Dust off the rice cooker and improve your diet

Sweet Thai sticky rice with coconut milk, fragrant Indian basmati rice pilaf, glistening sushi rice and creamy Italian parmesan risotto – rice elevated from dull to delicious with some seasoning and respect. By respect, I mean the methods of preparing and cooking. In many cultures with strong affections for rice, an electric rice cooker has replaced the stovetop as the cooking method of choice.

Several types of rice cookers can be found in most kitchen equipment stores. A simple rice cooker consists of a nonstick metal pot inside a plastic or metal exterior casing with a heat source on the bottom and a tightly fitted lid on the top. Similarly constructed models may have a steamer rack that sits above the pot bottom for steaming sticky rice, dumplings, vegetables or meats. These two types may have a single on/off switch or they may have an additional warming cycle that will keep food warm and ready to eat for a couple of hours.

The other main type has a more sophisticated, programmable heating system for different types of grain and desired texture. They generally have a higher cost and lack the flexibility provided by the steamer basket. While non-stick Teflon pots are most common, some rice cookers may have ceramic lined pots or have a stainless steel or clay pot. For the maximum cooking options a basic model with a steamer basket and on/off/warmer functions works best.

Using a rice cooker has some notable advantages, not least of which is the perfectly cooked rice, nearly every time. Versatility can be added to the list – with a few adjustments other healthy whole grains, dried peas and lentils and hot cereals can be placed in the rice cooker and left to cook just like rice.

A rice cooker can also be used to complete the meal with accompaniments, steamed vegetables and even the main course with the all the culinary convenience of a slow cooker. Because the cooking medium is steam or boiling water, very little fat is necessary to produce moist, flavorful dishes. In many cases, use of the rice cooker may be more energy efficient than cooking on the stovetop or in the oven. The low temperature and automatic shut-off means little to no risk of burning your food. This can be the perfect appliance for small kitchens or limited stove top capacity.

Hmm. Efficient, convenient, foolproof and nutritious? Remember the rice cooker you stashed in a closet with other infrequently used kitchen appliances? I just started using mine about four months ago in an effort to get more vegetables into my diet.

I used two simple approaches with my very basic model rice cooker. With one method, I cut cubes of a vegetable (butternut squash, carrots, beets) with a similar cooking time to my grain and added it to the grain and water and pressed the cook button. In the second method, I cooked my grain until 5 to 10 minutes before it was finished and tossed my vegetables like spinach, cabbage or kale on top of the grain and let it steam along with the grain.

Both of these methods produced a satisfactory result and gave me a quick, one pot cleanup and a meal with more vegetables. I am now anxious to get a model with a steamer basket.

With a little more attention you can produce a wonderful pilaf. Simply turn on your pot and add oil or butter. Once hot, you can sauté your rice and a little onion or other vegetables before adding water, broth, tomato juice, currants or wine.

Once the liquid is added, put on the lid and cook as usual. When the cooking time comes to the end, you can fluff the rice and add some more finely chopped vegetables, toasted nuts and freshly chopped herbs.

To get the most out of your rice cooker, you may want to invest in a rice cooker cookbook. Here are few recipes to get you started from the Louisiana Cooperative Extension.

"Almost" Stuffed Cabbage

The ingredients are simply mixed and placed in a electric rice cooker which cooks the dish automatically, saving time and energy. You will have the delicious taste of cabbage rolls without any of the trouble.

3 cups shredded cabbage

1/2 cup water

1 medium bell pepper, chopped

1 cup uncooked rice

1 medium onion, chopped

1 (14 1/2 oz) can diced tomatoes, drained

1/2 pound lean ground beef, uncooked

1/2 pound sausage, sliced thin

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients in a rice cooker. Set on "cook"setting. When rice cooker switches to "warm" setting, stir and allow to set for 10 minutes.

Shrimp Jambalaya in a Rice Cooker

This delicious shrimp dish is made easy using your rice cooker.

1 ½ cups uncooked long grain rice

1 green bell pepper, diced

1 small onion, diced

bunch green onions, sliced

1 pound peeled shrimp

1 (14.5 oz.) can chicken broth

1 (10 oz.) can diced tomatoes with green chilies

2 TBSP. butter or oil

1 TBSP. dried parsley

1 tsp. Cajun seasoning, or to taste

In a large bowl, combine rice, green pepper, onion, green onions, shrimp, chicken broth, diced tomatoes, butter, parsley, and Cajun seasoning. Pour into rice cooker and cook for one cycle

or until liquid is absorbed, about 30 minutes. Taste, and adjust seasonings.

Leslie Shallcross is a registered dietitian and associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Services in Anchorage. Call her at 786-6313.

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