No longer a sideliner, rice has been transformed into a main attraction. Low-carb concerns have little affected the use of rice in main dishes, and in a time when the price of proteins such as meats and dairy products are rising, rice helps foodservice operators control costs. Rice is a comfort food, as the first solid foods that most babies eat are rice-based. Its non-allergenic characteristics allow rice to be enjoyed by the masses, and it is a mainstay in many cultures.

There has been more use of rice by foodservice operators as a “center-of-the-plate component because of patron acceptance, and it allows operators to deliver good plate coverage while using smaller amounts of expensive protein. Lower-cost entrées offer patrons the perception of value. It's an Asian way of eating that is healthier,” informs Mike Gordon, a representative of the USA Rice Federation (Arlington, Va.), a trade association.

In quick-service restaurants, the rice bowl product is gaining ground quickly, as the operator can offer a large bowl of food at a very low cost (e.g., Taco Bell's [Yum! Brands, Louisville, Ky.] rice bowl with chicken and a creamy dressing). Rice is the main component in dishes such as jambalaya, seafood and rice, and chicken and rice dishes, where rice is menued with the item. The patron chooses the item with rice already in it, allowing the operator to control cost-per-plate.

Gordon says long-grain, white parboiled rice continues to be a foodservice industry favorite because it holds very well, re-thermalizes well (so as to avoid waste) and travels well. Additionally, “Rice is fitting into a trend we call 'dashboard dining.' Rice in a bowl or rice as a sandwich ingredient in wraps or in handheld foods such as sushi and burritos fits right into the category.” Rice not only helps to add bulk to the item, but also absorbs the flavor of the foods around it, adding to the patron's taste experience.

The Ethnic Side of Rice

Rice also is a part of the growing trend of eating ethnic foods. In cuisines such as Asian, Mexican, Caribbean and Mediterranean, rice is a main component. “Rice is an excellent flavor carrier and, when it is cooked with broth and ethnic herbs and spices, one can transform bland, white rice to carry the flavor of many cuisines. White rice is the palette for painting a lot of different ethnic tastes,” explains Gordon.

Because rice is a part of so many cultures, it is something many back-of-the-house personnel such as cooks and chefs (many whom are ethnics themselves) are familiar with and can cook well; training them to cook rice properly is not difficult. This is important, since training and labor always are issues for foodservice operators.

Chef Mike Artlip, CEC, CCE, chef instructor at Kendall College (Evanston, Ill.), also comments on the grain's popularity in ethnic foods. Recently, he attended the opening of a Chicago restaurant that offers Caribbean-style grilled chicken cuisine in a bowl concept. Rice and beans are used as a base, and then items such as chopped jerked chicken or citrus chicken are added in with vegetables. The rice helps to carry the flavor of the dish, and fills patrons up.

In an ethnic take on rice pudding, the Chinese have a dish called “Eight Treasures,” which is a typical New Year dessert. It consists of sweet, glutinous rice with lotus seeds, red dates, maraschino and dried cherries, dried apricots, candied kumquats and raisins. “It's a different way to present rice, something more substantial than rice pudding,” informs chef Artlip.

Experimenting with Rice

The popularity of white rice may not just lie in its versatility. Perhaps people are not using white rice alternatives because the choices can be intimidating, suggests chef Artlip. “There are so many types of rice that those who have not had the opportunity to work with different grains lack education and fear experimenting on clientele,” he says. He believes the easiest white rices to work with are Jasmine, Basmati, Carolina and Texmati, although operators do use brown rice and wild rice (which is really the seed of a type of grass).

Another variety of rice quickly gaining ground is medium-grain rice, which has a starchier, stickier consistency. Increased usage of medium-grain rice is being driven by sushi, which requires the rice to stick together inside the roll. The rice also is good for rice pudding, which requires the extra starch.

