If you're as old as I am, I'm sure you can sing the catchy jingle "Rice-A-Roni, the San Fransisco treat," but I'll bet you've never thought about the history of this tasty convenience food that's been sold in a box since 1958. It all started back in 1940s San Francisco when an Armenian woman, Pailadzo Captanian, rented a room to a couple (Lois and Tom DeDomenico) whose husband's family owned a pasta company, called Golden Grain Pasta. Mrs. Captanian taught Lois how to make her Armenian rice pilaf, using tiny broken bits of pasta brought back from the pasta company. One night, in the midst of the growing demand for convenience foods in the '50s, Lois cooked up the rice pilaf for her Italian husband. Being the smart businessman that he was, he took the idea for the pilaf to his company's test kitchen so that it could be developed to be put in a box (ultimately creating a mixture of rice, macaroni, and dehydrated chicken stock). Once they decided on a name, a sort of shortening of rice and macaroni, the rest is history.
While my mom wasn't really into buying convenience foods when we were younger (we never did the Shake 'n Bake thing, or Hamburger Helper), she gave in when it came to the original chicken Rice-a-Roni, which my sister and I loved. Even though it's a box mix, it's fun to make. And it still makes you feel like you're cooking because you get to toast the macaroni in the pan before adding, well, the flavor packet and all.
Believe it or not, this homemade version came about not because I was trying to recreate Rice-a-Roni, but because I wanted to make a rice pilaf that I'd had some time ago at a Middle Eastern restaurant. Without any orzo on hand, I broke up some spaghetti, toasted it with rice, threw in chicken stock and spices, and voila! I realized I'd whipped up one of my favorite box guilty pleasures. To be honest, I have no idea if my spices are the ones that actually go into that packet, but I'll bet it's damn close.
From there, the chicken dinner came into place. Just crisp up chicken parts in a pan, get the homemade Rice-a-Roni going, and finish cooking the chicken in the rice—all done in one skillet. Add a tasty side veggie of sauteed green beans with garlic, and you've got a flavorful complete meal that you've got nothing to guilt over.
About the Author: Yvonne Ruperti is a food writer, recipe developer, former bakery owner, and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide To Easy Artisan Bread. You can also watch her culinary stylings on the America's Test Kitchen television show. She presently lives in Singapore as a freelance writer for Time Out Singapore. Check out her blog: shophousecook.com . Follow Yvonne on Twitter.