Today is Old Year’s Day and that means that homes across Guyana will be making the traditional end-of-year Cook-up Rice. The peas – black-eyed, the meats – the works, meaning a combination of salted and fresh meats like beef, pig tails, and tripe, some people may add a handful or two of fresh or dried shrimp, ham skin and bits of ham. And even though we make Cook-up Rice all year round, weekly, (on Saturdays), the Old Year’s Night Cook-up will be different.
The tradition of making this one-pot dish at this time of the year draws influence from West Africa. Our enslaved ancestors who were brought to this part of the world brought with them the tradition of cooking black-eyed peas, meat and rice to be eaten to herald in the New Year, hopeful of luck and good fortune. I think this fact provides helpful context and meaning to this, one of our more popular national dishes.
Over the years, I have written several columns about the actual making of Cook-up Rice. It seems like a simple dish, and yet it is not simple to make a really good Cook-up. It takes skill and practice to combine the various elements – meats, legumes, rice, coconut milk – in one pot and to have everything finish cooking at the same time: the grains of rice plump and loose, meat tender, peas cooked soft but still intact and all the liquid evaporated, everything glistening from being cooked with coconut milk. It is perfection when everything comes together. The flavour of the Cook-up Rice comes from the use of fresh herbs to season the pot as well as the flavours extracted from the meat during the cooking process and then of course the peas/bean used. The coconut milk brings it all together.
For the novice cook and for the home cook who struggles with making Cook-up Rice, I am going to suggest a somewhat deconstructed way to prepare the ingredients and then combine them together in one pot for your end-of-year Cook-up Rice. Cook-up-making experts might frown, but the novice can use this method to build the confidence necessary to eventually make Cook-up Rice by cooking everything in one pot.
Cook the meats separately, the peas/beans and then combine them with the seasonings, coconut milk and rice. Here’s what to do.
If you are using tripe, salt meat, fresh beef and ham bits, the tripe is the meat that takes the longest to cook and soften. The salt meat – if you are using it simply to season (add salt) to the cook up, cut it up into small pieces. When using the salt meat as seasoning, you need not add extra salt to the pot (this will depend on the amount of salt meat used. Always taste the pot before adding more salt). However, if you are adding the salt meat to the Cook-up as meat, cut the salt meat into the size you want and soak it in tap water overnight before cooking, this will remove the excess salt, and leave it with just enough salt to taste.
Cook the fresh meat with salt and pepper. There is no need to cook the already cooked ham; it will be added directly to the pot at the same time with the rice.
Reserve the drippings; any little liquid that remains from cooking the meat, to add to the Cook-up, this is like a concentrated stock that will add excellent flavour to the pot.
If the legumes are of the fresh variety, add them to the pot at the same time with the rice, however, if using dried legumes that need to be rehydrated from an overnight soaking, cook them until they are almost cooked through, they will finish cooking with the rice and meat.
Season the peas/beans with salt while cooking.
Just as with the meat(s), reserve any little cooking liquid that remains from cooking the peas/beans to add more flavour to the pot.
Cook-up can be made with various types of rice but the one well suited for this type of preparation is the parboiled rice, it stands up well to the long cooking. Wash the rice before adding to the pot. You can also choose to wash and soak the rice for an hour before adding it to the pot. Soaking improves the texture and helps the rice to swell more. Soaked rice requires less liquid to cook.
I prefer to use fresh coconut milk when making Cook-up rice; it’s lighter. However, if all you have is canned coconut milk, dilute the milk using a 1:1 ratio. For every cup of canned coconut milk, dilute with 1 cup of hot water.
Another of the tricky parts about making Cook-up Rice is knowing how much liquid to add to the pot to cook the rice. Use this as a guide for parboiled rice: for every cup of soaked rice, use 1½ cups liquid; for every cup of un-soaked rice use 1¾ cups liquid.
For seasoning, apart from lots of freshly ground black pepper and salt, onions, fresh thyme and celery is my favourite combo, sometimes with the addition of a few basil leaves, torn.
Once you have the components cooked and prepped, here’s how to put it all together.
Heat some oil in a large pot, on medium high heat and add the seasonings; cook until fragrant and the onions are softened; season lightly with salt and pepper.
Add the meats and any liquid from their cooking, stir to mix and cook for 5 minutes.
Add the peas/beans, rice and ham, if using, and mix them with the other ingredients and cook for 2 minutes.
Pour the measured coconut milk into the pot, give a good stir and taste and adjust seasoning (mainly salt and black pepper). Bring the pot to a boil and cook until you begin to see rice. Cover the pot tightly, reduce the heat to low and cook for 35 minutes or until all the liquid has been absorbed by rice and meats.
. At the end of the 35 minutes of cooking, open the pot, you will know if the liquid has been properly absorbed if you do not hear a faint bubbling sound, if you do, give the pot a good stir, partially cover the pot and let it cook for another 5 minutes on low heat then shut off the heat and let the pot stand covered for 15 minutes before serving.
. Generally speaking when Cook-up is done cooking, it can be served immediately but I like to give it 10 – 15 minutes to rest before serving.
. If you would like to add pepper to boil with the Cook-up, add it just before covering the pot and reducing the heat to low.
. If you would like to steam okra on top on the rice, add it on top of the rice 10 – 12 minutes before the rice is done cooking. Remove them and the pepper(s) and set aside before stirring the pot at the end of cooking.
Sounds doable? I know you can do this.
Thanks for continuing to read; and may your plates always be filled.
Happy New Year!