November 7, 2012
I've been cooking rice for more than 30 years and just now discovered I've been doing it all wrong.
All this time I've been following the same basic pilaf method. I melt some shallots in butter, add the rice (about a cup for 3 or 4 people), add water or stock (11/2 to 13/4 cups), bring it to a simmer, cover tightly and cook until the water is absorbed, about 15 to 20 minutes. Sound familiar?
About as advanced as I ever got was discovering that if I let it stand for 5 minutes off heat after cooking, the rice wouldn't mush together as much when I stirred it.
The rice had always been perfectly acceptable. In other words, it was just good enough that I never gave it a second thought. It's rice, right?
My epiphany came — as have so many others lately — from cookbook writer Yotam Ottolenghi. I was grilling some spiny lobsters and found a recipe for pilaf with saffron, dates and almonds in one of his columns in the British newspaper the Guardian that sounded like it might be the perfect accompaniment.
And then I read it. The technique was something I'd never seen before. It seemed so crazy I really had to try it.
First, Ottolenghi soaks the rice. Then, instead of cooking the rice with a measured amount of water, he cooks it in a big pot like pasta. Huh? And very briefly. I mean, like 4 or 5 minutes. Then he transfers the damp rice to a dry saucepan and steams it very, very slowly. Finally, he lines the lid with a kitchen towel and lets the rice stand off heat for 10 minutes.
What the heck? But when I tried it, the rice was terrific. It wasn't so much the flavor (rice, after all, pretty much is rice), but the texture. The grains were perfectly shaped, completely separate with no clumping, and so light they seemed to float off the plate.
At this point, I probably have about a hundred dedicated home cooks from Middle Eastern families firing up their iPhones to send me angry emails. Yes, I realize that this may well be how your mom fixed rice and your grandma and great-grandma before her. But it was a revelation to me.
In fact, looking through a bunch of recipes from the area — I've got a stack of books from Iran, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria on my desk — I find this technique used only occasionally. Most pilafs seem to be made according to something more similar to my old method.
As near as I can determine — and I'm sure someone will straighten me out if I'm wrong — it is an adaptation of Persian polo (also called polow and in its simplest form chelo). Carried to its ultimate stage of refinement, it results in the blessed state of ta-dig, a crisp crust of browned rice that forms on the bottom of the pan. I've had this at restaurants and in people's homes, but I've never succeeded in making it.
It really is one of the great things about cooking: No matter how long you do it, you're always learning something new. Let's just hope it doesn't take me another 30 years to master ta-dig.
A perfect pilaf
Here are the basic steps to making a perfect pilaf:
• Rinse the rice well under running water to remove excess starch.
• Soak the rice in salted water for at least 1 hour to shorten the cooking time. Drain.
• Cook the rice like pasta, in plenty of boiling salted water, until it is almost done.
• Spoon the rice into a pan with whatever flavorings you want, mounding it slightly. This gives the grains room to expand.
• Sprinkle over more water, and fat if you wish, cover tightly and cook over the lowest possible heat for at least 35 minutes.
• Remove from heat, take off the lid, cover pan with a tea towel, put lid back on tightly and let stand for 10 minutes before serving to let the rice firm and reduce moisture.
Rice pilaf with chickpeas, lentils and browned onions
Prep: 15 minutes
Soak: 1-2 hours
Cook: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Note: This recipe, known as muceddere, is adapted from Ozcan Ozan's "The Sultan's Kitchen."
1 cup basmati rice
1/4 cup lentils, preferably green
1/4 cup orzo pasta
1/4 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups sliced onion, about 1 medium onion
2 teaspoons sugar
Freshly ground pepper
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup canned chickpeas, drained, rinsed
1 cup peeled, seeded, chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon Turkish red pepper or smoked paprika
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
1. Place the rice in a strainer; rinse, shaking to stir frequently. Transfer to a bowl; add enough lukewarm water to cover. Stir in 2 tablespoons salt; set aside to soak for at least 1 hour, preferably 2 hours. Drain before proceeding.
2. Add the lentils to 1 cup water in a small saucepan; heat to a simmer. Cook until almost tender, about 15 minutes: drain.
3. Heat a medium saucepan of water to a boil; add 2 tablespoons salt, then add the rice and orzo. Boil gently, until almost cooked, 3-4 minutes. Check by trying a grain: It should still have a bit of bite to it. Drain, rinse and set aside to drain.
4. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and sugar; season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste. Cover; cook gently until the onions are tender, about 5 minutes. Uncover the pan; increase the heat to high. Stir in the lemon juice; cook, stirring, until the onions are browned, 4-5 minutes.
5. Add the rice, lentils, orzo and chickpeas to the saucepan; cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, cumin, red pepper and 1 teaspoon salt. Sprinkle over 2 tablespoons water. Cover with a tight lid; cook on the lowest possible heat, 35 minutes. (A heat diffuser helps.)
6. Turn off the heat, wrap the lid in a tea towel, cover the pan and set aside, 10 minutes. Stir in the cilantro with a fork.
Nutrition information: Per serving: 308 calories, 10 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 47 g carbohydrates, 7 g protein, 1,128 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.