Rice is nice. The grain that's come a long way, rice is puffing in popularity

AMERICA'S appetite for rice grew more than two pounds per capita between 1983 and 1985 - and it shows no sign of slowing. The reasons?

A tremendous increase in the number of seasoned rice products in stores - plus the growing popularity in restaurants and the food service industry of rice-based dishes from Asia (mainly China), the Caribbean, and even two American states: Louisiana and Texas.

The 17.4 pounds per person we ate in 1985 may be significant growth for America, but it's puny compared with Asia's rice consumption.

The People's Republic of China, mainly because of its huge population, has the largest total consumption - 272.5 billion pounds a year. But China ranks only third on an annual per capita basis, with 264 pounds, compared with Burma's 513 pounds and Indonesia's 337.

Rice is thought to be indigenous to India, but has been cultivated in China since 2800 BC. From there it spread throughout the world - and into every eating occasion. In the United States, six states grow more than 99 percent of the rice we eat, and Arkansas, nearly one-third.

Besides selling rice at home and abroad, Arkansas farmers have begun giving a lot away to help feed the needy in their state. About 300 Arkansas farmers earmarked part of their crops last year for this purpose, says Charles E. Hammans, a Stuttgart, Ark., grower, and president of the Rice Council for Market Development.

Mr. Hammans says the grain is distributed by the Little Rock-based Arkansas Rice Depot, which gave away about 1.2 million pounds in its first four years. It was distributed through 340 churches, health clinics, and social service agencies in 73 counties.

Last year, 20 percent of the depot's rice came from farmers. The remainder was bought with donations from individuals, churches, and businesses, notes Hammans.

The depot is trying to interest growers in other rice-producing states in establishing similar services, he says.

Food is not the only product of the US rice industry. Two employees of Producers Rice Mill Inc. - the growers', millers', and distributors' cooperative to which Hammans belongs - have developed a system for burning discarded rice hulls to create steam or heat that can be used to generate electricity and dry more rice.

One of my favorite dishes is risotto, an Italian specialty made with Arborio rice, a short grain glutinous (sticky) variety thought to have been introduced from the Far East by Muslim invaders in the 11th century.

Any short, medium, or long grain variety may be substituted. The difference between risottos and other boiled rice dishes is the cooking method. It creates a creamy sauce without cream or milk.

American Risotto 1 tablespoon each of butter and olive oil 1/4 cup of chopped onion 1 cup rice, preferably short grain or medium grain 1 (14 1/2-ounce) can of (uncondensed) chicken broth About 1/2 can of water, more as needed 3 or 4 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese 1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced and precooked in 1 tea spoon of butter in a non stick pan (optional)

Heat butter and oil over medium heat. Add chopped onion and rice, and cook, stirring often, about 5 to 8 minutes. Do not allow onions to brown. Meantime, heat broth and 1/2 cup of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add liquid, about 1/2 cup at a time, to rice mixture, and boil, stirring almost constantly, until liquid has evaporated, before adding more.

Continue to add hot liquid, and stir, for 20 to 25 minutes, until rice is done. Taste a grain: It should be chewy, but with no hard center. Remove from heat, stir in cheese (and mushrooms, if using), and serve at once. Makes about 3 cups, or 6 (1/2 cup) servings.

Leftovers can be shaped into patties and browned lightly in a nonstick skillet, or packed in a shallow layer in a baking dish, sprinkled with more grated cheese, and heated about 20 minutes in a 325- or 350-degree F. oven.

What can you do with leftover cooked brown rice? Make pudding, of course.

Banana Rice Pudding 2 cups cooked brown rice 2 cups milk 1/4 cup sugar 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 small banana

Place rice, milk, sugar, and salt in a 11/2-quart saucepan, and bring to boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low, and simmer 30 to 35 minutes. Stir occasionally, until mixture is thick and creamy. Remove from heat. Stir in vanilla; cool, cover, and refrigerate.

No more than two hours before serving, peel banana, mash it coarsely with a fork, and stir it into pudding. Serve plain or with cream. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

The next recipe, from chef Ali Barker of New York's Union Square Caf'e, has been adapted for home use.

Fried Rice Patties with Salmon Caviar and Sour Cream 1 cup white rice, cooked in chicken broth and cooled 2 tablespoons flour 2 eggs 1/4 cup heavy cream 3 tablespoons fresh chives 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1/4 cup sour cream 2 ounces salmon caviar

Combine rice and flour in a medium bowl. Stir in eggs, one at a time. Add heavy cream, chives, and pepper. Mix well. Refrigerate, covered, overnight. To cook, spoon 2 tablespoons of batter into heated oil in a skillet. Cook over medium heat about 1 minute per side. Remove to paper towels to drain.

To serve, place a dollop of sour cream on each patty and top with caviar. Makes 6 appetizer servings of 3 patties each.

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