When I was growing up, my parents didn’t really do all that much scratch cooking. We had a couple heritage recipes that we pulled out for birthdays and holidays, and a couple casseroles, but food was mostly pretty utilitarian in our house: boxed mac and cheese, jar of spaghetti sauce with some ground beef added, canned veggies: get the family fed on a budget with a minimum of fuss. I feel almost like a traitor saying that, because my current social circle, much like the broad swath of middle-class America, has a very different set of food values; it feels like I’m talking about childhood deprivation.
But that’s not the case: my parents always made sure there was a balanced meal on the table, and I remember a lot of that ‘convenience food’ fondly: I still have regular cravings for Kraft macaroni and cheese with hot dogs cut up in it, for example. (You have to boil the hot dog slices in with the macaroni for it to feel right, by the way: it makes the cut ends bulge out a little, which is how I remember it. You’re welcome.)
I tell you all this as a way of not just saying “hey y’all, I made Rice-a-Roni!” First of all, I would never say that, because Rice-a-Roni is a trademark of the Quaker Oats Company. In addition, Rice-A-Roni contains not just rice, but also vermicelli, and a packet of seasoning, and those are definitely absent here. Ahem.
All that said, this dish is absolutely inspired by that famous commercial product. As a child, I remember being really happy when Rice-A-Roni showed up on the table: soft, salty grains, little bits of onion, small nuggets of browned hamburger meat. Mmm. When I was living in the dorms at college, I walked a mile to the Target specifically to buy a big microwaveable ceramic bowl so that I could make Rice-A-Roni to eat. It was a taste of home, a thousand miles away from home.
And even though my tastes and my cooking habits have changed dramatically since I last lived with my parents, I still love Rice-A-Roni. Sort of. Like I “love” cheap ramen, but really I just want to make it better. So that’s what I did: I took the idea of the thing I loved in my childhood and young adulthood, and I revamped it for my life now. Ground beef stayed in (though, vegetarians, you can omit it). Rice stayed in, since I have a long, committed love relationship with rice, but I cut the vermicelli because, honestly, it feels like a gimmick. Because I also have a deep love of vegetables, especially the sweet, juicy vegetables of late summer, I put in a whole garden basket. And since it’s not yet cold outside — though goodness knows it’s trying lately — I leavened the whole thing with bright lemon and green, green parsley.
I am not exaggerating when I say it’s one of the best things I made this summer. Both Jarod and I ate a lot of it. It’s fantastic with a glass of crisp white wine — maybe something lightly bubbly, like a vinho verde? — but it’s also a welcome treat in a plastic container out of the breakroom at work. And among the grains of rice and bites of vegetables, I also taste my memories of home and of parents who kept me healthy and fed throughout my childhood — thanks, Mom and Dad.
Lemon-parsley rice pilaf with beef and summer vegetables
This is a bit of a scratch-cooking riff on Rice-A-Roni, but while it certainly has some genetic relationship, it’s a very different beast: light and herbal while still being deeply satisfying, with a garden’s worth of colorful vegetables. It’s equally good in the evening with a crisp white wine or straight out of the breakroom fridge. I’m pretty pleased, and I hope you will be too.
1 lb ground beef
1 med red onion, diced (about 2 c)
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 c long-grain white rice
1 sm yellow squash, chopped (2-3 c)
1 sm zucchini, chopped (2-3 c)
2 med tomatoes, cored and cut into thin wedges
3 c chicken or vegetable stock, or water
Salt to taste
Juice of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
Half-bunch of parsley, chopped (1/2 to 1 c, depending on how tightly you pack it)
In a wide, deep skillet with a lid (or a pot if you don’t have an appropriate skillet), brown the beef over medium-high heat, breaking it up into little nubbins, until the fat is mostly rendered. If your beef is fatty, you may need to skim off some excess so you get down to 2 Tbsp or so — with 85/15 beef I generally don’t bother.
Add the onion and garlic, and continue cooking until the onion is translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add the rice and continue frying until the rice turns to a flat white color, another 3-5 minutes. Don’t worry if it begins sticking; just scrape it up as you go.
Add some of the stock and scrape up all the stuck bits, then add the rest of the stock as well as the lemon juice, the tomatoes, the squash and zucchini, a large pinch of salt (larger if your stuck is unsalted), and a lot of ground black pepper. Bring just to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to low.
Let cook undisturbed for 20 minutes, then fluff with a fork and fold in the lemon zest and parsley.
I like this particular assortment of vegetables, but honestly you can throw in almost anything fairly soft and summery. Onion and garlic go first, then it’s fair game.
I also have designs on a more wintry edition that’ll involve hard squash, but I’m not 100% sure a butternut squash, for example, would cook properly in 20 minutes. But feel free to try it out; I’ll edit this post if I get around to it.
Vegetarians, while the beef is key to my childhood memories, it’s not key to this dish. Just scrap it and use a couple glugs of olive oil to sauté the onion and garlic, then add the rice and proceed as directed.