Twice the rice: Creative twists on two standard dishes

Chinese fried rice and cheddar and apple risotto.

As cooler weather sets in, I crave rich, starchy dishes like mac and cheese, polenta and ragu, and Cantonese beef chow fun. And speaking of starches, two standard and very different variations on rice dishes have recently intrigued me, and both can help usher in autumn with loving, carb-laden grace.

For a new twist on Chinese fried rice, I suggest taking it back to basics. The flourish comes from frying minced garlic and ginger in vegetable or peanut oil, slowly browning the aromatics on medium heat. Once browned, drain the aromatics on paper towels and reserve the oil, which will be heavily perfumed with garlic and ginger. Mark Bittman passed along the fried ginger and garlic trick, but neglected to mention how precious the leftover oil could be. It would be a pity not to use that infused oil to cook and gently flavor the entire dish.

For fried rice and stir-fries, less is more. Use whatever meat and vegetables you prefer, but don't crowd the dish with too much. For meat, I enjoy ham and chorizo, a Cuban-Chinese feature. Chinese sausage, with its sweetness, is also great, as are shrimp. For vegetables, I prefer diced onions, leeks, shredded carrot, and perhaps some bean sprouts. While stir-frying, I make a well in the ingredients to scramble a couple eggs, then throw in the cooked rice. After stirring for about 5 minutes, I fry an egg for every person I'm serving. A sunny-side up egg is a lovely topping, especially when sprinkled with the fried ginger and garlic. Drizzle some sesame oil and soy sauce on top, and you are in for a treat. Of course, a runny yolk adds richness and flair to almost any dish.

For another interesting variation on a familiar preparation, cook up some cheddar and apple risotto. Although cheddar and apple may seem strange ingredients for a risotto, the combination works quite well. I used a recipe from Cabot Dairy as a starting point, but I felt it was too much of a one-note dish, so I tweaked it a bit to elevate the flavors in the star ingredients.

I tried replacing the white wine with apple cider and found the flavors rather flat. In my experience, the white wine adds a nice dry note that plays well with the sourness of my preferred apple, Granny Smith. For the cheese, I tried medium and extra sharp cheddar. I found both types to be quite subtle in the finished dish. To ramp up the flavors, I also added a little freshly grated Parmesan cheese and garnish the risotto with additional cheddar.

I served the risotto with smoked chicken, which provided a brawny contrast to the subtle risotto.

Cheddar and Apple Risotto

Makes 6-8 servings

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups white wine

6-7 cups chicken broth

3 tablespoons butter

1 yellow onion, diced

2 apples, chopped (Granny Smith preferred)

2 leeks, sliced (white end only)

4 cloves garlic, peeled and gently crushed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

3 bay leaves

2 cups arborio rice

4 ounces extra sharp cheddar cheese, grated (about 1 cup)

Salt and pepper, to taste

Directions:

1. Warm the wine and the broth in two separate small pots over low heat.

2. Sautee onion in butter until translucent. Add apples, leeks, and garlic, stir and sautee for another 2-3 minutes.

3. Add thyme, bay leaves, and rice. Stir for 1-2 minutes.

4. Add in the wine and stir. When wine is absorbed, add the broth about a cup at a time, all the time stirring.

5. When rice is cooked to al dente, turn off the heat and stir in cheese and two tablespoons of butter. Add salt and pepper to taste.

6. For garnish, consider green onions (a.k.a.: scallions), additional grated cheddar, and/or sour cream.