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All Rice Considered – US Food Trends

25 May 2007
All Rice Considered – US Food Trends

With creative applications, there's no need to keep this popular grain from the center of the plate.

This article first appeared in the 15 April 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).

R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I,visit its website here >>

By Kate Leahy, Associate Editor

"When harvested, it's infused with bamboo juice," she explains, making the jade-hued grain distinctively aromatic.

Wallack's experiments with unusual rice stretch from Thai purple sticky rice to more common jasmine, sushi and arborio varieties. Within traditional preparations such as risotto, she's found room to experiment, sweating arborio grains in ginger and shallots for the base of sweet-and-sour roasted-pineapple-and-rosemary risotto that complements pork chops.

Though bamboo rice and pineapple-flecked risotto have yet to land on mainstream menus, Wallack is not alone in her grain innovations. Restaurants find that rice needn't play second fiddle to proteins and other starches, a concept long accepted by chefs from Asia, where rice has always been an important protein component of a dish. In nonethnic kitchens, however, rice can be a shy sidekick to a heavy sauce, though this, too, is changing in capable hands.

"For many restaurants, rice is not a main ingredient, it's a medium. I want to make it exciting for people," says Tammy Huynh, executive chef and co-owner of Bong Su, an upscale Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco. "It's not, 'I want to eat this with rice.' I want them to say, 'I want to eat rice.'"

No matter the exotic grain or preparation, creativity takes a secondary role to cooking fundamentals.

"There are only two ingredients when preparing rice," says Mark Ainsworth, professor at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y. "Every time you have a recipe with two ingredients, they have to be perfect. That's what makes rice inherently difficult to cook."

Innovative rice preparations read well on menus. Brian Pekarcik, executive chef of Arterra in the San Diego Marriott Del Mar hotel, cooks and cools basmati rice the night before. For service, he sautés rice to order in duck fat, ginger, garlic and green onions for a tempura prawn dish with marinated and grilled white elf mushrooms. Duck fat fries well and has a subtle, savory flavor, Pekarcik explains. And, "for foodies, it's a selling point."

Huynh's Empress Rice lives up to its imperial name. She uses cooked short-grain Japanese sticky rice sautéed with garlic, leeks and ginger that is seasoned with soy sauce, rice-wine vinegar and sugar before being formed into balls and crowned with fried quail eggs.

At Royale in Los Angeles, Executive Chef Eric Ernest uses rice to gain points for presentation with seared tuna. He toasts Chinese black rice in ginger and garlic, covers the grain with an inch of vegetable stock and bakes it in a 325F oven for 25 to 35 minutes; it then is cooled and stored for service. To order, Ernest reheats 3 ounces of the rice in butter and vegetable stock to accompany seared rare tuna, tomato emulsion, beet emulsion and a Dungeness crab salad with tomato, avocado, lime and fleur de sel.

"The rice is dry and sweet. It's a complementary flavor to the tuna," he says, acknowledging that the dish is one of Royale's best sellers.

Executive Chef Mauro Golmarvi asserts that risotto rice should struggle as it cooks. At Assaggio Ristorante in Seattle, he coaches line cooks to add stock very slowly. "The reason is, risotto has to fight," he says, to ensure a creamy finish. He par-cooks rice before service with vegetable stock or water to ensure that risotto can be prepared for vegetarians on request.

Plenty of room remains for adding rice dishes to menus especially when chefs are looking to accommodate vegetarians, vegans and diners with wheat allergies and gluten intolerances. If promoted correctly, rice pilaf with legumes and other grains can be sold as healthful, complete protein sources for vegetarians and the health-conscious alike, something especially valuable in college and corporate dining.

"From a nutritional standpoint, think about including grains such as quinoa. Including quinoa in a rice pilaf is a great way to serve your guests protein and help them get fiber," Ainsworth suggests. "But you should market it in terms of a complete protein."

Rice and Cozy

It's not quite accurate that everyone loves rice pudding. But enough people do that New York City can support a restaurant concept that serves nothing but the comfort classic.

Rice to Riches boasts 21 flavors of rice pudding at any one time, with fanciful names such as Take Me to Tiramisu and Perfectly Legal Pecan Pie. In scope and feel it resembles an Italian gelateria.

"Rice pudding can be very boring if it's just vanilla," says Operations Manager Ana Gallo. "We have the ability to do more flavors."

In Philadelphia, Executive Pastry Chef Chad Durkin of Water Works Restaurant and Lounge also knows how to stretch the boundaries of sweetened rice. He disguises candied orange-flecked pudding in a phyllo parcel that is deep fried. He then tops the crunchy package with walnut genoise and citrus mousse.

"I put the rice pudding parcel underneath because it's almost a surprise. It's hidden and unexpected," Durkin says. The dessert is doing the near-impossible: outselling Durkin's chocolate truffle cake.

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