The global grain

JERRY McBride/Durango Herald

By Karen Brucoli Anesi
Special to the Herald

Other than bread, if there’s a single starch that can lay claim to the title of “most international,” it has to be rice. Unless you live north of the Arctic Circle or at its opposite pole, chances are rice is at home on your plate. And for many, rice is the primary sustenance around which a meal is centered.

Durango restaurants serve it all: long-grain, short-grain, basmati, jasmine, brown, Arborio and wild – which really isn’t rice at all, but an equally tasty grain. Still, folks are wild about wild rice, no matter that it’s actually an annual, aquatic seed, harvested as a grass that grows in the freshwater lakes of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

It’s the size of the grain that makes the biggest difference in how rice is prepared. Short-grain rice is softer and stickier, perfect for sushi and creamy adaptations, such as risotto or paella.

Long-grain rice has drier, more separate grains – ideal for fried rice, pilafs and sauces. Jasmine or basmati rice has distinct flavor profiles that pair perfectly with some Indian and Asian foods – but the two are vastly different because of grain length and origin.

Brown rice, both long- and short-grain, is distinctly chewier and takes about twice as long to cook, thanks to its germ and bran being preserved, which gives it more magnesium and four times the fiber of white rice.

This favored child of the rice family can thank fiber for slowing down the rate at which carbohydrate is converted into blood sugar. Fiber lowers the glycemic load. A lower glycemic load typically keeps insulin levels in check and hunger at bay.

If brown rice is the favored child, then refined, short-grain white is the evil stepchild. But it needn’t be, said registered dietitian Susie Young, of the Durango Cancer Center and Southwest Oncology.

“Eat a variety, but be aware that it’s so easy to get too much,” Young said of the carbohydrate load that can sneak up on rice lovers.

Young said that a palmful of cooked rice is about the right amount per serving. That amount can be doubled, depending on one’s activity level, and sampling a variety of rice adds interest to a daily diet.

Young is a big advocate of fiber because there’s a correlation between fiber and the rate at which glucose is absorbed. The slower the glucose is absorbed, the better. That puts basmati rice high on Young’s shopping list.

Basmati rice and jasmine rice often are spoken of interchangeably as aromatic varieties, but they are distant cousins. Basmati has half the glycemic index of jasmine and is of Persian, Indian and Middle Eastern origin. Shorter-grain jasmine hails from Thailand, but is used in all southeastern Asian cuisine.

Young advises that all rice be rinsed well before cooking, two or three times over a half-hour period. Some say that rinsing rice reduces its starch content, but Young recommends rinsing rice in a bowl or fine-mesh colander until the water runs clear, to reduce arsenic levels that occur naturally in some soils in which rice is grown. Cooking rice as one might cook pasta also lessens arsenic exposure, Young said.

“Cook it in plenty of boiling water, until al dente, then drain it off,” she said. “If arsenic levels concern you, check out the Consumer Reports rice test and buy the rice with the lowest amount of arsenic,” Young said. Before preparing the rice, place the rice in a bowl or fine mesh colander and rinse it several times until the water becomes clear.

White rice typically is cooked by absorption method in which there’s a ratio of 2:1 liquid to rice. But some wild rice and brown rice blends may call for three parts of liquid to one part rice and three times the cooking time.

Others, such as the Spanish rice served at Christina’s Grill & Bar, uses equal parts rice to broth, slowly cooked and amply seasoned.

Emiliano Naranjo, head chef and owner of Christina’s recently converted the diverse menu to all Mexican fare. The popular, extra-long-grain rice served with most entrees gets its rich flavor from homemade chicken stock and finely diced vegetables, general manager Jonathan Naranjo said. But it’s likely that sauteing the rice in butter before adding finely diced onion, carrot, corn and green beans to the pot, creates the light, fluffy consistency.

“We use the rich broth flavored from the chickens we cook for enchiladas. It’s using the real chicken stock that makes the difference,” Jonathan Naranjo said.

Methods and times for cooking rice vary, but veteran rice cookers agree on two things: A heavy saucepan with a tight-fitting lid is essential. The longer the grain, the fluffier the rice tends to be. Second rule: Rice varieties should never be substituted. You can’t expect a short-grain rice to behave as a long-grain might.Long-grain rice favorite, pilaf, is a seasoned rice of Middle Eastern origin, often using basmati or patna rice initially sauteed before hot, seasoned broth is added. The universal rule for pilaf is, “Once the lid is on, don’t mess with it,” if you want to retain fluffy texture.Short-grain rice favorite, risotto, also starts out in the saute pan where each grain is covered in fat before hot chicken stock is slowly added in increments to the pot.Risotto is stirred constantly so all liquid is absorbed before more stock is added. The creamy outcome is partly because of Arborio rice’s short grain, but stickiness is converted to creaminess, before cheese is added during the final stage of preparation.

Rustin Newton, executive chef and owner of Mutu’s Italian Kitchen, said it’s important to not rinse the rice when making risotto.

“Don’t rinse it. Rinsing removes the starch that’s necessary for the creamy outcome,” he said.

Rice medleys that combine brown, wild rice and long-grain white should be cooked exactly to label directions to get cooking times correct. Converted rice – that which has had the hull removed before partial cooking – has less starch, a lower carbohydrate content and shorter cooking time than brown rice. Generally, it should not be substituted in recipes, because of adapted cooking times, but converted rice may be a convenient product for rice cookers.

Minced, fresh vegetables, seafood and meat can be added in the final minutes of all rice preparation.

No reason to fear cooking rice. Experiment with varieties of rice and cooking methods to take yourself on an international, culinary adventure. Just watch the portion size.

“It’s easy to overdo it,” Young said.

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