Alimentary, My Dear
Heat‑and‑Eat — Rice on the Go
By Tamia Nelson
May 21, 2013
Rice feeds much of the world. And it feeds me, too. At the moment, I have no fewer than six varieties in my home pantry: long‑grain white basmati, long‑grain brown basmati, medium‑grain all‑purpose, short‑grain rose rice, short‑grain Arborio, and wild rice. (Wild rice isn't a true rice, by the way — though the taxonomists tell us it's a "close cousin" of the real thing.) Nor is rice restricted to stay‑at‑home dinners. It also figures regularly in my camp menus. Its mild flavor makes it a good base for stews, chili, and chunky sauces, as well as a versatile side dish. Rice can also be used in carry‑along snacks, either savory or sweet. But don't be deceived by its self‑effacing character. Rice can stand on its own when it has to, taking the starring role in stick‑to‑your‑ribs meals like risotto or pilaf. It's at its best when heading an able ensemble cast, however. I've auditioned nuts, fruits, vegetables, eggs, cheeses, and meat for these supporting roles, and they've all won rave reviews.
None of this would matter if rice weren't a good traveler, though. Luckily, it is. If you pack it in doubled freezer bags and keep it dry, it won't spoil, even on extended expeditions. And a little goes a long way: When used in a main dish, one cup of dry rice will be enough to satisfy two hungry paddlers. As a side dish, the same amount will feed four.
But rice also has its problems. While a much‑ballyhooed analysis purporting to show grossly elevated levels of lead in rice has now been "cast into doubt," concerns remain about arsenic. That being the case, what's a cautious paddler to do? I vary my diet and hope for the best. Others will decide to eschew rice altogether — and then wait anxiously to learn what poisons lurk in other staple foods. A more or less constant stream of bad news on this score is inevitable. There are tens of millions of new mouths to feed in the world every year, and nobody's making more land. Which means that intensive industrial agriculture is increasingly the norm. Moreover, ours is now a global food economy. The task of inspecting the resulting flood tide of industrial eatables as it surges around the world is daunting. Yet with very few exceptions, the appetite for government regulation in all areas of life is on the wane. You don't need to be a weatherman to see which way this wind is blowing.
Such Big Issues aside, rice has two other, lesser drawbacks. It takes a long time to cook from scratch: between 15 minutes and one hour. And it needs constant attention. It's often been said that a watched pot never boils, but it would be far more accurate to say that an unwatched rice pot always boils over. No camp cook is going to rejoice at the need for constant vigilance, nor will he welcome an hour‑long stint of KP at the end of a hard day. There are plenty of quick‑cooking varieties of rice, of course, and I occasionally make use of easy‑to‑prepare rice and sauce mixes like Knorr Rice Sides. I don't find them particularly tasty, however, and so‑called instant rice falls short in both nutrition and texture. The flavor leaves much to be desired, too.
The upshot? In the past, when I've wanted rice in camp, I've usually cooked it from scratch. But that may now be about to change. There's a new kid on the block:
The name says it all, though as far as I can tell, it's not widely used. In fact, it may be my own coinage. In any event, it's a handy label for shelf‑stable packets of precooked rice that you can simply heat and eat. (If you're in a real hurry, you can even eat it straight out of the bag, dispensing with the heating part.) For a newish product, there are already quite a few examples on store shelves, and a quick search online reveals many more. I found three brands locally: Uncle Ben's, Minute Rice, and Great Value (the Walmart store brand). Until quite recently, I didn't even know they existed. I stumbled on them when shopping for bulk rice to replenish my home larder. But I immediately realized their potential value to hungry paddlers, so I threw a few packs into my cart. Here they are:
In the back row are three varieties of Uncle Ben's Ready Rice: Roasted Chicken Flavored (with carrots and herbs), Chicken Flavored Whole Grain Medley (brown rice, rye, and red rice with chicken and herb flavored seasoning), and Long Grain and Wild Rice (with 23 [count them!] herbs and seasonings). The fourth packet is Great Value Heat & Serve Whole Grain Brown Rice. It's sold as‑is, without embellishment. And then, front and center, there's an old friend in new clothes: Minute Rice Ready to Serve! Multi‑Grain Medley (brown rice, wheat, quinoa, rye, barley, and oats).
As you can see, the Minute Rice Medley comes in covered plastic cups, not packets. This isn't the ideal form for long‑term stowage in a food pack, but it wouldn't be much of an encumbrance on a weekend jaunt or amphibious trek. And Minute Rice can be found in many rural convenience stores. That's a big plus if you're reprovisioning on the move. Still, I prefer packets to cups, and Uncle Ben's even gives you a sneak peak at the contents. Just upend the packet and look through the hidden window:
That's not exactly a deal‑maker, though, is it? But these handy packets — with or without peekaboo panels — do have a lot to offer paddlers. Here are a few of their obvious advantages:
- They don't take long to prepare (a couple of minutes at most), and …
- You can eat them right out of the packet, if the need arises.
