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Rice primer with bonus pudding recipe

Julie Falsetti
For The York Dispatch

I’m not sure how I feel about reincarnation, but sometimes I wonder if I had a former life someplace in Asia. I eat a lot of rice. The average American consumes 18 pounds of rice per year, but I am sure I eat twice that amount.

Of course, I am nowhere near the 300 pounds that Asians consume. However, like all of my Asian friends, I own a rice cooker.

Although the first cultivation and use of rice is lost to antiquity, it is thought to be native to the valleys of the great Asian rivers. In 2800 B.C., a Chinese emperor wrote a ceremonial ordinance for rice planting. Rice arrived in Europe in medieval times via Arab traders.

It was a twist of fate that brought rice to the Americas. Three hundred years ago, a storm-battered ship limped into the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor for refuge and repairs. In gratitude for the help he received, the captain bestowed a quantity of “Golde Seede Rice” to a local planter. From this seed, and the planting knowledge of slaves from rice growing regions of West Africa, rice production began in the United States.

Types of rice: Although more than 40,000 varieties of rice exist, they can be categorized into five basic types — long, medium, short, waxy and aromatic. The primary differences in the first three are their size and cooking characteristics. Waxy, or sticky, rice has a higher starch content than other rice.

The aromatic varieties of rice are so named because of their distinct smell and taste. While the rice is cooking, the aroma is similar to that of roasted popcorn, and the flavor can be described as nutty. The most popular varieties are basmati and jasmine.

The above varieties of rice can appear on supermarket shelves in different forms.

By popularity: White rice is the most popular. In this form, the inedible husk is removed, and the layers of bran are milled until the grain is white. To replace what was given by nature, the rice is fortified with iron, niacin and thiamin.

Parboiled rice (think Uncle Ben’s) is the second most popular form sold in the United States. The rice is put through a steam pressure process before milling. The grain is then soaked, steamed, dried and then milled to remove the outer hull. This process is used to harden the grain, thus producing a more separate and fluffy rice.

In third place is instant rice or Minute Rice. In this form, rice is milled, completely cooked and then dried. The vast amount of processing involved results in a rice practically devoid of taste.

In a distant fourth place is brown rice, the least processed form. It has the outer hull removed but still retains the bran layers. Brown rice has more protein, vitamins and fiber than enriched white rice. Its only drawback is that it takes longer to cook.

No matter which rice you choose, if you follow the package directions, it will cook up perfectly every time.

Below is a recipe for rice pudding. It uses basmati rice and cardamom for flavor. It is an exotic twist on the traditional pudding your grandma made.

Kheer (Indian Rice Pudding)

6 tablespoons basmati rice

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 teaspoon lightly crushed saffron

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

6 cups whole milk

6 tablespoons light brown sugar

1/4 cup slivered almonds

1/4 cup thinly sliced pistachios

Place the rice in a fine strainer, and rinse under running water until water runs clear; drain thoroughly.

Heat the butter in a medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Add the rice, saffron and cardamom. Using a spatula to stir, cook until lightly toasted, about 2 minutes. Add the milk, and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until milk is reduced by about half and the rice is tender, about 1 hour.

Add the brown sugar, almonds and half the pistachios, and cook, stirring, until the sugar dissolves, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl. Garnish with remaining pistachios before serving.

— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section. Reach her with questions and comments at julietrulie11@gmail.com.