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Discovering Arsenic in my Rice

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For me, discovering new things is one the best aspects of home cooking. There’s always a new recipe, a new ingredient, a new wine to be had (there's a reason why I christened my kids and wife Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria for this blog), but there are also times when a new discovery is most unwanted, and it recently came to my attention that much of the rice grown in this country is full of arsenic.

How much arsenic, I can’t really tell. Arsenic is typically measured in “parts per billion,” and I’m about comfortable with big numbers as a young voter might be contemplating all the zeros in the Federal deficit figure (I think it’s six zeros, as the Treasury Department calculates the debt in “millions of dollars”: the latest figure is, therefore, $16,066,241,000,000, for those keeping score). One thing I do know—that arsenic is bad for you, and bad for your kids.

(Consumer Reports and the FDA, who have analyzed and revealed this issue, have the exact numbers, for the rest of you keeping score.) Rice, unfortunately, is a major staple of our diet. The only thing I can do—besides trying to quantify the risk of eating it by breaking out my calculator and consulting the EPA—is to cut back on it. 

I don’t think we can eliminate rice entirely, and there are some nuances that effect exposure: brown rice has more than white (because the husk, which was previously considered so healthy, is where the plant holds much of it), and rinsing the rice before cooking it can cut down on the amount of arsenic ingested. Those links above, to the Consumer Reports article, contain specific recommendations.

The other thing I can do to decrease my risk is to diversify my grains. So I’ve started to eat more quinoa. A few weeks ago, back when I made the amazing Crispy Chorizo, Brussels Sprout and Quinoa salad, I cooked a big old pot of the mother grain. I thought I might turn the leftover grains into a breakfast cereal, but I never got around to it. Instead, I started eating the quinoa with my chili, and more recently, with my Green Olive Beef Tagine. The quinoa kept for a long while in the fridge, after it was cooked, and it tasted just fine beneath those flavorful dishes.

What kind of other grains do you incorporate in your diet? I have the feeling I need to discover some new ones. 

Green Olive Beef Tagine

  • 1 1/2 lbs braising beef
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne (or less; to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground ginger
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  •  4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons tomato puree
  •  4 shallots (or more), quartered
  • 1 large potato cut into small cubes
  • 2 large carrots, cut into small cubes
  • 1 28oz. can peeled plum tomatoes, chopped, liquid reserved
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley
  • A pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup pitted green olives, sliced in half

Trim the beef and cut into 1-inch pieces. Mix together the five spices with the garlic, two tablespoons of olive oil and the tomato puree. Turn the beef in this mixture and leave, covered, in the refrigerator overnight (or longer).

Heat the remaining oil in the tagine base. Fry the shallots, potatoes and carrots until they begin to colour, lift out.

Fry the marinated beef until sealed on all sides. Return the vegetables with the chopped tomatoes any remaining marinade, the parsley and a little salt.

Cover and cook over a low heat for 3-4 hours, or until the beef is tender.

Stir the olives into the dish and allow 15 minutes to heat through.

Serve with couscous (or quinoa!)

Note: The recipe can be doubled, and that is what I have been doing lately—making big batches of chili or stew on the weekend and getting multiple lunches and dinners out of them all week. I doubled using a Dutch Oven and poured all the tomato juice (from the two cans) into that pot. 

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