The sincerest form of cookery

Have you ever tried to reproduce a flavor? You eat something at someone else’s house, or at a restaurant, or you even decide that something that came from a box or a jar is worth trying to make at home, and you set about figuring out what’s in it and trying to whip up a duplicate.

As a kid, I didn’t eat much that came out of boxes or jars. Cold cereal – Life, Chex, and Cheerios, mainly – was our usual breakfast and, if my parents went out for dinner, we sometimes had frozen pizza or blintzes (the only childhood food I remember disliking), but that was about it. My mother is an excellent cook, and she cooked every day.

There was only one boxed food that ever graced our dinner table: Near East Rice Pilaf. I’m sure you’ve had it. It’s a combination of white rice and orzo, and there’s a little foil packet of spices you mix in. You add a little butter, boil it all up, and you end up with a steaming pile of fluffy pilaf.

They don’t tell you exactly what’s in that little foil packet, but I think it’s crack. Near East Rice Pilaf has a particular hold on me, and I know I’m not the only one. It has a mild, salty, nutty flavor that makes it more like potato chips than rice; you can’t stop eating it.

When I lived in San Francisco, some twenty years ago, I decided that no self-respecting cook should serve a pilaf out of a box, and I set about trying to make my own. I scrutinized the ingredient list (“rice, salt, crack”). I went all over town trying to find orzo (not commonly available at the time). I carefully measured and mixed my spices, checked the rice-to-orzo ratio, and started cooking. The first batch was good. It tasted like mildly spiced rice with orzo. It went well with lamb chops. It tasted nothing like Near East Rice Pilaf.

Neither did the second, or the third. I don’t know how many iterations I went through before I gave it up, but it was probably well into double digits. Since my Near East Rice Pilaf fixation was entirely my mother’s fault, I called her to complain about my defeat.

She laughed. Laughed! Right out loud, in my face.

Now my mother, while not the most sensitive of people (that’s not a trait that runs in our family), certainly does not take pleasure in my failures, and I was a little taken aback.

“Why is that funny?” I asked, after the guffawing had subsided to a soft chortle.

“Because I did exactly the same thing about ten years ago,” she said.

The nut doesn’t fall far from the tree, as my husband likes to say.

This is the incident that kept pushing itself to the forefront of my thoughts as I pickled my herring the other day. For me, pickled herring has a very particular flavor – the Vita flavor. That’s the brand of pickled herring I eat, and that’s what I think pickled herring should taste like.

It was with great trepidation that, this morning, I took my first forkful of my herring. I took care to get a good balance of onion and fish, with no whole peppercorns or allspice berries. I looked at it closely. Looked right. I smelled it. Smelled right. I tasted it.

Miracle of miracles, it tasted just like it was supposed to. My herring was quite lean, so the texture is a little different, but the balance of vinegar and sugar was right on. Astonishing. If you want to pickle some herring yourself, I’ve posted the recipe here.

And if you’ve figured out how to duplicate Near East Rice Pilaf, both my mother and I would like to hear from you.

9 people are having a conversation about “The sincerest form of cookery

  1. Congratulations on your pickled herring!! But check on your nuts. I think the saying is “the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree” !! Your tree is obviously full of wonderful nuts, so be thankful!!

  2. Yummy! This has to be one of my favorite foods! We use a very similar recipe and have found it is not terrible to use frozen herring. If you are out in Cape Cod Bay this spring, you might try some tinker mackerel pickled in the same way. It is so delicious. Yo-Zuri makes some nice Sabiki rigs that are effective, or any mackerel rigs will work. Congrats!

  3. It’s the Near East Spanish Rice that’s crack for me, and as we can’t get it in the UK I tried to duplicate it too, even went as far as adding MSG. Nope. Those Near East guys have made a pact with some culinary devil.

    Big congrats on the pickled herring. Are my botulism worries unfounded? I am going to try your recipe on any late spring mackerel we catch.

  4. Amanda — And I thought everyone liked pickled fish!

    Alexandra — I’m sure any Swedish husband can out-pickle me, any time. But I’ll vouch for the recipe anyway.

    Jane — Thanks for the typo catch (I fixed it, so your comment will now mystify everyone).

    Beth — Thats a great idea. We’ll definitely be out in the Bay in the spring, and mackerel should taste very similar. So, if we can’t get a striper …

    Jen — So you’re a member of the Near East imitator’s club as well, eh? As for botulism, I think we’re safe on two fronts. The acid in the vinegar should be sufficient to keep it at bay, and my understanding is that it only grows in temperatures over 40 degrees F. We’re keeping it in the fridge, below that. If posts stop suddenly, you’ll know I made a tragic mistake.

  5. Claire — Thanks for the link! Unfortunately, they don’t have my rice pilaf, but I’ll check back the next time I’m duplicating.

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