From the Ground Up: Rice is nice
by Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan
Special to the Winter’s Express
As you drive east out of Yolo County on Interstate 5 toward the Sacramento International Airport, you’ve seen the green rice fields with their swirling patterns. Rice, descended from a wild grass, is second only to maize as the world’s most cultivated crop. In many languages, literally, the word for rice means food.
In the United States, we tend to think of rice as white or brown and long, medium or short grain. Brown rice has the outer layer of bran and inner germ intact. White rice has had the bran and germ milled off and separated. Long grain cooks up dry and fluffy with grains that separate easily. It’s best for plain steamed rice, pilaf, or fried rice dishes. Medium grain becomes sticky and is a good, all purpose rice. Short grain is very sticky when cooked — think sushi or risotto.
In addition to grain length though, there is a spectrum of colors and varietals of rice. Thanks to farmers who over the centuries bred the grain for their area, there are over 8,000 varieties of rice grown around the world. Julie Cross, Davis Food Co-op’s education coordinator, says the Co-op has 30 varieties of rice in bulk, eight of which are local, and they carry Wehani.
Wehani is hybrid rice that is a reddish brown, has a nutty aroma and is a long grain with Indian basmati ancestry. It was developed by Harlan Lundberg of Lundberg Family Farms in Butte County, the farm family that pioneered organic rice growing in the United States.
By 2000 B.C., rice was cultivated all over Southeast Asia, but it only came to the United States in 1694, through the port at Charleston, South Carolina. That rice came from Madagascar, along with the West African knowledge about how to grow it. Rice flourished there, in the fresh water tidal swamps of Cape Fear, for two centuries, and later spread throughout the southeast.
Rice was introduced into California by the Chinese during the Gold Rush, and now California is the second largest rice producer in the United States. Most of California’s rice crop today is grown on heavy soils north of Sacramento in Colusa, Sutter, Glenn, Butte, Yuba and Yolo counties. Rice fields are flooded in late spring and the rice seed is flown over the paddies, then the young plants thrive in the hot days and warm nights until the ripe grains are harvested in the fall. In addition to providing habitat for wildlife, rice provides a lot of jobs throughout the Sacramento Valley.
Last year, the rice crop farm gate receipts in Yolo County were $53.3 million, just below wine grapes and processing tomatoes. The expensive infrastructure to support the rice industry locally is plainly evident, starting with the Port of Sacramento which proclaims in large red letters on its entrance that it serves the rice industry.
Adjacent to the port on Terminal Avenue in West Sacramento are the massive white silos of the Farmers Rice Cooperative rice mill. In Woodland, you can’t miss the towering structure of PERMI (Pacific International Rice Mills) on Kentucky Avenue. Similarly, the tanks and flat storage facilities of the Sutter Basin Growers Cooperative are visible just above Knight’s Landing as you travel north on Highway 113.
Alan Davidson, in his book “The Penguin Companion to Food,” says that in countries where rice was historically plentiful, it is cooked plain and served with elaborate toppings. In those where it was imported, rice was a delicacy in sweet dishes such as puddings.
Since rice is plentiful in the Sacramento River Watershed, Ann has included a recipe below which features just plain long grain white rice. The black-eyed peas are a nod to some childhood time spent in North Carolina. The chard comes from the garden and just needed using –the inspiration for what goes on top of the rice bowl of most people around the world.
Black-Eyed Peas with Chard over Rice
One and a half cups dried black-eyed peas
4 cups water or vegetable liquor (water from having cooked vegetables)
Four inch sprig of rosemary, fresh
Two bay leaves
Two small to medium yellow onions, peeled
Two to three tablespoons extra virgin California olive oil
One teaspoon sea salt (or to your taste)
One teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (or to your taste)
Four large stalks of rainbow chard, chopped or other leafy green (turnip, collard) including the stems
One cup long grain white or brown rice
Putting It Together
Soak the black-eyed peas overnight in water. Drain. Place the peas, water, aromatics (rosemary, bay – or others of your choice such as thyme, sage), onions, olive oil, and salt and pepper in a heavy pot with lid. Bring to a boil then turn flame to low. Simmer 40-60 minutes, until peas are tender. Turn heat off. Remove aromatics. Add leafy greens to the pot, which should have at least a cup or two of hot liquid left after cooking peas. Cover and let sit for five minutes, or until chard is tender. Salt and pepper again to taste.
To cook rice, bring two cups of water to a boil in a pan with tight fitting lid. Add a teaspoon of sea salt and the rice. Cover. Turn flame to low. Cook about twenty minutes or until done (longer if brown rice.) Fluff with fork. Serve rice and black-eyed peas in a soup plate.