Friday, January 05, 2007

Middle Eastern Rice Pilaf

Rice is one of those things that many cook poorly. As I was reminded last evening while ploughing through soft rice grains with egg shell-like centers in a not-so-good jambalaya at a generally decent Decatur restaurant. Another diner had equally crunchy yet mushy rice in his "pilaf" which accompanied quite good crab cakes in wine and shrimp sauce. A number of Tex-Mex restaurants also cannot seem to cook their rice well, despite serving it and refried beans as a plate filler with almost every dish.

Rice is easy to cook, if a few rules are followed, even in a pan on top of the stove. (It's easier still with a rice cooker, as long as you get the water quantity correct). How to cook rice is one of the first things I teach in the Asian evening of my international cuisine course for Evening at Emory.

As an example, here is a straightforward yet elegant rice pilaf typical of Turkish and Persian cuisines (but made more simply and less elegantly than in Persian cooking). I learned the additives and general combining method from a Turkish restauranteur friend. The dish, which is intended as an accompaniment, is delightfully fragrant and is highlighted with bits of vegetable, fruits, and nuts. It includes, more appropriately than you would surmise, dried cranberries, a very North-American and very nouveau ingredient. There is a small, slightly bitter dried red barberry used in Persian rice cooking which because of strained relations between the US and Iran is difficult to import currently, and Iranian-American cooks often substitute dried cranberries ("Craisins"). The rice serves well with grilled or stewed meat or chicken dishes, and is the soul-mate to kabobs. But it is also fine as a snack when topped with a large dollop of yogurt -- whole milk type preferred. The recipe serves six generously, unless they are male students joining you for a free meal. (You guys know who you are.)

Rice Pilaf with Dried Fruits and Nuts Tim

2 cups basmati or long grain rice
1-1/2 teaspoons salt for rice plus 1/4 teaspoon for later
1 tablespoon olive oil
2-3/4 cups water
1 medium-small onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons sweet red pepper, minced
1 clove garlic, crushed and minced
3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
1/3 cup slivered almonds, shelled pistachios, or broken walnuts
1/3 cup yellow raisins
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup dried apricots (soft ‘Turkish’ type work well), coarsely chopped
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or mint
Additional dill or mint for garnish

Rinse the rice well in cold water and drain. Put rinsed rice, water, salt, and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a heavy-bottomed uncovered pot and bring to a boil. Cover tightly, lower the heat to very low, and cook (without opening the lid) for 20 minutes. Do not open the pot, but let the rice sit 10 minutes more with the heat off. (Alternatively, the rice can be cooked with the same ingredients in an electric rice cooker, not opening the lid until at least 10 minutes after the light goes off.)

Meanwhile, heat the butter or olive oil and fry the onion until translucent and just beginning to turn golden. Add the minced red pepper and garlic and stir and fry for about 20 seconds then add the nuts. As soon as the mixture is hot, add the raisins, dried cranberries, and chopped apricots and let heat briefly. Remove from heat and stir in the black pepper, cinnamon, salt, lemon juice, and dill or mint.

Gently fluff the rice in the pot with a two-pronged fork. In a very large bowl toss the rice and the fruit-nut mixture together gently. Taste, and add salt if necessary. Return the rice to the cooking pot (or rice cooker) for storage.

The rice can be served soon, or stored and later re-warmed in a microwave. Serve stacked up in a cone shape on a platter or low-edged dish rather than in a bowl. (For serving with kababs, spread the rice out as a flat bed on a large platter and lay the kabobs, on or off the skewers, on top.) Garnish with a little fresh dill or mint, whichever was used in the rice.

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