Rice that makes you say olé
Fluffy rice flecked with peppers, tomatoes and spices is tasty on its own. But tucked into a burrito, piled alongside saucy enchiladas or nestled next to grilled steak or fish, Spanish rice is simply splendid.
This ubiquitous dish is simple enough to make at home, if you have the time. But on busy days, it’s infinitely easier to grab one of the many boxed mixes on grocerystore shelves. These mixes come in a wide range of styles and sizes. Some offer family-size servings, others are precooked pouches for one or two. Its flavors are diverse, too — some are herby or tomatoforward, spiked with turmeric or saffron, or simply infused with chicken broth and red pepper.
The best mixes turn out fluffy, well-seasoned spoonfuls with the fresh flavor of spices, herbs, peppers or tomato. The worst mixes yield bland, gummy bites — or over-seasoned, undercooked, tough rice. Pilafs are especially persnickety, as the pasta is easily overcooked and tends to absorb flavors instead of letting them shine.
Here’s the scoop on the best Spanish rice mixes — and the gloppy, salty carbs that should have stayed in the box. Nutrition details refer to 1 cup of rice. Zatarain’s Spanish Rice Mix The fresh, authentic flavor of peppers, herbs and spices makes this cumin-forward rice the best on the shelf. The mix calls for a can of tomatoes to be added, which gives it great balance. (So add that can to your shopping list.) 160 calories, .5 g fat, 400 mg sodium, 4 g protein. (4 stars) Farmhouse Spanish Rice Bold flavor and distinct grains of rice make for a winning combination. Bits of red and green pepper, plus the addition of a can of tomatoes make this mix taste like homemade. 260 calories, .5 g fat, 710 mg sodium, 5 g protein. (4 stars) Near East Spanish Rice Pilaf Cut the salt and this mix would be near perfect. It has great texture and a surprising dash of heat. 310 calories, .5 g fat, 910 mg sodium, 5 g protein. (3½ stars) Rice-A-Roni Spanish Rice Generous spices and bits of bell pepper make this pilaf-style mix of rice and pasta a pleasant, welcome side dish, as long as you eat it right away. The pasta turns gummy when reheated. 250 calories, 630 mg sodium, 6 g protein. (3 stars) 365 Organic Spanish Style Rice Pilaf
Understated spices and herbs make this rice and pasta mix slightly bland, but it would probably appeal to young eaters. 220 calories, .5 g fat, 710 mg sodium, 4 g protein. (2 stars) Market Pantry 90Second Spanish Style Rice
Too much garlic and onion
powder detract from the otherwise traditional flavor of this heat-and-serve pouch of rice. 210 calories, 3 g fat, 670 mg sodium, 4 g protein. (1½ stars) Seeds of Change Certified Organic Spanish Style Rice
The addition of corn and quinoa to brown rice is a great idea, but this pouch of oily, heat-and-serve rice is disappointingly bland. 260 calories, 4 g fat, 480 mg sodium, 5 g protein. (1 star) Mahatma Authentic Spanish Rice
The cumin in this rice is nice, but the absence of any other Spanish herbs or spices makes this a poor pick. 190 calories, 0 g fat, 690 mg sodium, 4 g protein. (1 star)
Lundberg Organic Whole Grain Spanish Rice
Those who love the nutty flavor of brown rice may forgive the overly dry, chewy texture of this rice. But the spice and herb flavors are simply lost in the mix. 220 calories, 460 mg sodium, 5 g protein. (1 star) Uncle Ben’s Spanish Style Ready Rice
A hit of oregano and good rice texture are not enough to save this precooked rice from a pouch. It just tastes old. 200 calories, 2.5 g fat, 630 mg sodium, 4 g protein (½ a star) Knorr Fiesta Sides Spanish Rice
A wacky hit of chile pepper does not help this sticky mix. It’s one of the worst on the shelf. 240 calories, no fat, 690 mg sodium, 6 g protein. (½ a star) Sunny Select Spanish Rice Mix
Gloppy texture and a ratio of too much vermicelli to rice make for a sad, flavorless mess. 250 calories, .5 g fat, 930 mg sodium, 5 g protein. (No stars) Reviews are based on product samples purchased by DFM or provided by manufacturers. Contact Jolene Thym at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more Taste-off columns at www.mercurynews.com/ tag/taste-off.