Climbing rice prices and news reports of rice shortages in Asia are causing an unexpected ripple here at home: Many people, especially immigrants from countries where rice is a mainstay, are stocking up. And while experts stop short of calling this behavior hoarding, some warehouse stores have limited consumers to no more than 80 pounds of rice at a time.

The fact that there is no shortage of rice in the United States doesn't seem to matter. Prices are still rising, and economists say it triggers a rational response: Load up before it's too late.

Zealous rice shoppers made us think about our own pantry-stocking behavior. Even though rice keeps well, we'd need years to consume 80 pounds. It seems ludicrous to buy that much. Yet how often do we jump on a "buy-one, get-one-free" special, whether we can use the items or not? Why do we have a case of chicken broth though we only use four or five cans a month? It keeps. We don't want to run out. If there's broth, you can always make soup. But truthfully? It's overkill.

Until researching our cost-cutting cookbook "Cheap. Fast. Good!" (Workman, 2005), we never considered what a pantry represents in sheer dollars. If you reclassify those cans and condiments as inventory, then in business terms, storing more than you can reasonably consume is money that could be earning interest or spent somewhere else.

But what about inflation? It is wise to buy extra food on sale — up to a point. The most valuable lesson we've learned from maintaining "Cheap. Fast. Good!" kitchens is this: The most expensive food you buy is the food you never eat.

Take a look at the back part of your pantry. How many years has that coconut milk been sitting there? What about the pickle relish and the pumpkin puree?

The solution is simple: Take a pantry inventory and eat what's already in stock before buying more. Set a personal time limit for consumption and fight the natural urge to hoard what you don't really need. And if you already bought a ridiculous amount of rice, it's OK. Today's low-fat recipe is so wonderful that you'll be tempted to cook it every day for a month straight.

Menu suggestion: Miami-Spiced Coconut Rice

Grilled pork

Canned black beans

MIAMI-SPICED COCONUT RICE

Start to finish: 25 minutes

1 can (14 ounces) fat-free, reduced-sodium chicken broth

1 cup reduced-fat unsweetened coconut milk (see Cook's note)

1/2 cup water

2 teaspoons bottled minced ginger (see Cook's note)

2 teaspoons bottled minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil

1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 1/2 cups long-grain white rice

1 cup diced fresh mango, optional (see Cook's note)

2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro leaves

Cook's note: This recipe is adapted from Steven Raichlen's "Miami Spice" (Workman Publishing, 1993).

Look for canned reduced-fat or "lite" coconut milk in the Asian section of the supermarket. If you can't find lite, regular works, too, but omit the oil. (This is not the same as sweetened coconut milk, commonly used in mixed drinks.) You'll have about 1 3/4 cups leftover coconut milk; it's great to add to smoothies. Or you can make a second batch of rice and add 1/4 cup more water to make a full cup of liquid. The leftover coconut milk keeps in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month.

Substitute 2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger, if desired.

Jarred mango, such as the SunFresh brand found in the produce section, is an easy alternative. Or you can substitute fresh or canned diced peaches or pineapple tidbits.

Pour the chicken broth, coconut milk, water, ginger, garlic, oil and salt into a medium saucepan, and bring it to a boil over high heat. Add the rice, stir, reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, until the rice is tender, about 20 minutes.

While the rice cooks, dice the mango or other fruit (if using), and finely mince the cilantro leaves. Set aside. When the rice is tender, fluff it with a fork and stir in the mango chunks and cilantro. Serve at once.

Yield: 6 servings

Approximate values per serving: 220 calories (12 percent from fat), 3 g fat (2 g saturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 5 g protein, 43 g carbohydrates, 1 g dietary fiber, 269 mg sodium.


Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross are co-authors of "Desperation Dinners!" (Workman, 1997), "Desperation Entertaining!" (Workman, 2002) and "Cheap.Fast.Good!" (Workman, 2006). Contact them at Desperation Dinners, c/o United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016. Or visit the Desperation Dinners Web site at www.desperationdinners.com. © United Feature Syndicate, Inc.