- They're versatile starting points for a variety of quick main dishes.
- They have better flavor and texture than parboiled ("instant") rice.
Don't be put off by the package instructions. The writers mostly assume you'll be heating your meal in a microwave. But I've yet to meet a paddler who brings a microwave oven into the backcountry. You don't often find current bushes in riverside camps, after all. So I just heat the contents of the packets in a skillet or pot, over a low flame. (It pays to add a little water or broth to prevent sticking.)
OK. Heat‑and‑eat rice is easy to prepare, and that's good. But how does it hold up under closer scrutiny? To answer this question, let's head into the Test Kitchen, where we can …
Heat, Eat, and Evaluate
In keeping with the products' principal selling point, I'll make this quick. The packets I sampled didn't disappoint. Flavor and texture scored high, and the nutrition labeling didn't hold any unpleasant surprises, though there's a lot of salt in most typical servings. There were two happy exceptions: the Minute Rice had a relatively modest amount of salt, and the Great Value Brown Rice contained no salt at all. That said, the high salt content of the others probably wouldn't be unwelcome after a sweaty day. If you're on a low‑salt diet, however, or if you just don't like lashings of salt in your food, you'll need to look closely at the labels before you buy.
Now let's take one sample for an extended test drive, so to speak. A cup of Minute Rice Ready to Serve! Multi‑Grain Medley is on the left in the photo below, …
And some echt long‑grain brown basmati rice that I cooked up earlier and stored in the fridge is on the right. The Minute Rice is darker, probably because of the additional grains. Eaten cold, straight from the sturdy cup, it has a pleasantly nutty flavor, and while I'd have preferred it to be less salty, the salt doesn't overwhelm. I'd have been happy to heat the rest up, then and there, and finish it off. But I had a better idea. Why not combine it with the cooked brown basmati rice in a Speedy Egg and Rice Sauté? Why not, indeed. So I did. And so can you. Just follow the recipe below. (In camp you won't have leftover basmati to stretch the ingredients, of course. Use a second cup of Minute Rice — or an equivalent amount of some other heat‑and‑eat rice — instead.)
Speedy Egg and Rice Sauté
How many does it serve? Two, if they're hungry. (What paddler isn't?) And if there are more than two of you, just double or triple the amounts shown.
- Extra‑virgin olive oil
- 2 green onions, sliced thin, OR a small yellow onion, diced fine
- 1 clove of garlic, minced
- 2 fresh eggs (or reconstituted dried eggs, if that's all you have)
- 1 8.8‑ounce packet of Ready Rice or equivalent (e.g., two cups of Minute Rice Ready to Serve!)
- Salt and pepper (optional)
Be warned: You'll have to work fast. So you'll need a place to marshall your tools and ingredients within easy reach of stove or fire. You'll also need a covered skillet or a pot that's big enough to hold the rice and vegetables. I prefer a skillet, and if it has a nonstick coating, so much the better. It reduces the likelihood that you'll burn the eggs or rice.
Begin by squeezing the packet of rice gently to break up any clumps. Open it and set it to one side. Whisk the eggs in a cup, using a fork or … wait for it … a small whisk. Set the whisked egg aside, next to the rice. Drizzle olive oil into your skillet (or pot) and place it over a medium‑high flame. Sauté the onion and garlic for a minute or so, until both are soft and fragrant. (Do not let them brown or, worse yet, burn.) Now pour the whisked egg into the pan and heat it until it starts to set, folding the eggy mass over to ensure that all parts are thoroughly cooked. (Do not overcook!) Add the rice and stir. Add a little more oil, too, if needed to prevent sticking. Then throttle your stove back as far as you can and cover the skillet, allowing the rice‑egg mix to warm through. A minute or two will be long enough. Season to taste and serve.
Simple, wasn't it? Not to mention fast. Speedy Egg and Rice Sauté lives up to its name. And it's just one of the many things you can do with heat‑and‑eat rice. For example, you can adapt my Egg and Couscous Sauté With Lime and Chicken recipe, replacing the couscous with rice. Or you can just heat the rice and eat it, all by itself. However you choose to use it, you won't have to wait half an hour or more for it to cook. That's the beauty of heat‑and‑eat rice.
Rice has a place in backcountry menus. But regular rice takes a long time to cook, and "instant" rice just doesn't measure up. Now, however, there's a third alternative: precooked heat‑and‑eat rice. It's rice in a hurry for paddlers on the go. What's not to like about that?