Rice: A Side Dish Takes Center Stage

EASY PARMESAN “RISOTTO” Ina Garten Barefoot Contessa/Dare To Be Different Food Network Arborio Rice, Chicken Stock, Parmesan Cheese, Dry White Wine, Unsalted Butter, Kosher Salt, Pepper, Frozen Peas

Photo by: Matt Armendariz ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Matt Armendariz, 2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

For most of us here in the United States, rice may not always have seemed like the most-inspiring food: Plain, white, bland, sometimes mushy, the stuff our mothers served us was something we may have eaten with little relish. (Sorry, Mom.)

Recently, however, rice’s rep has been changing. Increasingly, American consumers’ palates are expanding to encompass more sophisticated (and more expensive) varieties — like jasmine, basmati, brown and black rice, wild rice, red rice and other exotic blends . Rice sales are growing, the Wall Street Journal reports , and while white long-grain rice is still preferred by many, “specialty” rice is starting to soak up more of the market.

So what, exactly, is driving this trend toward exotic grains? Factors may include our growing interest in foods that are “authentic” and unusual, as well as our desire to make healthier choices — opting for varieties that are higher in fiber or protein, according to the Journal. Plus, the fact that rice is gluten-free probably isn’t hurting sales, given the current popularity of avoiding the protein found in wheat and many other grains.

Changes in demographics and culinary preferences may also play a role. “Asians and Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the U.S., and both are sophisticated rice-eating cultures,” the Journal notes. “Indian, Mexican, Thai and other cuisines, often rice-based, have become a part of mainstream eating, especially among younger Americans.”

Interested in experimenting with rice, but unsure where to start? Here’s a quick look at some varieties, with links to recipes. You’ll be all over them like white on — oh, never mind:

Long-grain white: The most-common rice found in the United States, this fluffy stuff is probably what most of our mothers made when we were growing up.

Long-grain brown: This whole-grain version includes the bran and germ layers of the rice, which impart a nutty flavor and slightly chewier texture.

Basmati: This extra-long-grain rice, mildly nutty in taste, is associated with Indian and Pakistani cooking.

Jasmine: This fragrant, translucent, long-grain rice, a staple of Thai cuisine, can be soft and somewhat sticky.

Japanese-style rice: Firm and sticky, this is the medium-grain rice used for sushi and other Japanese dishes.

Bomba: The Spanish favor this medium-grain rice, known for its ability to absorb water without getting mushy, for paella.

Arborio: This short-grain Italian rice is often used to make risotto, because it is high in amylopectin, the sticky starch that gives it its creamy consistency.

Try: Easy Parmesan "Risotto" (pictured above)

Wehani: This long-grain, aromatic, reddish rice was developed from an Indian Basmati seed and has a distinctly nutty flavor.

Himalayan Red: This long-grain, complexly flavorful rice, imported from India, features a layer of reddish bran.

Colusari Red: This burgundy-colored rice was naturally developed and is grown here in the United States.

Purple Thai: This slightly sweet rice is suitable for desserts and savory dishes.

Chinese Black: This medium-grain rice is black bran on the outside, white within, but it looks deep purple when cooked.

Wild rice: Not a grain, but a seed, wild rice – nutty, chewy and purplish — is often blended with brown rice for stuffing and pilaf.

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