[Before you continue reading this, please be aware that I have an updated version of this recipe with better photos and step-by-step instructions.]
Summer’s almost here so I thought that this will be my last chance, at least for now, to write about another lovely traditional treat from Malta. I wasn’t that keen on this when I was young. I always loved my food, but there were some things which I couldn’t stand. Baked rice was in this list but not anymore. To my mum’s chagrin I didn’t like hers as much as my Auntie M’s! (Sorry Ma.) Somehow my Auntie’s was more seasoned and more flavourful, but that could also be my imagination! (Watch the guilt emerge!) I did discover though that baked rice could be good by making a punchy tomato based sauce; that, to the average Maltese may be a bit spicy, but to me it’s heaven on a plate! When I lived in the US (quite a few years back now) I learned to to use more herbs and spices in my cooking and I never looked back since.
While on holiday in Washington DC for a few days in 2003, J and I headed over to a Mexican restaurant with some friends. I remember dreading it at first – I didn’t know how I was going to handle all those spices without drinking gallons and gallons of water. (Incidentally drinking water makes it worse, but that’s another story.) However I *really* enjoyed the Taquito (or flauta) and cheekily asked J: “Why didn’t you tell me that Mexican food is so yummy? ey??”
Traditionally baked rice is made with minced beef, but for a vegetarian option you can substitute with many veggies. Courgettes would be one option, but I prefer butternut squash or diced pumpkin for a sweet earthy flavour; also they are more meaty and contain less moisture. Make sure you add more pepper to cut down on any extra sweetness.
With these quantities you will feed 6 to 8 people, depending always on how hungry you all are. For the sauce you will need:
- 1 tablespoon olive oil and a knob of butter if you like
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed or chopped finely
- 3 medium onions, diced
- 500g lean minced beef
- 4 rashers back bacon
- 2 teaspoons mixed spice
- ¼ teaspoons curry powder
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 2 teaspoons saffron, infused in some stock (optional – you will *only* need the liquid)
- 580g polpa di pomodoro (I use two 390g cartons/tins)
- 1 dried bay leaf
- 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
- pinch of nutmeg (I know, I know but I couldn’t find one eighth of a teaspoon anywhere!)
- salt and pepper, around 1 teaspoon of each (you don’t need to add loads of salt – remember there’s bacon in here)
For the rice:
- 3 cups/24oz rice (I mix white and brown together but suit yourself)
- 6 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock depending on personal preference)
For binding it all together:
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
As a topping:
- a fair amount of grated cheese (optional but yummy!)
- Place a heavy-based saucepan on the heat. When the pan is really hot tip in the oil and butter, together with the garlic, onion, minced beef, bacon, all the spices, except the nutmeg, and the saffron-infused water. Let these cook for around 10 to 15 minutes. Then add the polpa di pomodoro, sugar, nutmeg, salt and pepper. You may also add a few drops of Worcestershire sauce if you like. Leave it to simmer to let it reduce. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/Gas mark 4 before you move on to assembling the dish.
- Mix the rice with the stock, the sauce and the eggs. Place everything in a large dish and bake for around 40 minutes. At this final stage add the grated cheese on the top to cover the rice and return to the oven for an additional 15 minutes till the cheese turns golden.
Comfort food for cozy nights in…Enjoy!