June 3, 2009 3:25 PM
Unforgettable Rice from El Chepe

I wish each day had ten more hours so I could tell you about so many dishes already.

This is how behind I feel in all I want to share: Six weeks ago our family came back from the Copper Canyon in Mexico. I took notes, pictures, short videos, interviewed cooks, planted myself in their kitchens until forcefully uprooted by my husband, and ate like a mad woman from any interesting sounding dish, which was practically everything (partly with the purpose to come and tell you all about it...).

Then we came home, and life got in the way... I took longer to launch this site because I wanted to add more sections. By the time it was ready, so many weeks had gone by, I was eager to share more recent food excursions from my kitchen.

Yesterday, these red tomatoes reminded me of my delayed purpose. They looked perfectly ripe to become the base for that Mexican Style Rice we ate at the Chepe train (formally known as the Chihuahua al Pacífico). It was unbelievable. Not only how good it tasted, but where and how it is made, every day.
Unforgettable rice from el chepe 2.jpg
I expected to find scrumptious food along the Copper Canyon, but not aboard the train.  Used to pre-packaged sandwiches and microwaved hot dogs on the Amtrak, it was suck a treat to choose from a full menu of home-style food.

Ad we sat on the cushy blue seats, we were amazed at how the individual place settings set on the wooden tables jumped without falling as the train rocked on the old wooden tracks.  With the light from the sun peeking through the window, the formally dressed waiters coming out of the kitchen appeared to step out from the Mexican 19th century, with charming mustaches in the like of the long gone Profirian era and all.

Unforgettable rice from el chepe 3.jpg
More amazement, as they poured coffee, dancing as in a tight rope with the steaming pots at least 10 inches away from the cups they were aiming to fill. But even more amazement, after we tasted the food. Such good food on a train? I had puntas de filete with a side of refried beans, quesadillas and the best ever Mexican style rice. Even before dessert, this felt like a trip within the trip itself.


Each time, I would ask the waiter to introduce me to the cook in turn. There were not one but three cooks in a fully sized and stocked kitchen. Balancing as if on steady ground, up and down bridges, inside tunnels and around curves, they made some of the most comforting foods I can think of.

Unforgettable rice from el chepe 4.jpgHere is a tip:  when you do to the Chepe, disregard when train officers say the Restaurant is closed.  It seems to be a technique to help guests avoid long waits (or a bottleneck in the kitchen).  Go check it out yourself, there is typically no line and by the time they announce its open, the train ride may be over.  If you are not planning on going to the Chepe train soon, here is the recipe for that deliciously satisfying Mexican rice, shared by the chef in charge of the Chepe's food and menu, Jesus Ley.

unforgettable rice from el chepe 5.jpg
There are of course many variations to this dish. You can substitute fresh tomato puree for 1 1/2 cups of canned puree. Except for few rice dishes, I always add some fresh squeezed lime juice. It makes it crisp and helps the flavors of the other ingredients shine through, but it is optional.You can include the carrots and peas, exclude them or change that vegetable such as by adding green beans and red bell peppers.

And yes, that chile serrano you see in the picture is optional. You can omit it, substitute it for a jalapeño, and can add a couple more if you like. But if you are having Mexicans over, watch out: those chiles that have absorbed the flavors from all the ingredients in that pot, are the rice treasure we all hunt for.
Serves 6 to 8

2 cups long or extra long grain white rice
2 tomatoes, or about 1 pound, quartered
1/3 cup white onion, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt, or more to taste
3 tablespoons safflower or corn oil
3 1/2 cups chicken or vegetable broth, or water
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice, optional
2 parsley sprigs
3/4 cup carrots, peeled and diced, optional
1/2 cup shelled green peas, fresh of frozen, optional
1 or 2 chiles Serranos, optional

In a bowl, soak the rice in hot water for about 5 minutes. Rinse with cold water and drain very well.

While the rice soaks, purée the tomatoes in the blender along with the onion, garlic and salt. Pass through a strainer and reserve.

Heat the oil in a thick heavy skillet (if you have one with a transparent lid, pick that one) over medium high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the rice and sauté, stirring often, until the color of the rice changes to a strong milky white and it shows more resistance and makes a heavier sound as you stir it around, probably about 3 to 4 minutes.

Pour in the strained tomato purée, mix it gently and let it cook until the color of the purée has darkened, thickened and is mostly absorbed, about 3 more minutes.

Stir in the chicken or vegetable broth and lime juice, give it a gentle stir and top with the parlsey sprig, the diced carrots, peas and serrano chiles, if so desired.
Let it all come to a boil, and when it does, put the cover on and reduce the heat to low and cook for about 20 minutes. Here is where that transparent lid becomes so handy, as you can see what is going on inside the pot without losing steam. You know the rice is ready when it is cooked through and tender, most of the liquid has been absorbed, but there is a lot of moisture in the pot. If the rice is not yet tender and the liquid has dried up, add a couple tablespoons more water, cover again and let it cook for a couple more minutes.
Let the rice sit covered for at least 5 minutes before you fluff with a fork and serve. You may also make it beforehand and reheat it covered over low heat with a tablespoon of water.