Rice swells in popularity Great grain: Its cooperative nature has helped make rice the fastest growing food commodity in the U.S. Here's a primer.

February 11, 1996|By Jennifer Lowe | Jennifer Lowe,ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER Knight-Ridder Tribune

Rice has come a long way from the clumpy blobs dished up at cafeterias, the greasy grains eaten from takeout cartons.

Today's rice, nutritious and versatile, carries exotic names: Jasmine. Basmati. Arborio. It fills kitchens with enticing aromas. It adds excitement to otherwise ho-hum meals.

A good source of vitamin B, thiamine and niacin, rice is the fastest-growing food commodity in the nation, according to the USA Rice Council, and consumption continues to climb. Americans eat about 25 pounds of rice per person each year, the council says.

"Rice used to be a blah starch," said Kristen O'Brien, a council spokeswoman. "Now it's a hip complex carbohydrate."

What's so nice about rice is its ability to work with cooks. Rice happily flaunts its seductive side, soaking up spices and flavors. It quietly remains calm and simple, satisfied if need be with a subtle, secondary role. And it knows its place in today's pots, plumping and fluffing in a matter of minutes.

But where to start? The family of rice is enormous, with about 40,000 strains branching off its botanical family tree, according to Anne Dettmer and Victoria Lloyd-Davies, writing in "The Rice Cookbook" (Globe-Pequot Press, $11.95).

Another source of information about rice is "The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition."

Long-grain or all-purpose rice tends to cook dry, light and fluffy, making it the best choice for salads and pilafs. It's the most common rice served in America. Kernels are four to five times as long as they are wide, with tapered ends. Milling techniques produce:

* Regular long-grain white rice, which has a subtle flavor. Good for American, Mexican, Spanish (except paella), Caribbean and Chinese dishes.

* Regular long-grain brown rice, which is processed so the bran layer remains intact. That produces a slightly nutty flavor and chewy texture, making the rice particularly good for vegetarian-style dishes.

* Converted or parboiled rice, which is steamed under pressure to harden the grain and retain natural vitamins and minerals. Good for a variety of dishes and nearly impossible to overcook.

Specialty rices, grown around the world, often have specific ethnic uses. Many are fragrant and can be used to create a variety of moods.

The aromatics are most known for these qualities, yet fragrance can differ from harvest to harvest, according to "The Rice Cookbook."

* Basmati rice, originally from the Himalayan foothills in northern India, is also grown in Pakistan and California. It is most commonly served in Indian restaurants, yet its nutty flavor pairs well with Western dishes. Grains separate and fluff when cooked.

* Jasmine rice from Thailand becomes soft and sticky when cooked and is slightly less aromatic than basmati. Some compare its scent to that of popping corn. Mainly used in Southeast Asian cooking, it also works well in Chinese dishes.

* U.S. basmati and jasmine, Texmati, jasmati and wild pecan are aromatics developed by the American rice industry; the domestic basmati and jasmine can be substituted for the Indian varieties.

* Risotto rice absorbs up to five times its weight in liquid compared with up to three times for most rices, making it best for the classic, creamy, Italian risotto dish. The most popular rice DTC in this group is arborio, a short-grain rice grown in Italy. Starch is released during cooking, encouraging grains to cling together yet remain firm at the core. Also a good choice for rice pudding and soups.

Glutinous rice, also known as sweet or sticky rice, comes from China, Japan and Thailand. These types have high starch contents and are, as the name suggests, very sticky when cooked. Typically used as an ingredient in Asian sweets and snacks.

Short-grain and medium-grain rices have short, rounded kernels and come in brown or white; grains are tubby and clingy. Typically such grains are used in traditional rice puddings, but they are unsuitable for dishes where separate grains are called for.

Wild rice -- a chewy, nutty-flavored grain that's actually an aquatic grass -- is grown in waterways in California and Minnesota. It comes in shades of dark brown to black; brown rice grains are very long and can be pricey. Often wild rice is mixed with long-grain or basmati rice.

Chinese risotto with wild mushrooms

Makes 6 servings

2 cups short- or medium-grain white sweet (glutinous) rice

1/4 cup corn or olive oil

6 shallots, chopped

4 large fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed; caps cut into small dice (about 1 1/2 cups)

1 medium portobello mushroom, stem removed; cut into small dice (1 1/2 cups)

1/2 cup diced fresh shrimp (optional)

1/2 cup finely diced smoked ham

1-1 1/4 cups chicken broth

2 teaspoons coarse or kosher salt

freshly ground pepper

2 scallions, finely chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh chervil or cilantro leaves or other fresh herb

Place rice in large bowl and cover with 6 cups warm water. Soak for 4 hours or refrigerate overnight. Drain well. Set aside.

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