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The Chefs' Bill of Rice

Elizabeth Schneider / October 1991

Would you offer only two wines on your menu: red and white? Why settle for mere "rice," or an occasional brown or basmati? Few cooks give much thought to the particulars of rice, and if they do, it seems that "Carolina" is what pops to mind, although there is no such category, only a brand name, and rice is no longer gown in that vicinity.

According to John Martin Taylor, author of the forthcoming Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking (Bantam Books, NY), "Rice cultivation died out with the outlawing of slavery. The last commercial crop picked in the Carolinas was in 1927. After the Civil War, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Northern California began growing and harvesting rice with machinery, which was the final blow. Our lowcountry soil simply couldn't support the weight of mechanization."

At present, virtually the entire United States rice crops is produced from varieties developed and farmed in those same states, plus Mississippi and Missouri. Recent statistics show that 70.9 percent is long grain, 26.6 percent medium grain, and 2.5 percent percent short grain. According to the American Rice Council in Houstin, the designation is determined by a length to width ratio of the milled grain and by tis amylopectin (a sticky starch) and/or amylose (nonsticky starch) content. In general, rice from Japonica strains, high in amylopectin, is short or medium-grained and cooks to a moist, tacky consistency. Rice from the Indica strains, high in amylose, is long-grained, and the cooked kernels are relatively dry and separate.

Even though in the U.S. we have just recently begun to explore some of the thousands of rice varieties in the world, our rice consumption has increased dramatically over the past few years, with an annual per capita increase from 9.1 pounds in 1975 to 17.6 in 1987. (While significant, these figures are hardly a kernel in the pot compared to the world averages for those same dates: 126 and 143 pounds.) With out greater nutritional awareness and expanding Asian-and Latin-American populations, whose diets depend heavily on rice, we should see many kinds of rice in the marketplace. What follows is a round up of what can be found a present, although finding some will require a concerted effort.

All rice starts out with a darkish coat, usually tan, composed of the hull or husk, bran layers and germ. White rice results when this coat is removed and the grain is polished (milled).

Long-grain, regular-milled or polished domestically grown white rice is the most plentiful and popular variety in this country, and is familiar to all who cook. Converted, conditioned or parboiled long-grain rice has been a staple in foodservice. To produce it, rice is steeped, steamed, dried and then milled. Those who imagine that Uncle Ben invented the process may be surprised to know that it originated in ancient India and is still popular there, as well as in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan. That partial precooking improves nutritional quality, lengthens cooking time and inhibits rancidity may also surprise. Flat flavor and a monotonously firm texture may not.

Precooked, quick-cooking or instant long-grain rice has been cooked and dehydrated, and the grains have been slightly cracked to speed infiltration of water during rehydration. To me, the resulting product is flabby and dull.

Medium-grain white rice is shorter and fatter than long-grain, and longer and narrower than short-grain. Some is coated with a shiny finish, a practice begun a half century ago with talc to preserve grains during long voyages. Today, the medium-grain rice, which is grown primarily for Japanese and Puerto Rican markets, may sport a cosmetic slick of cornstarch and corn syrup (which need not be removed). Depending upon how it is cooked, medium-grain rice can be tender and moist or round and resilient. Less water is needed to prepare medium grain than for long-grain.

Italian rice for risotto is sturdy and square compared to other rice varieties. Stirred during cooking, it releases a large amount of starch that creates a binding sauce around the kernels. which retain a firm core. The grain is most commonly represented by the large arborio variety, with its chunky form and white central "perla" (pearl). Vialone nano and carnaroli types can be found intermittently, as well. The former is smaller—and therefore cooks a bit more quickly—and has a larger white area. Carnaroli is slightly elongated, translucent and more delicate and consistent in texture.

Spanish rice for paella absorbs juices evenly and has a lighter texture than the Italian rice, while maintaing an al dente feel. Dominick Cerrone, chef/co-owner of Solera in New York City, says that in spain there are two rice types, bomba and grana, which are grown in the Valencia region, renowned for its paellas. The latter, a delicate, petite rice, is now sold in the U.S.

Short-grain or pearl white rice, grown chiefly in California, looks conspicuously different than the types described thus far: The Kernels are noticeably smaller, more oval, and shiny. Cooked, the puff to full, fat resilient grains that are both separate and slightly sticky. For a more traditional, softer texture, wash and soak the grains before cooking. Short-grain requires considerably less water for preparation than long-grain.

Brown rice is white rice before the bran and germ are removed. These nutritious layers, which lend an earthy flavor and solidity, also require longer cooking. Some brown rice varieties are lightly milled to remove a portion of the bran and germ, resulting in a drier, fluffier texture.

