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Calas with honeyed strawberry sauce.

Tara O'Brady/The Globe and Mail

In an episode of his television program at least a decade ago, chef Ming Tsai said he learned how to cook rice from two men; a sushi master in Osaka, Japan, and his grandfather. Both taught a way that did not require any measurement.

He called it the Mount Fuji method; he rinsed the grains and left them in a bowl, then placed his splayed hand, palm down, on top of the rice loosely, so its gentle rise mimicked the peak of the mountain. Then, he added water until it came to the knuckles where his fingers met his hand. The size of hand didn’t matter, he assured. Large or small, a hand would displace a proportional amount of water. Thus, the trick would always work.

And, it does.

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That’s how I’ve cooked my rice ever since. I already knew about rinsing rice well in water. My parents had taught me to properly submerge the grains in water, then agitating with slack fingers and a swirl of the wrist, draining and repeating, until the once-milky water runs clean. The process can take four or more courses, but I do not deviate from the routine.

Truth be told, how one chooses to cook rice is highly personal.

For instance, others declare such dunking too much of a bother and simply hold the rice in a sieve under a running tap. My husband follows what the package says and thus hates when I purchase rice in bulk.

Some swear by rice cookers, or pressure cookers, or a combination of boiling and steaming, while others embrace cooking rice as one would pasta – stirring grains in a generous quantity of boiling water and draining once tender.

Whatever the route you choose, I suggest you make extra. Yes, for fried rice, but also for calas, the often-overlooked Creole rice fritter. Different from Italian arancini, which use leftover risotto as is, or possibly bound with egg, calas are made with plain cooked rice folded into a doughnut-like flour-based batter.

I was introduced to calas through the writing of culinary activist and Louisiana food historian Poppy Tooker. She explained their vitality to the African community in New Orleans, sometimes as a way for the enslaved to buy their freedom. On Sundays, women would walk the neighbourhoods, singing praise of their warm calas.

Traced to the rice cultures of Sierra Leone, Ghana and Liberia, calas have myriad variations. They can be sweet or savoury. They are made with yeast and fermented slowly, or quickly gain their fluff from baking powder. I’ve seen the batter quite firm and rice-heavy, so it can be rolled before frying, while I like mine slightly looser, so that it falls from a spoon in a rustic mound.

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Cane syrup and honey are regular accompaniments to icing-sugar-dusted calas. Here, with no offence to custom, but instead embracing the calas’s versatility, I thought to amplify the spice traditional to sweet versions and rolled mine in cinnamon sugar. Instead of syrup, I went with honey-cooked berries, with a spoon of cream for a sharp counterpoint.

Calas (Creole Rice Fritters) with Honeyed Strawberry Sauce

Ingredients (Makes about 24 small or 18 large)

Fritters
  • 2/3 cup long-grain white rice, rinsed
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon medium-grain kosher salt
  • Seeds scraped from a vanilla bean, or 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • Neutral oil, for frying
  • Cinnamon sugar, for dusting
  • Strawberry honey and to serve
Sauce
  • 3 cups fresh strawberries, hulled and diced
  • 3 tablespoons honey, or more as needed
  • Juice from half a lemon
  • 3/4 cup thick yogurt or crème fraîche

Start by cooking the rice. Stir rice with 1 1/3 cups cold water in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan with a lid. Set pot over medium-high heat, pop on the lid and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to maintain a simmer and cook undisturbed until the rice is tender and the water is absorbed, around 20 minutes. If the rice is tender, but water remains, drain. With a fork, fluff the rice out into a large, wide bowl and let cool.

To make the strawberry sauce, combine the strawberries, honey and lemon juice in a medium, nonreactive saucepan. Place over medium-high and bring to a boil, mashing the berries gently. Lower the heat to a simmer and allow the sauce to bubble until glossy and thickened slightly, about 7 minutes. Remove from the heat and taste for sweetness, adding more honey if needed. Set aside to cool while you make the cala batter. In a medium bowl, with an electric mixer or a whisk, beat the eggs, sugar, salt and vanilla together until pale and about doubled in volume. In three additions, fold the egg mixture into the cooled rice. Sift the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg onto the rice mixture through a fine-meshed sieve. Fold to combine. Let batter rest, covered, for 20 minutes.

Pour enough oil into a heavy, deep saucepan to come up 2 to 3 inches up the sides. Heat oil over a medium heat to 365 F on a deep-fry thermometer.

Using a spring-loaded scoop or two tablespoons, carefully drop balls of dough into the hot oil (using about 1 tablespoon batter for small calas, 4 teaspoons for large). Fry batches, turning calas often, until deeply golden and cooked through, 4 to 6 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, drain calas briefly before dredging in cinnamon sugar, then transferring to a baking rack or directly to a serving dish.

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When ready to feast, swirl the strawberry sauce with the yogurt or crème fraîche and offer alongside the hot calas. Resist the urge to dunk, as the cinnamon sugar will be left behind in the bowl. Instead tear your cala in two, then spoon a smear of strawberry-marbled yogurt on each half.

The calas are best the day they are made, preferably fresh from the fryer. So, invite a crowd.

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