Put that instant rice back on the shelf and get the real stuff
by Gay Lyons
When I was in my twenties, rice was a staple appreciated for its ability to stretch a mealâ’s more expensive ingredients. Though I probably ate rice almost daily for a few years, I never felt I was in a rice rut. The rice itself was basic, but the things that could be served with it seemed infinite. Following the rice age, I followed the national trend and turned to pastaâ"in all its different shapes and sizes, both fresh and dried. I still love pasta, but Iâ’ve rediscovered rice.
Rice is not a low-carbohydrate food, which may partially explain its temporary fall from grace in the U.S., but it is high in fiber and other nutrients and is a great accompaniment to other foods. Matching the flavor of the rice to the flavors of the other foods on the plate is part of the fun. If youâ’re open to trying new varieties, your palate is in for an adventure.
Rice cooking has also entered a new era with electric rice cookers that have made scraping rice off the bottom of a pan an obsolete task. I have a 12-year-old rice cooker which does the job, but Iâ’ve developed a jones for the latest rice cookers, which resemble crock pots and take even more of the guesswork out of rice cooking.
Letâ’s start by saying â“avoid instant rice.â” Every source I consulted said something along the lines of â“it might be worth the sacrifice in taste and texture for the sake of convenience.â” Thatâ’s polite talk for â“instant rice sucks.â” Put it in the same category as instant grits (and while youâ’re at itâ"instant almost anything) and move on to the good stuff.
Among the common white and brown varieties found in supermarkets, these days itâ’s not unusual to find jasmine, basmati, and Arborio rice. Youâ’ll find an even greater range of choices if Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Latino markets are on your list of shopping destinations. These markets have increased our choices in all kinds of items, but if youâ’re not accustomed to shopping at an ethnic market, rice is a good starting point. Youâ’ll find red and black rice, saffron rice, sweet rice and short-, medium-, and long-grain rice. For serious rice consumers, these markets are also the best places to pick up a 25-pound bag of rice for under $20.
The length of the rice determines how well separated the cooked grains will be: the longer the rice, the more separation. Sometimes a recipe will call for a certain type of rice. For example, a recipe for risotto might call for Arborio rice. However, most of the time an acceptable substitute is mentioned. Except where a specific type of rice is recommended, why not be adventurous? Try them all and see what you like best.
Iâ’ve discovered that I like mixed rice blends and aromatic rice such as basmati the best. I like the mix in hues and textures in the blends. They also have an earthiness I appreciate. One of my most requested rice dishes consists of wild rice, onions, mushrooms and a splash of bourbon. Iâ’ve recently discovered a yam and whole-grain rice blend sold at Asian markets that is as hearty and more tasty than any bowl of oatmeal.
The aromatics have natural scents I find appealing. Iâ’m a longtime fan of pecan rice, a hybrid grown in Louisiana, which smells and tastes of pecans. When I cook jasmine rice, I detect a hint of popcorn, but I havenâ’t found anyone else who does. Perhaps the bouquet of a fine rice is as personally experienced as that of a fine wine. Iâ’m also a fan of brown jasmine rice, which has the aromatic qualities of white jasmine rice along with the health benefits of brown rice.
My most recentâ"and tantalizingâ"discovery is something called â“black forbidden rice.â” I havenâ’t tried it yet, but my reaction to something with that name is twofold: why is it forbidden and where can I get some?
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