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 — probably learned from an old Pierre Franey column or something like that. I melt some shallots in butter, add the rice (about a cup for 3 or 4 people), add water or stock (1½ to 1¾ 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.
As I said: 30 years following that technique and never really thinking about what I was doing. The rice was 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 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. Now, I don’t even soak beans, and I’m going to soak 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 four or five 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 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, Syria, and Armenia 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.
This technique even works with dishes that aren’t strictly in the Persian pilaf tradition. I really loved the flavors of a Turkish rice dish I’d fixed called müceddere. Made with chickpeas, lentils and orzo pasta in addition to rice, it also had great potential as a vegetarian main course, especially after I added a dollop of good yogurt.
But as delicious as the dish was when made using something like my old technique, it was a mite, shall we say … stodgy? With four different kinds of starch, go figure.
However, when I tried the recipe again using this new pilaf technique, not only was the texture lighter and more delicate, the flavor was improved as well. The tastes of the individual ingredients had more of a chance to shine through.
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.
How to make 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.
• 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.
Muceddere (Rice Pilaf with Chickpeas, Lentils, and Browned Onions)
1 cup basmati rice
4 tablespoons plus 1 1/4teaspoons salt, or to taste
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
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 cup canned chickpeas
1 cup peeled, seeded, chopped tomatoes (about 6 small)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon Turkish red pepper or smoked paprika
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro
Cook's note: This can be a side dish or, if served with yogurt, a vegetarian main dish.
Place the rice in a strainer and rinse under the faucet, shaking to stir frequently. Transfer to a bowl and add enough lukewarm water to cover. Stir in 2 tablespoons salt and set aside to soak for at least 1 hour, preferably 2 hours.
Add the lentils to 1 cup water in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cook until they are almost tender, about 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Bring a medium pot of water to a boil, add 2 more tablespoons of salt, then add the rice and orzo and boil gently for 3-4 minutes, until almost cooked. Check by trying a grain: It should still have a bit of bite to it. Drain, rinse and set aside to drain.
In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sugar, and season with ¼ teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper, or to taste. Cover the saucepan and cook gently until the onions are tender, about 5 minutes. Uncover the pan, increase the heat to high and stir in the lemon juice. Cook, stirring, until the onions are browned, 4-5 minutes. Do not let the onions scorch.
Add the rice, lentils, orzo, and chickpeas to the saucepan and cook, stirring for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, lentils, cumin, red pepper, and 1 teaspoon salt. Sprinkle over 2 tablespoons of water. Cover the pan with a tight lid and cook on the lowest possible heat for 35 minutes (a heat diffuser helps).
Turn off the heat, wrap the lid in a tea towel, cover the pan and set aside for 10 minutes. Use a fork to stir in the cilantro and serve.
Yield: 4-6 servings
Source: Adapted from Özcan Ozan’s The Sultan’s Kitchen.
Each of 6 servings: 308 calories; 7 grams protein; 47 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams fiber; 10 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 4 grams sugar; 1,128 mg sodium.