Long-grain brown rice, long associated with "health foodies," is taking on a broader role, making an appearance in supermarkets nationwide. It is always quite firm and takes some experimenting and careful attention to achieve an even texture, because it turns mushy with overcooking, like beans. If you like a light, fluffy consistency, toast the grain in a heavy pan and stir constantly, until the coat cracks, then add to boiling water and cook as usual.

Converted long-grain brown rice and precooked brown rice, similar to their white counterparts, are sold under the same band names.

Medium-grain and short-grain brown rice are unexpectedly similar in their branny-nutty flavor. Both have an even texture and a slightly chewy bite. When properly cooked, the kernels are well-defined, with a lightly sticky surface. Cooked, they keep and reheat well.

Also called sweet rice, this group is entirely different from those preceding it. It becomes extremely sticky when cooked, whether it is brown, white or black, long-grained or short, aromatic or not. Used almost exclusively in Asian cuisine, it is generally a dessert dish (hence, sweet rice).

With a few exceptions, sticky rice is best prepared this way: Rinse well, agitating until the water runs clear. Soak when convenient, a few hours to a day or so. Spread in a thin layer and steam. Toss occasionally, until tender to taste (sample often). Timing varies from 15 to 45 minutes, depending on how long the rice was soaked.

Sweet rice, sticky rice, waxy rice, or mochi-gome is distinctively bright-white, opaque, oval, small and one of those love-it-or-leave-it foods. The grains become bouncy and full when cooked, like tiny translucent jelly beans, although they are not sweet, despite the "sweet rice" moniker. The texture lends itself naturally to molding, whether for croquettes, balls to be immersed in syrup or timbales. In Japan and China, this rice is traditionally used in stuffings or is pounded into paste to make desserts. In many parts of Asia, sweet rice is often cooked in coconut milk and accompanied by fresh fruit, for dessert, but may also serve as a main dish.

In its brown form this rice requires additional soaking and cooking time. The cooked grains are more separate and less sticky than the white, and have a warm, cereal flavor, a pronounced chewiness and a waxy shine.

Thai sweet rice or thai sticky rice is a long-grained white rice favored by Thais, which has just recently come into American markets and is usually sold in bulk. Like the shorter-grained sweet rice above, it is also starkly white, but is not translucent. It has a narrow, long, delicate shape and exudes a light fragrance when cooked, which it does comparatively quickly, losing its distinctive springiness if overcooked.

Long-grain black rice or black sweet rice is a grain unto itself—dark, glutinous, long-grain and automatic all at once. The heavy, black-to-umber kernels become almost blackberry purple when cooked and exude a scent that is earthy, leafy and fruity. Usually simmered to a sticky-thick indigo pudding, sweetened with palm sugar, and topped with coconut milk and fruit, the rice is served as a dessert in parts of Asia.

Ignoring tradition, I find that long-grain black rice also responds beautifully to soaking and steaming. Prepared this way, it develops a wild rice nuttiness and a delightful caviar-ish resilience outside, and a tenderness within.

Although an ancient staple in Asia, scented rice is a fairly new to the American repertoire. Despite many confusing association (claims of pecan and jasmine flavor among them), I find all scented rice to be similar in aroma, if not in intensity: a blend of popcorn, cuts and hay.

Basmati, the real stuff, is not grown in this country, but is imported from India and Pakistan. Elegant in form, consistency, aroma, and flavor, it is easily distinguished from its American basmati-like siblings by the slender, curving, very white grains that elongate when cooked, rather than becoming plumper. While there are many traditional ways to prepare basmati, it can also be cooked as a long-grain, using less water and a shorter cooking time.

Thai jasmine or Thai fragrant rice describes a group of aromatic rice varieties, not a single brand or the scent which no one who has ever cooked the rice would construe as jasmine. The perfume is similar to, though usually less pronounced than, most fragrant rice. Although the raw rice resembles standard long-grain rice, it does not cook up to that flakiness, but rather becomes soft, moist and a bit sticky.

American basmati-type, "basmati" or aromatic rice is represented by many brands which derive from a strain that came to this country from Indochina via France at the beginning of the century. The majority cooks to a dry fluffy texture with separate grains, in the manner of white long-grain. The rice may be brown (incorrectly called brown basmati) or may retain part of the bran. Varieties grown in the U.S are genetically similar to each other, but flavor and scent are influenced by soil, climate and the manner in which the rice is milled, American jasmine types, just recently put on the market, are softer, moister, less aromatic and shorter-grained than the imported rice. They may be white or brown.

Lundberg Wehani Naturally Aromatic Brown Rice, although a brand name, is also a distinct variety that this productive and creative family selected and developed at its California farm. The unusually thick, firm, brick-eyed grains, which are almost as sturdy as wheat kernels, have a sweetly smoky and earthy aroma and a chewy, satisfying bite, definitely on the solid side, which suggests a hearty wild rice.

