What time-honored edible has all of the following: the warmth and comfort of hot bread; the fragrance of a baking cake; the staying power of potatoes and gravy; the beauty of a painting in creamy whites or vivid hues and accent colors? Clue: Half the world's human population is sustained on a daily basis by this food.
Rice. We know it in stir fries, stuffings, pilafs, puddings, salads, soups. Even served plain as it comes out of the pot, rice is not a boring grain. Consider basmati (meaning "queen of fragrance"), jasmine, or popcorn rice, three examples of aromatic varieties savored for their rich smells. Medium-grained Italian rices (arborio, carnaroli, padano) are valued for their chewy centers. Long-grained rice, glutinous rice, converted rice, instant rice, rice bran, rice flour; all have their uses.
Rice is inexpensive, but people eat rice not because they can't get anything else, says one Chinese cook, but because of their satisfaction with its flavor and texture.
A typical Burmese eats 416 pounds of rice a year, a Thai 329, a Chinese 243. Americans consume on average only 22 pounds a year-with four of those pounds accounted for in the brewing of American beer. However, consumption is on its way up as the rice-based cuisines of Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, and others gain popularity here. We are just now learning what others have known for about 7,000 years: Rice is delicious and life-giving.
A fair source of protein, rice contains all eight amino acids. (It is low in the amino acid lysine, which is found in beans, making the classic combination of beans and rice particularly healthful.) Rice, especially brown rice with its bran layer still intact, is an excellent source of B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, iron, and others.
U.S. FARMERS have grown rice since the early 18th century, but they exported most of it. The legendary seeds that Thomas Jefferson smuggled out of Italy in his pocket linings were grains of rice...he was searching for a variety that wouldn't break so often in the milling process. On the coastal plains of Georgia and the Carolinas, American slaves familiar with African rice cultivation contributed significantly to a productive rice industry, but the Civil War and several devastating hurricanes ended serious rice growing on the East Coast. When agriculture became more mechanized, rice farming moved west to Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, and eventually California.
I have always been fascinated by this water-loving crop, so different from wheat or soybeans or vegetables. They say if you are downwind from a rice field when the plants begin to bloom, a very sweet and subtle perfume engulfs you...one reason for rice's feminine persona in Asian cultures.
They also say (at least in eastern Texas) that when you see a big swath of rice lying down in a direction going away from the river or canal, there is an alligator in your field. When the swath lies toward the water, it's OK, the alligator is gone and you can go in and work. While I like eating rice, I'm not sure I want to grow it any time soon.
There are hundreds of ways to serve rice. A lemon rice pilaf recipe caught my eye the other day, as did a Persian rice casserole with its toasty brown crust and cherry sauce. Give me a bottle of soy sauce or jar of salsa, and all I'll need is steamed rice to make a meal. Here is an American-style recipe, changed a bit from the original version that relied on instant rice and canned vegetables.
- 1 cup uncooked rice (white or brown)
- 1 cup sherry or white wine (or substitute chicken broth plus 1 tsp. lemon juice)
- 1 cup water
- 3/4 tsp. salt
- 1 cup raw onion, diced finely
- 3-4 cups fresh mushrooms, sliced
- 1 cup ripe red tomatoes, diced
- 1 cup black olives, sliced
- 6 Tbsp. butter (may be reduced)
- 1 cup cheddar cheese (may be reduced)
- 2 tsp. sugar
Bring sherry, water, and salt to a boil. Add rice. Lower heat to lowest possible setting and steam rice until liquid is absorbed and rice is tender, about 20 minutes for white rice, 40 for brown.
Meanwhile, saut onions in 2 Tbsp. butter, then saut mushrooms in 2 Tbsp. butter. Combine. Melt remaining 2 Tbsp. butter.
When rice is cooked, add sauted vegetables, butter, olives, tomatoes, cheese, and sugar. Stir until well mixed and cheese is melted.
Serve as a main course (i.e. this is a great camping dish), or reduce cheese and serve as a pilaf accompaniment to fish or chicken. Serves 4-6.
CAREY BURKETT is an organic vegetable farmer in Hallettsville, Texas.