Nearly every culture grows grains such as barley or wheat, rice or oats. If the grains aren’t ground into flour in order to make them edible, at the least they are moistened with hot liquids and consumed that way.
For instance, the Italians have their risotto; the Spanish, their paella. Middle Easterners refresh themselves with tabbouleh, plumped up bulghur (cracked wheat “berries”), lemon and other zesty flavors. Of course, all of us benefit from these recipes having by now traveled the globe.
Quinoa, millet, farro, amaranth, sorghum — the list is long of grains that humans eat after heating them in liquid.
But the shortest list — just one entry: “rice” — makes for the longest and most diverse catalog of cooked grain preparations worldwide. Of these many, perhaps more than any other fall under their own category of “pilaf” (in the United States and some other places; “pilau” in the United Kingdom and territories that it colonized).
In general, a pilaf is a dish of rice cooked in some sort of flavorful liquid, to which are added—and this is where the great diversity of preparations derives—any of many different spices, herbs or other flavorings, and other foods such as sweets, meat, fish, fruits or vegetables.
Given pilaf’s basic preparation, what contrasts it from, say, a risotto or paella is that, in the end, the grains of rice are to separate from each other, not adhere or combine in some sort of mass. All pilafs are “fluffy,” if they are true to their title.
Pilafs are especially popular in countries where significant numbers of Muslims live. Pilaf is called “the national dish of Afghanistan,” for example, and is found at daily meals throughout the Levant (most Eastern Mediterranean countries), North Africa and Indonesia.
Because of this, it will figure mightily in the diet of Muslims during the upcoming month of Ramadan (observed this year from the evenings of March 22 to April 21), where fasts are broken each sunset with the iftar, or “break-fast” of the evening meal.
Homemade rice pilaf recipes
Here are two pilaf recipes, one savory, one sweet-savory. They are in honor of Ramadan but, of course, are profitably prepared by any cook, of whatever religion (or none), on the lookout for come-hither flavors, aromas and healthy eating.
Indian cooks excel at making pilafs of several sorts. Their multitude of biryanis are pilafs writ large, for example. The recipe here is special in that it utilizes whole spices, as opposed to the common Western presupposition that to “cook Indian” one uses powders, what we call “curry powder” being the most common example, something that simply does not exist in an authentic Indian pantry.
Of the approximately 110 whole spices grown on Earth, India raises at least 75, such as both green and black cardamom pods, cumin seeds and mustard seeds of various hues, the very common rhizomes of turmeric and ginger, cloves and coriander and fennel seeds, to name only a few of the more popular.
Indian cooks do use powders, but only those that they have hand-ground after tricking out (usually by heating) all possible flavors and aromas from the whole spice beforehand.
Simply understood, a mere toasting of a whole spice, in a dry pan or with a modicum of some sort of fat, releases and enlivens its dormant essential oils or flavor (and especially aroma) compounds. Some Indian recipes even recommend toasting rice grains or lentils before bringing them to more life with a liquid.
The second pilaf recipe, sweet-savory with ripe peaches and an array of spices, does use powdered forms of whole spices such as garam masala and turmeric powder, nowadays readily available at many groceries, not merely Indian markets.
Simple Rice Pilaf with Whole Spices
Makes 4-6 servings. Serve this with anything, by itself with any form of bread or as a side for any braise, soup or grilled protein.
1 1/2 cups basmati rice
3 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter) or neutral vegetable oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, quartered and sliced
1 4-inch stick cinnamon, broken in half (or 2 2-inch sticks)
8 green cardamom pods, lightly crushed
4 whole cloves
2 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
In a large bowl or fine-meshed sieve, wash the rice in 5-6 changes of water until the water runs clear. Set aside to drain.
In a heavy-bottomed pot with a lid, over medium-high heat, melt or warm the ghee or oil until just shimmering. Add the onions, stirring quickly and cook them until they lose color, 4-5 minutes. Push them aside and add the cinnamon stick(s), cardamom and cloves, stirring them in the hot fat until they release their aroma, about 30-45 seconds.
Add the reserved rice and stir it, coating all the kernels with the fat as best you can. Continue stirring until the rice smells nutty, about 2 minutes. Add the water and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and cook, without raising the lid, for 15 minutes.
Remove from the heat and put the pot aside, again undisturbed, for 10 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff the pilaf with a fork and serve. There is no need to remove any of the spices, except for the cinnamon sticks. Diners will eat around or consume them as they choose.
Savory Peach Pilaf
Makes 6 cups. Serve this as a side dish with anything you choose: meat, fish, vegetable and so on.
1 tablespoon ghee, clarified butter or neutral cooking oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 medium-sized green or red chile pepper, heat level your choice, seeded and minced
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 cup basmati rice, rinsed very well, soaked for 30 minutes, then drained
1 large or 2 medium very ripe peaches, peeled, seeded and crushed into pulp
1/2 cup cashews, preferably unsalted and unroasted, soaked in warm water for 1/2 hour, then drained
1 cup water
In a thick-bottomed Dutch oven or pot, heat the fat over medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds and when they start to sputter, add the garam masala, the minced chile pepper and turmeric and stir well for 30 seconds until everything is fragrant.
Add the drained rice and stir until the grains are coated and begin to take on color, just a couple of minutes at most. Add the crushed peaches, cashews and water and stir well again. Bring everything to a boil, lower the heat to simmering, cover tightly and cook for 20 minutes (a few minutes more at higher elevation) without disturbing.
Turn off the heat and let the pilaf stand for 10 minutes at least (with the lid of the pot still on). Then lift the lid and fluff the pilaf with the tines of a large fork and serve.
Reach Bill St John at [email protected]