Wild rice is now available in two forms: cultivated wild and wild wild. For the most part, the cultivated grain comes from California, while the wild hails from lakes in Minnesota and Canada. Unlike other foods raised for mass production, this one has not been genetically altered. "What grows wild is the same plant that is cultivated," explains John Hasbrook of the Wild Rice Association, "but the true wild will be plumper and larger, because those kernels are less likely to break during the harvesting, which is done in boats." The farming yield explains why the grain has become an affordable menu item in recent years: "In a very good year, you'll get about 500 to 800 pounds per acre of the Wild Minnesota rice, while the cultivated rice comes in at 1,299 to 1,500 pounds per acre, " says Hasbrook.

Wild and cultivated comparisons are less meaningful than other factors when quality is evaluated. Golnar Emam, product manager of The Wild Rice Exchange, says that excellence is best gauged by thickness and color: "Thinner and greener kernels will be immature, with underdeveloped flavor. A deep color indicate mature, well-cure grain." Figure cooking time by the width of the wild rice along with white, choose a thinner kernel, which takes about 25 minutes to cook. To cook with brown rice, or alone, look for a plumper grain, that will take closer to 45 minutes cooking time."

Romy Dorotan, former chef at Sofi in New York City, was born in the Philippines "in a rice-growing area, where they grew at least 1,000 varieties," he says. He laments western habit of hybridization that eliminates small-scale crops. "Most were served nutty, cooked with bran, every day."

Dorotan is fond of glutinous brown rice ("Be particular careful when cleaning this," he warns "because it is difficult to see insects on black."), which he introduced to Huberts and Sofi. "Bryan Miller [restaurant critic for The New York Times] said it tasted like unflavored oatmeal," Dorotan explains, "but the customers seemed to like the earthy flavor and sticky texture. It was one of the best sellers at those restaurants. I scooped the cooked rice into oiled timbales, unmolded and served with grilled tuna and a sauce of Chinese red berries."

Dominick Cerron, chef/co-owner of Solera in New York City, prepares vegetable paella this way: He sautés the small Spanish rice kernels in a sofrito to color, adds boiling (important) vegetable stock (twice the volume of the rice) boils 30 min seconds, lowers the heat and cooks "until the heads of the rice stick up and the grains are tender on the outside but have a hard core." While the rice cooks, he progressively adds cooked chickpeas, blanched artichoke hearts, asparagus tips, carrots, sugar snaps, peas and pimiento, "placing them gently on the rice, so they just settle in." Five minutes off the heat completes the absorption of liquid; herbs and oil finish the dish.

Deborah Madison, author of The Savory Way (Bantam Books, NY, 1990) and co-chef/co-owner of Café Escalera in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a longtime fan of Lundberg short grain brown rice "just plain, or with butter. There is something very clean, satisfying and uncomplicated about it. I remember cooking it at the zen center in San Francisco and being surprised that it was not heavy as I expected it to be. It makes luscious rice pudding, too—not too nutty or earthy."

Caught with a too-stiff risotto at a large party, Madison molded the chive- and saffron -scented cooked rice in ramekins, turned them out onto parchment, dusted with Parmesan, then heated it on a steam table; the timbales were surrounded by a ragoût of leeks, fava beans, asparagus, artichoke hearts, turnips and carrots tossed in herb butter.

Her wild-rice salad incorporate asparagus and toasted sesame seeds in a dressing of orange juice and zest, balsamic vinegar and soy, ginger, garlic, scallion, cilantro and light and dark sesame oils. Squares of Chinese cabbage encircle the rice.

Bruce Cost, chef/partner of Monsoon in San Francisco, has strong opinions about rice: "Long-grain grown in California taste like instant rice, but the shorter-grain Japanese-style is full and flavorful. They grow good long-grain in Texas. It has a bite and it separates." When choosing Thai jasmine rice, he advises: "Check for unbroken fat kernels. There's a very wide range of quality."As do most chefs who rely on rice, Cost prefers a rice cooker: "I don't like gadgets, but a rice cooker is the one appliance that works. I like National brand, a Japanese cooker, but I don't pay attention to the calibrations."

Mahin Motamed, who describes herself as "a Persian culinary advocate," explains that basmati rice must be soaked in heavily salted water before cooking, which "firms it up for long cooking, preventing breakage of the fragile grains." She recommends reheating the cooked rice in a microwave, which treats it most gently.

Julie Sahni, cookbook author and restaurant consultant, says of basmati rice "You can duplicate it by growing outside its natural habitat. Like the truffle, it absorbs the flavors of the water and land. We revere it for its unique aroma, which concentrates with age. I have rice 35 year old, which has turned a light mustard color and smells wonderful." She advises to "watch out for discounted rice, because when it comes to basmati, 'on sale' means 'no good.' Choose long, thick grains that are thin and sleek at the tip for the best flavor." Sahni uses basmati for everything but risotto, finding it the most versatile all purpose rice.