And what a world--healthy ingredients like black beans and lentils, bulgur and brown rice, dressed up to supply authentic flavors from Texas and Louisiana to the Caribbean and India. Most cook up in less than 30 minutes and don't even need the tablespoon or so of oil, margarine, or butter that the box may ask for.
But exotic flavors (not to mention everyday ones) can come with a price. If you're not careful, that cup of Knorr's Mushroom Italian Rices Risotto, Rice-A-Roni Fried Rice, or Whatever can use up half your day's sodium quota.
Solution 1. Cook your grains from scratch. It'll save you a bundle and you can load up on vegetables and cut the salt. (For recipes, see p. 12.)
Solution 2. Take this little guide to the store with you. We've checked out every brand from Arrowhead Mills to Zatarain's. Our goal: to find the mixes with the most flavor and fiber and the least sodium.
Our Best Bites manage to squeeze at least four grams of fiber into every cup while keeping the sodium down to 480 milligrams or less. That much fiber means whole grains or rice plus beans or lentils. And that means extra vitamins and minerals and phytochemicals that may cut the risk of cancer and heart disease.
We gave Honorable Mentions to mixes with less than four grams of fiber, as long as they kept the sodium to no more than 480 mg. In a category dominated for generations by salty Rice-A-Roni, that's some feat.
Best of the Best
Fantastic (formerly Fantastic Foods) lives up to its name with its sweet and spicy Jamaican Rice and Beans. Plumped up chunks of dehydrated pineapple and tamarind add a tangy sweetness to the brown rice and black beans. And thanks to the blend of onions, garlic, and jalapeno peppers, you won't miss the sodium.
Chef Mark Miller of the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe uses an interesting mix of chilies and cilantro to perk up the Texmati rice and black beans in Rice Select Chef's Originals Smokey Cowboy Beans and Rice. (You can safely disregard the "Hot" symbol on the package. We felt only a simmer.)
Lipton surprised us with its flavorful Cajun Style with Beans, Rice & Sauce. Though we followed the "less fat" directions (translation: no margarine), we still ended up with a wonderful mildly spicy dish.
On the lentil front, Lundberg's three One-Step Brown Rice and Lentil mixes (Chili, Curry, and Garlic Basil) take nearly an hour to cook, but they're worth the wait. Each combines brown rice and fiber-packed lentils with a rich-tasting spice blend. The Curry is mild and a little on the sweet side, the Garlic Basil is reminiscent of pesto sauce, and the Chili might be perfect for those who like just a hint of the hot stuff.
Gourmet Guru's Indian Lentil Pilaf was a bit bland, as was Casbah's Wheat Pilaf (the only Best Bite made of bulgur), but both might work well with a spicy stir-fry.
We didn't try Arrowhead Mills Wild Rice & Herbs and Vegetable Herb Quick Brown Rice.
Ten Best Bites aren't many, especially when some mean a trip to the health food store. What to do? Turn to saltier mixes that have at least four grams of fiber in each cup. As long as the entire box has no more than 960 mg of sodium and the seasoning comes in a separate pouch--Goya, Zatarain's, Lipton Rice & Sauce, and a handful of other mixes don't--you can MYOB (Make Your Own Best Bite) by using only half the spices.
Most of the MYOBs we tried tasted plenty flavorful with half their seasoning, especially Near East's Creative Grains line, which includes delightful combinations of barley, brown rice, bulgur, and pearled (refined) wheat. The Roasted Pecan & Garlic, the Roasted Garlic, and the Chicken & Herbs didn't miss a beat when we cut the spice packet in half (using three-quarters of the packet would still have made a Best Bite out of either of the Garlic flavors).
Other MYOB stars included Lundberg's entire line of organic Quick Brown Rice. Three of the four flavors deliver five grams of fiber, and all are ready in under 20 minutes--warp speed for brown rice. And while Near East's Barley Pilaf, Lentil Pilaf, and Wheat Pilaf also lacked oomph, any of them would make an excellent partner for a spicy curry dish.
Even Uncle Ben made a respectable showing with two flavors from his Chef's Recipe line. His Traditional Red Beans & Rice won raves with its pleasantly smoky flavor. A plus: the beans were firm and plentiful. And though his Caribbean Black Beans & Rice tasted fine, we couldn't find anything "Caribbean" in it.
