Practically Perfect Pilaf

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.

Basmati rice pilaf

Basmati rice pilaf

  • 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.
Wash, drain and season rice

Wash, drain and season rice

  • This step further elongates the already long grain and makes it as delicate as a flower.

    Presoaking lengthens the grain

    Presoaking lengthens the grain

  • 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.
Prep the veg

Prep the vegetables

  • 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.
Clockwise: Bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, fennel, cloves and cardamom

Clockwise: Bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, fennel, cloves and cardamom

  • 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.
Heat some oil in a heavy pan

Heat some oil in a heavy pan

  • Add whole spices and let sizzle for a few seconds.
Let the spices sizzle

Let the spices sizzle

  • 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.
Partly caramelize the onions

Partly caramelize the onions

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).

Mix together carrots, spinach and dried fruits/nuts

Mix together carrots, spinach and dried fruits/nuts

  • Add the pre-soaked basmati rice and toss together gently. Take care not to break the delicate grain. My mother told me so.
Gently fold in the rice

Gently fold in the rice

  • 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.
Add hot water and dot with ghee or butter

Add hot water and dot with ghee or butter

  • The rice is done when the water is absorbed. I added a handful of unsalted, roasted cashews at this point. Gently toss to mix.
The pilaf is done when the water is absorbed

The pilaf is done when the water is absorbed

  • 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.
chick pea crunchies, boondi

chick pea crunchies, boondi

Add yogurt (we make our own, with smuggled culture from India). Top with thinly sliced green chilies and chopped parsley or coriander leaves.

Boondi Raita complements the Pilaf

Boondi Raita complements the Pilaf

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17 Responses to Practically Perfect Pilaf

  1. Oh my goodness, that looks excellent! Don’t ever invite me chez toi, or else you will be stuck with me for life.

  2. Raj says:

    Mmmmm! Sounds heavenly! The photos are even more impressive!

  3. Manisha says:

    Unless they are organic, I generally peel carrots. That’s true for most veggies, except perhaps eggplants.

    The “knuckle” trick is what homecooks in India use, and I do, too. The women have a standard size insert that goes into their pressure cooker and they know that if the depth of uncooked rice measures up to the depth of one flexion crease, it serves x number of people. Or if they add more rice than that, they’re going to be looking at an overflow. I have those “rules” when I cook rice in my pressure cooker, too. But if I’m cooking it in a rice cooker, it’s usually “andaaze se” – I level the washed rice, stick my finger in and add water to approximately twice that depth. But, like you, I use a cup measure if I’m making pulao or biryani.

    • Thanks for your insights, Manisha! No one likes mushy pulao, so I’m with you on measuring in this case. Some of our dals and sambhars go better with softer rice, and I think it’s fine to use the knuckle method for those. As for peeling veggies..most of the nutrients and fiber reside just under the skin. I never peel potatoes for that reason. I’ve read that washing with vinegar is a good compromise to peeling although it seems to be too tedious.

  4. Karen says:

    Your pilaf recipe sounds terrific…I can’t wait to give it a try. No problem with the ingredients either.

    • Wonderful, Karen! Just back from a week long trip in Switzerland where the food was fabulous. Now that I’ve been wined and dined, I want to get back to the kitchen and check out what you’ve been cooking up!

      • Karen says:

        Oh, I hope you will do a post about your trip….I’d love to hear where you went and where you dined. I think all your readers would enjoy hearing about your trip as much as I would.

  5. Raj Mukhopadhyay says:

    This has quickly become my go-to pilaf recipe. Thank you!

  6. Very nice!

    My mouth started watering seeing pulao 🙂

    Thanks!

  7. Pingback: Pulao(pilaf) recipe | the economical vegetarian

  8. Aditya says:

    hmm,,, I’m a bit confused cos did you or did you not soak the rice in water? It was not very clear. Thanks. The rice dish looks fabulous!

    • Hi Aditya, that’s a great question, thanks for asking for clarification. Since the rice is washed, drained and set aside for 20 minutes, that is the equivalent of a soak. It does not have to be under water per se. I find that by the end of 20 min, the remaining water is nicely absorbed, the grains have elongated, and I can add the rice straight to the pot. Hope that makes sense.

  9. Cheri says:

    I tried this wonderful recipe but alas something went wrong! I did use brown basmati so expected that it might take a little longer but it was quite a bit longer and although still very tasty, I suspect all of the fruit would have been more identifiable. Suggestions for cooking with brown rice? Thanks.

    • Hi Cheri, try cooking the brown rice al dente first before mixing in the other ingredients and covering to finish cooking. It’s a common method to making pilaf. I would suggest adding rice to excess of water much as you would cook pasta, and draining just before it cooks all the way through. Let it cool a bit before adding it to the remaining ingredients without the boiling water, cover tightly, and steam on low heat.

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