Camp Rice: Using The Chameleon Grain

Rice takes on the flavor of whatever you add to it, so no wonder it's such a tasty, versatile trail food.
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Rice takes on the flavor of whatever you add to it, so no wonder it's such a tasty, versatile trail food.

Munch on this mindbender: What backpacking food is red and spicy, creamy and cheesy, and even sweet, crunchy, and fruity? Give up? Rice, of course, that amazing chameleonlike grain that adopts the flavor and consistency of whatever tumbles with it in the pot. Simply add some grated tomato powder and red pepper

one day, cheese the next day, and brown sugar and dried berries on day three and you have enough variety to keep your taste buds blissfully happy.

"Rice is versatile enough to be a staple food for Asians, Hispanics, and Africans all around the world-a full two-thirds of the world's people," says Amy Maxwell, of the USA Rice Federation, an industry association located in Houston. Plus, it's lightweight, durable, and nutritious-all qualities enticing to any backcountry traveler.

Small Grain, Big Nutrition
The tiny grains have all the good nutritional stuff you need out on the trail: complex carbohydrates, essential amino acids, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, phosphorus, iron, potassium...the list goes on. But there's none of the bad stuff; rice is not only cholesterol-free and sodium-free, but it has only trace amounts of fat. It's also nonallergenic and gluten-free. Most important is that it's easy on the digestive system-so you can keep your dinner down at high altitude-and wallet, costing only about $.05 per serving.

Botanists have identified more than 40,000 varieties of this healthy grain. Backpackers need concern themselves only with one easy-to-find, fast-cooking type of rice: instant, which is actually precooked rice that has been dehydrated (see "The Instant Rice Taste Test" on page 41). The dried granules revive in boiling water within 10 minutes. To save fuel, you can rehydrate instant rice by soaking it in tepid water for about 30 minutes.

"Instant rice is almost as nutritious as raw rice," says the Rice Federation's Maxwell. "Brown rice provides slightly more fiber, vitamin E, phosphorus, and calcium, but enriched white rice packs more thiamin and iron."

If you'd rather go fresh-off-the-stalk, reach for varieties that cook in 25 minutes or less: long-, medium-, and short-grain white rice, jasmine, or basmati. Long- and medium-grain rice cook up light and fluffy, while short-grain rice comes out stickier and clumps together. Jasmine and basmati are considered aromatic rices, so named for their roasted nutty or popcorn smell and taste.

Other varieties, such as brown, sweet, black japonica, Arborio, and Wehani or red rice, are tasty but take 40 minutes or more to cook, so leave them for the dinner table at home. Wild rice, which is technically not a rice but an aquatic grass, also takes ages to cook.

Your local grocer probably stocks several brands of flavored rice, or what I call "rices with spices." Offerings vary from herb-and-butter to mushroom-and-chicken to Spanish rice and fried rice. The taste varies widely, from downright bland to subtle and creamy, to harshly salty. Most have reasonable cooking times of 15 to 25 minutes, but check the directions on the packages before tucking any into your pack. Some require milk, butter, or oil, so be prepared with your backpacker-ready substitutes. Also read the nutrition information. The sodium content of many flavored varieties is 30 to 40 percent of the recommend daily allowance. Plus some creamy versions have considerable saturated fat.

To better tailor the dish to your taste and to control the

nutrition, add a pinch of this or that to plain instant rice. For example:

  • Your favorite instant soup cooked with rice makes a tasty side dish.
  • For an easy, cheesy rice, add Butter Buds and grated parmesan cheese to hot, cooked rice.
  • Try rehydrated peas and chopped mint for a green rice.
  • The juice or zest of a lemon or orange, along with a dash of olive oil, makes for a tangy, fruity rice.
  • Cinnamon, sugar, and coconut flakes turn leftover rice into a satisfying dessert or next day's breakfast, if kept cool overnight.