Fantastic's New Orleans Rice and Beans didn't register many "oohs" and "aahs" either, though it did have an intensely smoky taste.
We didn't try Near East Mediterranean Black (or Red) Beans & Rice Pilaf, Success Red Beans and Rice, or Uncle Ben's Chef's Recipe Spicy Cajun Beans & Rice.
No matter how delicious your "rice-and" mix is, dinner-in-a-box it's not. Take Chicken& Broccoli Rice-A-Roni. If the "Now Even More Broccoli" emblazoned on the package is true, we'd hate to see what it looked like before. There was barely a tablespoon of dehydrated broccoli in the whole box, despite the beautiful florets pictured on the front.
And the lovely drawings on the box of Lundberg's Wild & Mushroom Quick Brown Rice must be what natural mushroom flavor looks like, because that's as close as the ingredient list gets to mushrooms.
What to do? BYOV (Bring Your Own Vegetables). Cut up some fresh vegetables and toss them in your pilaf, or steam or saute some asparagus, broccoli, snap peas, spinach, or whatever to go alongside. That's the only way you'll end up with a meaningful amount of vegetables in your mix.
RELATED ARTICLE: GOING WITH THE GRAIN
Best Bites (##) have at least four grams of fiber and no more than 480 mg of sodium in a one-cup serving. That's about 60 grams of most mixes, before cooking. (For mixes that list a serving size smaller than 45 grams, we increased the serving to 60 grams.) Make Your Own Best Bites (*) have at least four grams of fiber, a separate spice packet, and no more than 960 mg of sodium (that way, they'll have no more than 480 mg if you use half the packet). Honorable Mentions (#) have no fiber minimum, as long as they have no more than 480 mg of sodium. All the numbers in the chart are for the mixes prepared with no added margarine, oil, or butter, even if the instructions call for them. Mixes are ranked from most to least fiber, then least to most sodium.
Grain Mix (1 cup, cooked) Fiber Sodium 4 or more grams of fiber Calories (grams) (mg) (*) Fantastic New Orleans Rice and Beans 200 9 510 Zatarain's Red Beans & Rice 210 9 1,050 (##) Fantastic Jamaican Rice and Beans 210 8 450 (*) Success Red Beans & Rice 240 8 920 (##) Lipton Cajun Style with Beans, Rice & Sauce 260 7 460 (*) Near East Chicken & Herbs Creative Grains 240 6 760 Mahatma Red Beans & Rice 190 6 790 (*) Near East Mediterranean Black Bean & Rice Pilaf 260 6 820 (##) Gourmet Guru Indian Lentil Pilaf 170 5 220 (##) Arrowhead Mills Vegetable Herb Quick Brown Rice 230 5 240 (##) Arrowhead Mills Wild Rice & Herbs Quick Brown Rice 220 5 350 (##) Lundberg One-Step Curry Brown Rice and Lentils 160 5 400 (##) Lundberg One-Step Chili Brown Rice and Lentils 180 5 420 (##) Lundberg One-Step Garlic Basil Brown Rice and Lentils 160 5 480 (*) Near East Roasted Garlic Creative Grains 190 5 560 (*) Near East Barley Pilaf 180 5 580 (*) Near East Lentil Pilaf 170 5 610 (*) Near East Wheat Pilaf 180 5 650 (*) Lundberg Picante Spanish Fiesta Quick Brown Rice 260 5 670 (*) Near East Red Beans & Rice Pilaf 220 5 710 (*) Lundberg Roasted Garlic Pesto Quick Brown Rice 260 5 830 (*) Lundberg Savory Vegetarian Chicken Quick Brown Rice 260 5 910 Mahatma Black Beans & Rice 200 5 930 Uncle Ben's Chef's Recipe Zesty Southwestern Pinto Beans & Rice 220 5 990 Rice-A-Roni Red Beans & Rice 240 5 1,120 (##) Rice Select Chef's Originals Smokey