Shortly before Roger Ebert got sick with the cancer that cost him his ability to speak and eat normally, the once-pudgy movie reviewer lost 100 lb. the old-fashioned way, his friend Yvonne Nienstadt explains in the foreword to his fun-filled new book. Nienstadt, who runs a spa in Mexico, writes that Ebert once confided he was miffed “that most folks thought he lost all that weight because of his illness. I am here to testify that he worked his fanny off by self-discipline and by making profound lifestyle changes.” Cooking low-sodium, low-fat one-pot meals in his rice cooker was one of those changes. The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker includes Ebert’s favourite recipes, as well as charming musings on food and life. “Even though I stopped drinking in 1979 and, for that matter, stopped eating in 2006, I cook for others,” writes Ebert, “partly to make myself useful and mostly because I can have dinner on the table while most people are still spinning their wheels.” His book is for “You, person on a small budget who wants healthy food.”
“First, get the pot,” he instructs readers. “You need the simplest rice cooker made. It comes with two speeds: Cook and Warm. Sometimes Warm is named Hold. Not expensive. Now you’re all set to cook meals for the rest of your life on two square feet of counter space, including an area to do a little slicing and dicing.”
Ebert owns a Zojirushi brand rice cooker, but “you will not see me on TV in the middle of the night, hawking rice cookers. This book is strictly pro bono.” And you won’t need “no stinking cookbooks” either, he writes. “Whatever your gender, you will do this like a man, by refusing to read the instructions.”
A big part of his love for the rice cooker is the mystery behind how it works. “You put Minute Rice and the correct amount of water into the Pot, and click to Cook. Minutes later the Pot clicks over to Warm. The rice waits inside, perfectly cooked. Tomorrow night, you put in whole grain organic rice and the correct amount of water into the Pot, and click to Cook. Forty-five minutes or an hour later, the Pot clicks to Warm. Again, the rice is perfectly cooked . . . How does the Pot know how long to cook the rice? It’s an ancient mystery of the Orient.”
Your rice cooker will cook all your meals, he writes. For breakfast, he advises stone-ground oatmeal: “It can help you lose weight. You don’t get hungry before lunch. It contains hardly any fat.” Put the oatmeal in with the specified amount of water, then “slice the fruit of your choice into smallish pieces. Any fruit except something like watermelon. I shouldn’t have to be telling you this. Slice your bananas, your peaches, your apples, pears, plums, apricots, strawberries. Drop in maybe a couple of dried prunes or some raisins. No, hotshot. Not all the fruits at once. We’re making breakfast, not fruit compote. Let’s say two fruits together are nice.”
For lunch, “Let’s make some soup,” he suggests. “I have been known to start out with a can of Healthy Valley or Pritikin soup, usually not one of those high-sodium big-time soups, and then add fresh ingredients. When you have everything in, slam down the lid. This watched Pot boils. Click to Warm when the soup seems to be getting about right.” Immediately before serving, add frozen peas, he suggests, which “thaw out on the way to the table. They look delightfully green, taste crunchy and fresh, and add to the general interest.”
There are countless combinations of foods and grains you can try, he writes. “You will become the centre of attention when you claim you can cook almost anything in your Pot.” (Ebert claims he can caramelize an onion in a rice cooker with a bit of Pam olive oil spray.)
These days, Ebert takes his nourishment through a G-tube. “Thus I have been a perfect vegetarian without a single slip for 24 months on low fat and low salt. Today my cholesterol is 145 over something, my blood pressure is low normal, and I have never felt more clear-minded or zestful.” Nevertheless, he’s so enamoured of his rice cooker, he’s put it in his Who’s Who entry.