Brown rice is rice as a whole grain, which includes the bran. It appeals to students in colleges and universities, since young adults are more likely to eat whole wheat bread and brown rice, says Gordon. “It's a nuttier, chewier taste, and it's been core to vegetarian diets forever. A significant percent of people who say they are vegetarians are in that age group.”

Rice's many forms have varying grain sizes and different amounts of protein and starch, so chefs must understand how each must be cooked, handled and held. For example, Basmati rice breaks up easily, so it cannot be stirred too much. Rice often is mixed with other items such as legumes and meat juices. “If not cooked and handled properly, the rice will become bacteria-laden and, while it might not smell or taste bad, it could make people sick,” chef Artlip explains. He says proper cooking and holding procedures must be in place to assure there will be no worries.

While there is nothing wrong with white rice, chef Artlip suggests those interested in educating themselves about different types of rice talk to rice suppliers and sellers at local, ethnic markets. “Talk to more than one of them. Bring the rice home and cook with it, learn about it and make mistakes. Anyone can tell you what to expect, but my students learn the most when they are in the lab. They need to see, taste and experience the food. That is how to gain enough experience to know if something is going to work.”

Flaxseed in the No-carb Zone

Flaxseed is in the spotlight because it is a rich source of omega-3 and has a high nutritional content. It comes in golden and dark varieties.

Flaxseed is nearly a 0% carb ingredient, making it especially useful in low-carb versions of breadings. “If you use milled flaxseed as a thickener instead of flour, you are taking net carbs out. We have fast food companies looking at flaxseed to be incorporated into tortillas and hamburger buns, as well as other products,” says Dan Best, marketing director at a flaxseed supplier. While flaxseed is more costly than corn meal, it is less expensive than many other low-carb ingredients (such as dietary fibers and resistant starches). “If you are using flaxseed simply to add omega-3, you don't need a lot, and the cost is minimal. When used to replace carbs, flaxseed's cost is very comparable to other low-carb ingredients,” he says.

Flaxseed withstands the frying process very well and contributes a rich, gold color when golden flaxseed is used. Best reports that a 50% replacement of breadcrumbs with milled flaxseed adds more flavor and color to breading in such applications as battered chicken and vegetables, and mashed potato balls. Operators who make their own tortilla chips are using flaxseed to replace corn flour at 30% to 40% for a richer flavor.

Milled flaxseed mixes very well with ice cream and milk and is used as a thickener in smoothies. A serving of 1.3g of flaxseed per serving is needed to be a rich source of omega-3, which can be promoted to clients interested in health. Experts recommend 260mg of flaxseed daily, to reap its nutritional benefits.

More Than Meets the Rice

Rice, a mainstay on foodservice menus, is ordered by 38% of patrons, reports the USA Rice Federation (USARF). In the past few years, specialty rice such as Jasmine, Arborio, Basmati, Texmati, black, Wehani and sushi rice captured audiences in restaurants across the world, states the USARF.

“In recent years, we have been seeing a shift from the purchase of uncooked, white rice to blended (flavored) mixes and prepared rice-based dishes,” says Don McCaskill, vice president of research at a supplier of rice products.

Rice can fare well on a low-carb menu; it is commonly consumed as an intact grain, which assists the low-glycemic response desired by low-carb dieters, says McCaskill.

In addition to containing higher natural levels of dietary fiber, brown rice imparts several more important vitamins and minerals than milled rice. Rice bran represents an even further concentration of the desirable constituents present in brown rice.

On Mintel International's (Chicago) Global New Products Database, “rice bran” is making appearances in everything from cold cereals, baking mixes and pastas to energy bars and shakes. Stabilized rice bran is about 25% dietary fiber and contributes minor constituents like tocopherol, tocotrienol and gamma-oryzanol, all of which have natural antioxidant activity and have been shown to provide health benefits.

Rice bran oil has no trans-fatty acids and can be substituted for partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. “Frying studies have shown that it has excellent stability at high temperatures,” says McCaskill. “It also provides a pleasant, light, nutlike flavor.”

—Marcia A. Wade, Technical Editor