Different foods cook at different rates in the microwave oven,...

Different foods cook at different rates in the microwave oven, depending on their size, shape and water content. Credit: Fotolia

When using the divided plastic containers designed for reheating in the microwave, what power level is best used so that all items -- meat, potatoes, peas, carrots -- are done well? -- Jack Adler, Floral Park

The divided, microwavable dinner plate may generate warm memories of childhood TV dinners, but it's a relatively poor tool for reheating foods. Different foods cook at different rates in the microwave oven, depending on their size, shape and water content. Foods that contain more water heat faster than those with less, so the gravy will get hot before the turkey breast.

Figuring out what size and shape of meatloaf slice will require the same time and power level as a mound of mashed potatoes and a heap of peas -- that's a question for nuclear physicists.

Happily, there is an easy solution to your problem that requires no special equipment: Reheat foods separately in regular, garden-variety glass, china or stoneware dishes. Virtually all plates and bowls are microwavable these days (they'll say so on their undersides), and it's one of the joys of nuking that you can "cook" in the same plate you eat off of.

Unlike the ambient heat generated by conventional ovens, microwave energy penetrates only 1 to 1-1/2 inches into foods. If you microwaved a golf-ball-size serving of rice (1.68 inches in diameter), it would heat through very quickly because the microwaves would easily reach the center of the ball. A baseball-size mound of rice (about 3 inches in diameter) would take a bit longer, and the very center would be heated not so much by the microwaves, but by the heat of hot rice surrounding it. A softball-size portion of rice does not belong in the microwave. By the time the center got hot, the exterior would be overcooked.

In other words, the ball is not a good microwavable shape, ditto the mound, the heap, the fat slab. What you want is a layer of even thickness, and the thinner the layer, the faster it will cook.

To return to rice: Spoon it onto a plate or in a shallow bowl and press it gently so it constitutes a fairly even layer no thicker than 2 inches. Cover it with a glass lid or a glass plate or any other microwavable topper. Depending on the power of your microwave and the amount of rice, you'll need anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds.

What's the best way to cook wild rice?

After years of trying to figure out the correct ratio of water to wild rice, I gave up and now cook it like pasta: I bring a large pot of well-salted water to boil, pour in the wild rice and cook it for anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes, until the grains start to burst. Then I drain it well, put it back in the pot, cover the pot with a clean kitchen towel, put on the lid and let it rest for 10 minutes.

I use this method for any grain that's not white rice: brown rice, red rice, black rice, barley, farro, etc. (The international code of food writers requires that I add that wild rice is not a true rice but a grain harvested from a grass that grows wild in shallow waters.)

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