People have been asking me lately about grains, and whether or not I eat them. Then there is an awkward silence. Am I going to be judged as a ‘so 6 months ago foodie’ by one of these uber-superfoodie fashionistas? I have to be honest, I find those folks a little scary.
The answer to the grain question is yes, but not a lot of processed ones. Did I pass? Ok, I know all of the paleo population are not happy with my answer but hey, basically I eat what feels right for me. Sorry!
Rice is my favourite grain and this is because it sits well with me. There is no bloating after eating rice, which is pretty lucky considering I love risotto, fried rice, congee, kitchari, sushi, kedgeree, rice porridge, rice pudding – need I go on? I have spent many years studying macrobiotic cooking and Ayurvedic cooking and in both of these traditions rice is used as a soothing, easily digested food. Comforting bowls of congee are served to the sick in Japan and simple plates of kitchari are offered in India to soothe a dodgy tummy. Over the years these have become my go to meals when I am feeling a little poorly.
Seeing as I am intrigued by all things healthy I thought I might take a closer look at rice. After hours of research I discovered there are hundreds of varieties of rice in lots of different colours and sizes – even a variety developed for people with Diabetes called Doongara. Sri Lanka’s staple is a broken red rice. The Japanese are rice connoisseurs who prefer short plump starchy rice. The Italians go weak at the knees for risotto rice. The Spanish must have their paella rice. Thailand literally worship their jasmine and India would come to a stand still without its beloved Basmati.
If you want to keep it really simple, there are two types – long grain and short grain. Long grain, as the name implies is a long skinny grain, that cooks quickly and leaves you with separate grains (well it should do if you cook it properly- see below). Whereas short grain rice is plump with a high starch content which means it usually takes longer to cook and is much thirstier than Mr. Long and Skinny. Mr Short and Fatty likes to be stirred and nurtured during cooking whereas mr long and skinny prefers to be left to his own devices.
Did you know that if you cook long grain rice by the absorption method (as they do in most of Asia) it retains more nutrients than if you boil it then discard the cooking water? For those of you asking what is the absorption method, you simply boil rice until small tunnels appear in the rice. Then you lower the heat, cover and leave the rice enough time to absorb the remaining liquid. Sound simple? It is. Cooking rice this way gives you fluffy, separate grains that have no sign of stodginess. This is because the grain has been left intact; when you boil long grain rice and make the mistake of stirring it, the grain splits and the starch escapes into the cooking water creating an icky sticky starchy mess. Yuck!
If you want to make perfect long grain rice every time using the absorption method, I suggest you duck out and buy yourself a rice cooker. It is one appliance I would not be without in my kitchen. The day I discovered that I could cook brown rice in a rice cooker was the day I waved goodbye to endless hours of scrubbing burnt pans. White rice usually take about 15 minutes to cook in a rice cooker and brown rice around 25 minutes, the same as if you cook it on top of the stove. I have recently started adding black quinoa to my brown rice to make it a little more interesting and nutritional. I prefer to eat brown rice over white as I love the nutty flavour and firmer texture. Brown rice can be folded through salads, tossed in a wok with a rainbow of vegetables for a fab fried rice, or added to some mashed starchy vegetables with some toasted seeds to make awesome veg patties. Or if you are feeling lazy as I often am on these hot Aussie summer days, I just opt to make sushi with my new brown rice quinoa combo.
Remember brown rice needs more water than white rice to cook its firm grain. As a rule of thumb, 1 cup of white rice needs roughly 1 ⅓ – 2 cups water (check the packet to be sure, different types and brands can vary) and 1 cup of brown rice uses 2 – 3 ½ cups of water (I never measure my white rice though). I put my rice into the rice cooker or the saucepan, then add enough water to come up to the first joint on my index finger when the finger is resting on top of the rice, then I turn on my rice cooker and walk away. 15 minutes later I return to perfect rice, every time.
