When my children were little, of an age that believed that mothers had eyes in the back of their heads, I was (like Mary Poppins) “practically perfect in every way”. While those days have passed forever, there are still some small triumphs that I hold constant. Perfectly cooked rice is one of life’s little pleasures that I take for granted. Not al dente: Giada de Laurentis be darned, this is not pasta. Neither is it risotto..as an Asian, I never caught on to the idea of adding cheese to rice.
I remember a conversation with a stranger at an airport about rice (long layover, don’t ask). “Do you cook it from scratch”, she asked admiringly. I was astounded, “Is there any other way?” Just use a 2:1 ratio of water to rice, no further calculus required. A friend swears by the knuckle test..pour rice until it comes up to the first knuckle in your index finger. Add water to the second knuckle. What if the rice is only partway up your first knuckle? In any case, I use boiling water and prefer to retain the skin on my knuckles. So a cup measure of any kind works for me.
So here is an elegant Basmati pilaf with strands of orange and green, dotted with golden raisins, cranberries and cashews. Practically perfect in every way.
- Measure out Basmati rice: I used 2 cups to generously serve four (with left overs for lunch the next day). Rinse a few times under cold running water. To drain, cover with a plate and let the water dribble out or simply tilt as much as you dare. Season the wet rice with coarse salt, a pinch of sugar and some red chilli powder. Toss together and let sit for about 20 minutes while you prep the rest of the pilaf.
- This step further elongates the already long grain and makes it as delicate as a flower.
- Measure out 2x the amount of water into a pot and heat on the back burner. I used 4 cups.
- Grate 2 carrots coarsely. Do you peel carrots? Why?
- Wash and roughly chop a bag of spinach. I used baby spinach, so I left them alone.
- Thinly slice one sweet onion.
- Gather your spices: 2-3 cardamom pods, split (you ought to save the shells for tea, but I left them in), 2 bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, some cloves and about a tablespoon of fennel seed.
- Heat some oil in a heavy bottomed pan. I like to use the broad shallow type so that the rice is not crushed by its own weight and to get squished at the bottom. A broad base also allows some golden crunchiness to develop at the bottom, Persian style.
- Add whole spices and let sizzle for a few seconds.
- Add sliced onions and toss around on high first, then reduce heat to allow partial caramelization. You want the onions to turn partly brown so that they impart their rich color and sweetness to the pilaf.
Add the grated carrots and spinach and mix in. At this point, I add a handful of dry fruits and nuts (cranberries, golden raisins, almonds or whatever you have on hand).
- Add the pre-soaked basmati rice and toss together gently. Take care not to break the delicate grain. My mother told me so.
- Add the pre-measured hot water and stir. I like to dot the surface with some clarified butter to infuse the rice with a heavenly, buttery flavor. Cover and let steam on low heat for about 10 more minutes.
- The rice is done when the water is absorbed. I added a handful of unsalted, roasted cashews at this point. Gently toss to mix.
- A good pulao deserves a raita. You can make this yogurt based side dish with chopped fresh tomatoes or grated cucumber or diced onion. I used a crunchy Indian snack made out of chick pea batter instead.
Add yogurt (we make our own, with
smuggled culture from India). Top with thinly sliced green chilies and chopped parsley or coriander leaves.