Sorting out the mystique of brown rice: basically, it's good for you

ATLANTA Nehru jackets, Volkswagen buses and Birkenstocks no longer merit derision. Yet all you have to do is mention the two words "brown rice," and it sounds like you're making an unfunny swipe at the free-love era.

"I call it the 'Dusty Sixties Vegetarian Restaurant Syndrome,'" says Marie Simmons, author of a couple of rice cookbooks who wants to turn more people on to the nutty flavor, chewy texture and myriad nutritional benefits of brown rice.

Simmons makes a convincing case, and not just with her mushroom and brown rice pilaf or her Brown Rice Salad With Two Sesame Flavors. She bakes an intensely rich brown rice and maple syrup pudding, glazing the whole thing with a layer of heavy cream that bubbles and browns in the oven. It's not exactly the kind of dish you expect to see Abbie Hoffman sharing with Wavy Gravy.

And yet it is, surprisingly, not a bad choice for the record numbers of Americans (nearly 12 million and counting) who restrict their dietary carbohydrates. Sure, there are carbs in brown rice, but they take longer for the body to process than those in processed starches like white rice and therefore don't cause the same spike and subsequent crash in blood glucose levels.

Nutritionists increasingly recommend brown rice and other whole grains because they don't leave you hungry soon after eating, the way processed starches do.

Other research shows that the bran layer covering brown rice is rich in compounds that reduce blood cholesterol. Rice bran also contains B-complex vitamins, iron and fiber.

Conclusions: It's good for you, it's good for you, it's good for you.

So, we're ...

... back with the hippies. Whole grains rule, man. Processed foods are death.

For home cooks, the more pressing concerns about bringing brown rice to the table are these:

1. Is there an easy way to prepare this finicky and long-cooking whole grain?

2. Are there flavors that work with brown rice that don't bring to mind the health food excesses of yore?

For both questions, the best person to turn to is Simmons, a woman who has cooked more rice than caterers in Mecca.

''I love brown rice in a rice cooker," says Simmons. ''It takes a lot of that mystery out of the temperature."

But not all of us have rice cookers. When you're cooking on the stovetop, Simmons says, the method depends on the size of the rice. For the long-grain varieties, she suggests cooking on the stovetop in a wide, shallow saucepan, a deep skillet or a saute pan with a tight-fitting lid. Bring each cup of rice to the boil with 2 1/2 to 2 3/4 cups of water, then cover it and cook it over low heat for 45 - 55 minutes.

For medium-grain brown rice, which gets very sticky if you follow the method on the bag, Simmons recommends cooking it in a big pot of boiling water, like pasta, until it reaches the desired consistency, then draining it.

For both kinds of rice, there's also a fun trick method that has been circulating on the Internet. It involves a skillet, an amazing disappearing egg and a baking pan. And it works like magic.

So what do you do with all this brown rice?

''I love to reinforce its nuttiness by adding nuts, like a handful of sunflower seeds or dry-roasted unsalted peanuts," says Simmons. ''I like soy sauce or tamari with it. I like Asian flavors, which are earthy. It seems to be that flavor profile that fits."

Don't let the tamari scare you off. Eat brown rice because it's healthy. But, more important, eat it because it's good.

A few brown rice facts

  • Any popular rice variety, from basmati to short-grain Japanese rice, can be brown. After rice is harvested, the husks are removed, revealing the bran layer beneath. For brown rice, some of the bran is polished off and some is left intact. For white rice, all the bran is polished off and the germ is removed, leaving nothing but the starchy interior, called the endosperm.

  • Brown rice's bran coating contains oils that can turn rancid quickly. People who cook it often look for reputable small-scale producers (such as Lundberg Family Farms) and keep their brown rice in the refrigerator, away from heat and light.

  • Beriberi, a disease caused by a diet deficient in thiamine (vitamin B1), has afflicted traditional rice cultures throughout history. If these people had been eating brown rice instead of white, there would've been no problem, since rice bran is loaded with thiamine. Then again, there's little chance poor people would consider brown rice because of the rancidity/storage problem.

  • Look for a few green grains in the bag to ensure you have the freshest rice. It will taste nuttier and sweeter.

  • Food snobs prefer beautifully polished Japanese rice and fragrant aged basmati to the commonplace and idiot-proof parboiled rice sold by Uncle Ben's and others. But parboiled rice is actually more nutritious. The process involves steam-pressure heating and partially cooking the rice before milling, forcing many of the nutrients from the bran into the endosperm. But nothing is as nutritious as brown rice.

    John Kessler writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail:

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