If you are one of those impatient folk who believes rice takes too long to cook, then there are plenty of quick cook varieties available these days. Jamie’s Grilled steak ratatouille and saffron rice suggests using a 10 minute wholegrain or basmati rice to make a delicious side. The wholegrain rice option will always be healthier as it has more fibre. The beef kofta curry with fluffy rice, beans and peas takes the rice one step further, adding some green beans and peas and making the fluffy rice a really nutritious accompaniment to the meal.
This brings me to my next point: adding ingredients to rice. One of the benefits of adding quinoa to rice or putting dhal through basmati, as they do in the kitcharI I spoke about earlier, is that it not only increases the protein and nutrient levels in the meal it also makes it more suitable for people with diabetes as it lowers the GI levels of the dish. Rice combos I like include rice with red lentils, rice with edamame, rice with quinoa, rice with barley (a real fave and perfect for diabetics), rice and mixed roasted seeds, rice with fried onions and sesame seeds, rice with spinach… One of my favourite new Jamie recipes is the Bad Boy BBQ burritos in Save with Jamie which combines rice with spinach and then wraps the rice in burritos with shredded lamb. It is a really clever way of using rice that the whole family will enjoy.
We have spent a lot of time looking at long grain rice so now, lets take a peek over the fence at Mr Short and Fatty. These high-starch pearly numbers are perfect for risotto, paella and creamed rice. There is nothing quite like sitting down to bowl of creamy risotto. Jamie has plenty of risotto recipes on his website and his base recipe for risotto bianco is officially the best I have ever cooked. But – and there is always a but with me – please remember that risotto rice is cooked in butter and oil until wonderfully soft and creamy, then enriched with more butter and plenty of top-quality parmesan cheese. This is a perfect meal to have maybe once a fortnight, but perhaps a little high in calories to be packing away more than that – unless of course you are doing loads of exercise. Having said that, Jamie’s sorrel risotto with crumbled goats cheese and the Asparagus mint & lemon risotto are slightly lower in fat, yet still scrummy so can have appearing on your table more regularly. Dumpy pudding rice makes a gorgeous dessert, but again, proceed with calorific caution. The Sweet vanilla risotto with poached peaches in chocolate is divine but if I was looking to add it to my regular sweety-treat repertoire I would do as they have in the photograph and leave out the dark chocolate. Another rice that is great for the dessert table is glutinous rice, available in black or white. It needs to be soaked first and then can be cooked in water or coconut milk, or steamed in a bamboo steamer. It is amazing topped with tropical fruit and finished with a bit of grated palm sugar and another splash of coconut cream.
Now, if you are wondering “should I continue to eat grains?” you might want to try soaking your rice before cooking it. Soaking makes all grains more digestible as it breaks down some of the trickier proteins and neutralises things called phytates, which inhibit the absorption of other important nutrients like calcium, iron and magnesium, to name a few. To soak your rice, pop one cup of rice into 1 ½ cups water with 2 tablespoons of some type of acid (I use lemon juice as I always have a lemon in my kitchen, but you can also use yoghurt, kefir or vinegar). Soak the rice overnight, then drain and cook as you normally would. Soaking grains is common practice in many countries – perhaps that is why they don’t have the same problems digesting it as we do.
When it comes to storing cooked rice, store it in the fridge for two days – no more. Never leave cooked rice on the kitchen bench for extended periods as rice can harbour bacteria. Its high levels of carbohydrate make it the perfect breeding ground for nasty bugs, so as soon as your cooked rice reaches room temperature, transfer it to an airtight container and pop it in the fridge. If you are not going to use it within a couple of days, then freeze it. You can reheat it in a colander over a pan of simmering water.
Keep uncooked rice in the freezer especially brown rice because it contains a very small amount of fat and will go rancid if left too long on the shelf.
So there you have it; the low-down on rice. The way I see it, rice is the staple grain of over 50% of the world’s population and the rice-eating 50% are probably way healthier than the other 50% who are wondering if they should eat it. No pressure though; do what feels right for you.