking is done.
- To quickly steam veggies, put them in the Pot with a little water (to partially cover) and turn to Cook. Check the progress in 8 to 10 minutes.
- Don’t be afraid to lift the lid to monitor what you’re cooking. It’s the best way to figure out the Pot.
MISS INA’S DOWN-HOME RICE PUDDING
MAKES 4 TO 6 SERVINGS
- 1½ cups rice (see Note)
- 3 cups water
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- ½ stick unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
- ¾ cup brown or granulated sugar
- Pinch salt
Combine all ingredients in the rice cooker. Stir, close lid and flip to “Cook.” The cooker will turn off when done. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour cooked rice into a greased baking dish; bake for 15 to 20 minutes.
Note: Use a short or medium grain rice.
Adapted from “The Pot and How to Use It” by Roger Ebert
(Ina New-Jones recipe)
CORN SOUP (CHIPOTLE CORN CHOWDER)
MAKES 4 SERVINGS
- ½ russet potato, diced
- ½ onion, diced very small
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- ½ cup water
- 1 pint chicken stock
- 4 ounces heavy cream
- 1 dried chipotle pepper, cut in half
- ½ teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 (15.25-ounce) can corn
- Kosher salt, black and white pepper
Place potato, onion, onion powder and water in rice cooker. Stir, close lid and turn to “Cook.” It just needs to simmer long enough for the potato to cook and most of the water to evaporate, 8 to 10 minutes.
Open lid and add the rest of the ingredients. Stir, close lid and let cook another 15 to 20 minutes, then flip to “Warm.”
Puree soup in batches in a blender; taste and correct seasoning, if necessary. If you like a chunkier texture, reserve a ladleful of the soup before pureeing, then stir it back into soup. Serve with freshly grated Cheddar cheese on top, if desired.
Adapted from “The Pot and How to Use It” by Roger Ebert
(Robby Millsap recipe)