Cowboy Beans and Rice 180 4 340 (##) Casbah Wheat Pilaf 240 4 460 (*) Near East Roasted Pecan & Garlic Creative Grains 210 4 530 Fantastic Polenta 260 4 550 (*) Uncle Ben's Chef's Recipe Traditional Red Beans & Rice 210 4 740 (*) Lundberg Exotic Wild & Mushroom Quick Brown Rice 260 4 800 Goya Rice & Blackeye Peas 170 4 860 (*) Uncle Ben's Chef's Recipe Caribbean Black Beans & Rice 210 4 880 (*) Uncle Ben's Chef's Recipe Spicy Cajun Beans & Rice 210 4 890 Zatarain's Black Beans & Rice 200 4 1,040 less than 4 grams of fiber (#) Casbah Couscous (except Couscous Pilaf)(1) 230 3 420 (#) Near East Herbed Chicken Couscous 190 3 440 (#) Near East Broccoli Couscous 190 3 460 (#) Near East Mediterranean Curry Couscous 190 3 460 Near East Tomato Lentil Couscous 190 3 600 Uncle Ben's Chef's Recipe Chicken & Harvest Vegetable Pilaf 190 3 620 Near East Creamy Parmesan Creative Grains 240 3 770 Wolff's Kasha Classics Savory Chicken 260 3 980 (#) Casbah Lentil Pilaf 240 2 400 (#) Near East Toasted Pine Nut Couscous 200 2 450 (#) Fantastic Couscous(1) 200 2 460 (#) Fantastic Rice Pilaf(1) 160 2 480 (#) Near East Roasted Garlic & Olive Oil Couscous 200 2 480 Near East Parmesan Couscous 200 2 510 Near East Brown Rice Pilaf 190 2 670 Rice-A-Roni 1/3 Less Salt(1) 240 2 680 Goya Rice & Pinto Beans 160 2 700 Near East Long Grain & Wild Rice Pilaf 190 2 770 Near East Toasted Almond Pilaf 200 2 780 Lundberg Risotto(1) 190 2 800 Near East Mediterranean Chicken & Wild Rice Pilaf 210 2 860 Near East Spanish Rice Pilaf 190 2 890 Rice-A-Roni (except 1/3 Less Salt anD Red Beans & Rice 240 2 990 Beans & Rice)(1) 210 2 1,000 (#) Marrakesh Express Couscous(1) 190 1 300 (#) Gourmet Guru Pilaf (except Indian Lentil Pilaf)(1) 170 1 320 (#) Rice Select Chef's Originals (except Smokey Cowboy Beans and Rice)(1) 170 1 370 (#) Casbah Rice Pilaf 200 1 390 (#) Casbah Saffroned Jasmine Rice 200 1 390 (#) Thai Kitchen Pilaf(1) 210 1 390 (#) A Taste of Thai Rice(1) 180 1 400 (#) Goya Rice Primavera 160 1 410 (#) Casbah Spanish Pilaf 200 1 430 (#) Marrakesh Express European Wild Mushroom Risotto 210 1 450 (#) Casbah Couscous Pilaf 220 1 480 Casbah Nutted Pilaf 190 1 500 Uncle Ben's Chef's Recipe Curried Almond Rice 200 1 610 Near East Curry Rice Pilaf 190 1 620 Uncle Ben's Long Grain & Wild Rice(1) 190 1 640 Uncle Ben's Natural Select(1) 200 1 680 Uncle Ben's (except Chef's Recipe, Long Grain & Wild, and Natural Select)(1) 200 1 730 Uncle Ben's Chef's Recipe Broccoli Rice au Gratin Supreme 200 1 790 Lipton Seasoned Rice(1) 220 1 800 Near East Rice Pilaf 190 1 820 Lipton Rice & Sauce (except Cajun Style with Beans)(1) 220 1 850 Near East Chicken Rice Pilaf 190 1 900 Knorr Italian Rices Risotto(1) 280 1 1,140 (#) Goya Mexican Style Rice 160 0 330 (#) Thai Kitchen Green or Red Curry Rice(1) 230 0 350 (#) Marrakesh Express Three Cheese Risotto 200 0 410 (#) Uncle Ben's Chef's Recipe Fine Herb Risotto 200 0 470 Marrakesh Express Milanese with Saffron Risotto 220 0 590 Fantastic Risotto(1) 210 0 630 Knorr Pilaf Rices(1) 230 0 900 Zatarain's Dirty Rice 210 0 1,070
(##) Best Bite. (#) Honorable Mention. (*) Make Your Own Best Bite (nutrition information is for mix prepared with the entire spice packet).
(1) Average (doesn't include unseasoned products--i.e., Uncle Ben's plain Converted Rice).
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