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Brown rice: A rice that's twice as nice

Brown Rice and Veggie Bake is a versatile side dish that adapts well to a variety of fresh vegetables and any melting cheese you like. Photo by Sue Doeden1 / 2
Grated squash, rutabaga and carrots are used in the Brown Rice and Veggie Bake recipe. Photo by Sue Doeden2 / 2

I discovered brown rice around the same time I bought a yogurt maker. I was on a mission to provide only healthful food for my toddler-aged son. I was determined to keep as much sugar out of his little body as possible.

The yogurt maker wound up on a shelf in storage around the same time our family grew to include another young son and life just got too busy for preparation of brown rice.

Brown rice, a whole grain, hasn't gone through the milling and polishing process of having its bran and germ removed, as is the case with white rice. And that's why brown rice is a much more healthful choice than white rice. The lion's share of nutrients is located in the germ and bran, rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber.

When you are shopping for brown rice, you will notice it is categorized by length of the grains. The long grains used in Brown Rice and Veggie Bake are longer and wider than medium- or short-grain brown rices. The longer grains contain a high proportion of amylose, a nonsticky starch, and cook up light and fluffy. The shorter grains have a higher proportion of a sticky starch called amylopectin, binding the rice together in a sticky, chewy mass.

Since brown rice features an oil-rich germ, it is more susceptible to becoming rancid than white rice. For this reason, it's best to store brown rice in the refrigerator, where it will stay fresh for about six months.

Most people discover the nutty flavor of brown rice is far more appealing than the bland taste of its stripped-down relative. So aside from being a healthful choice, brown rice actually adds to the flavor of dishes it goes into.

There is one challenge, though, that comes with brown rice - the time it takes to cook. Brown rice needs a good 50 minutes of simmer time. For that reason, brown rice did not appear on my table at meal time for several of the busy young family years. It's too bad I didn't know then what I know now. Cooked brown rice freezes very well.

Every once in a while, when you know you are going to be home for a couple of hours, cook up a large batch of brown rice, following directions on the package. Let it cool, fluff it up and spoon it into freezer-strength zip-top plastic bags or freezer containers, creating smaller portions. One-cup and two-cup portions are good for adding to soups, casseroles, stuffing or Brown Rice and Veggie Bake. Just take the rice out of the freezer when you need it and thaw in the refrigerator or heat it up in the microwave oven.

Brown Rice and Veggie Bake is very versatile, adapting well to a variety of fresh vegetables and any cheese you like, as long as it is a good melting cheese. This time of year, when squash, carrots and root vegetables are abundant at the farmers market, I like to use creamy Gruyere with its nutty but not overpowering flavor. Mild Monterey Jack is another good option with any seasonal vegetables.

All rice is not created equal. Cook up brown rice. It doesn't take any special equipment that could wind up in the attic or basement. And, you will be contributing to your family's optimal health.

Brown Rice and Veggie Bake

1/2 cup uncooked long grain brown rice

1 1/4 cups chicken or vegetable broth, divided

1 1/2 teaspoons plus 2 tablespoons butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 chubby clove garlic, peeled, cut in half and smashed

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup finely chopped red bell pepper

1/2 cup finely chopped onion

1 cup grated carrot

1/2 cup grated rutabaga

1/2 cup grated butternut squash

1/4 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 cup (4 ounces) grated Gruyere or Monterey Jack cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 1-quart casserole dish and set aside.

Combine rice, 1 cup broth, 1 1/2 teaspoons butter, garlic and bay leaf in a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Bring to a boil. Stir once. Cover with lid. Reduce heat to simmer and cook 50 minutes. Remove from heat. Allow to stand in covered pot for 10 minutes. All liquid should be absorbed and rice will be tender to the bite.

Heat 2 tablespoons butter and olive oil in a large skillet. Add red pepper and onion and sauté until tender. Add grated carrot, rutabaga and butternut squash and sauté for 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Add remaining 1/4 cup broth, milk, salt, pepper, nutmeg, cooked rice and 3/4 cup cheese and stir to combine. Scrape mixture into prepared casserole dish. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and sprinkle Veggie Bake with remaining 1/4 cup cheese. Bake uncovered for 10 to 15 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

Tips from the cook

--A blend of wild rice and brown rice is a nice choice for this dish if you'd like to change it up a little.

--The tiny bit of butter added to the cooking rice allows the grains to remain separate and fluffy.

--A food processor makes quick work of grating the vegetables and cheese for this dish. A traditional hand grater will take more time and a lot more muscle.