Nigel Slater: Pilau talk

The dead oven is proving to be more of a blessing than I'd have imagined that cruel Saturday evening when its lights finally went out. Yes, there is something sad about its demise - we had some good times together - but its death has sparked a renewed interest in hob-top cooking. This week has seen a clutch of new pasta dishes (of which, some other time) and a palatable soup-stew made with a chicken originally earmarked for a pot roast. Best of all, I have made a couple of very fine rice pilau.

I am usually much lazier with rice than I am with pasta or potatoes. Most times, I give it a quick rinse under the tap then chuck it into the pot. A cinnamon stick and a handful of frozen peas is pretty much all that gets added to a pilau in my kitchen. Lazy cooking even for a weekday supper. In fact, it doesn't take a fat lot more effort or money to imbue your rice with the magic of home kitchens in the Far or Middle East.

I had forgotten the pleasures of cooking rice properly: the feeling of gently swishing the dry, raw rice around in bowl after bowl of cool water; the warm and nutty smell of the simmering grains; the put-put of steam rising through an ill-fitting lid. In the rush to get something on the table, it is all too easy to forget that there is something infinitely calming about cooking rice.

The ritual of washing and soaking that I often bypass is crucial if each grain of rice is to remain separate during cooking. Almost all rice benefits from being washed, though it is only Indian basmati that really improves from a couple of hours' soaking in water. The washing rids the rice of the fine dust of loose starch that is usually responsible for sticking the grains together. You can see it, when you wash the rice in a bowl, making the water cloudy. If you have bought rice cheaply, this cleansing will also bring any loose husks to the surface and make any grit clearly visible.

To accompany a sumptuous main dish, I probably would only season my rice with bay, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom. A simple but exquisitely fragrant dish, as white as snow and quietly aromatic. But I often eat rice as a main course, when a bit more thought is needed. Not just plain boiled rice to cure a hangover - though it does the trick, I guarantee - but rice flavoured with saffron, tiny coriander seeds and dried fruit that you can eat as a main dish or a jazzy side dish. I am not a great fan of sweet, dried fruit in main courses, but I will relent for a pilau, where it seems appropriate.

Wash and soak the rice before you leave for work in the morning, and you will have a steaming rice pilau in 20 minutes after walking through the door. What you add to your rice is up to whatever you fancy. Right now it would be a shame to pass up some of the diddy broad beans coming over from Italy - try them with dill or mint - and in a few weeks' time, the first of the season's English asparagus can be included, too. If supper needs to be a bit more substantial, then a few slices of goat's cheese can be melted into it or, in a more traditional Middle Eastern style, some pieces of roast chicken.

I often start and finish my rice in butter. It is not just that old habits die hard, it is more that butter and salt do much the same for rice as they do for popcorn. Even the smallest amount makes a difference at the end of cooking - simply stir in a knob just before you serve it, so that it melts and gently coats the grains. In doing so, you effectively remove any puritan less-is-more overtones. But then again, sometimes that is exactly what you want.

Pilau with cardamom and dried fruit

This is a rather sweet rice, something along the lines of the Iranian recipes for the jewelled rice that is served at weddings. The onions added at the end and the drizzle of yogurt go some way to redressing the balance, but it is at its best when served with grilled chicken heavy with garlic and lemon. Enough for 4 as a side dish.

120g basmati rice
50g butter
6 green cardamom pods
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
6 whole black peppercorns
a couple of bay leaves
a good pinch of saffron stamens
75g dried sultanas, raisins, cherries, dates
a handful of pistachios

For the onions:

2 medium onions
50g butter
Greek yogurt to serve

Put the rice in a bowl filled with water and gently run your fingers through it, drain, and repeat twice. The first time, the water will appear milky, less so with subsequent washings. Cover with fresh water and set aside for a couple of hours.

Peel the onions and slice them thinly, then fry them in the butter, slowly, over a moderate heat until they are soft, sweet and golden (a matter of 20 minutes or so). Meanwhile, soak the saffron in a couple of tablespoons of hot water.

To cook the rice, melt the butter in a large pan, one for which you have a lid, and gently fry the whole cardamom pods, lightly cracked with the back of a spoon, the cumin seed and the peppercorns. When they smell lightly fragrant, drain the rice and tip it in, then cover it by 1cm with water. Season with salt and the bay leaves, then cover with a lid and bring to the boil.

As soon as the water reaches the boil, turn down the heat so that the rice simmers enthusiastically, then leave it for 5 minutes. Lift the lid and stir in the dried fruit, pistachios, the saffron and its soaking liquid, then cover once again and leave to simmer for a further 4 minutes.

Taste the rice and check it for tenderness - if you think it needs a little more cooking, then give it an extra minute or two, but not much more.

Season the yogurt with salt and pepper.

Fork the rice gently (it will be very tender), drizzle with yogurt, scatter with the onions, and serve.

Broad bean brown rice pilau

Brown rice has the added pleasure of a deep nutty flavour. The smell of brown basmati drifting lazily through the house is as instantly soothing as that of the smell of dim sum or treacle tart. Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side dish.

150g brown basmati rice
2 small leeks
30g butter
500g broad beans in their pods
175g soft goat's cheese
a large handful of flat-leaved parsley leaves
a large handful of mint leaves

Put the rice into a bowl of cold water, swish it round with your fingers until the water has turned cloudy, then rinse it and wash it again, and then again. Cover with fresh water, add 1 tsp of salt and set aside.

Cut off and discard the leek roots, then slice the leeks into rings as thick as your little finger. Rinse thoroughly in a colander under running water, shake dry, then let them cook slowly with the butter in a shallow pan. After 15 minutes or so, they should be soft and sweet.

Pod the broad beans and chop the parsley. Drain the rice, then stir it into the leeks. Pour enough water in to cover the rice by 1cm, then add a good seasoning of salt. Cover with a lid and simmer for about 7 minutes, then add the broad beans. Cover once more and simmer for a further 7 or 8 minutes, then test the rice for doneness. Brown rice always has a slightly toothsome and nutty texture, but it shouldn't be tough. If it needs a few minutes longer, check the water level and let it continue cooking. At the last minute stir in the goat's cheese, parsley and mint, check the seasoning, and serve.

A mild, aromatic pilau

Heap a mouth-popping, chilli-hot stew on a pile of this gently seasoned white rice or eat it in its own right as a peaceful, restoring supper to combat a bout of overindulgence. The aromatics are few but essential. Serves 2 as a side dish.

120g white basmati rice
50g butter
3 bay leaves
6 green cardamom pods
6 black peppercorns
a cinnamon stick
2 or 3 cloves, but no more
a small pinch of cumin seed

Wash the rice three times in cold water, moving the grains around in the water with your fingers. Cover with warm water, add 1 tsp of salt and set aside for a good hour.

Warm the butter in a saucepan, then add the bay leaves, cardamom pods (very lightly crushed), the peppercorns, cinnamon stick, cloves and cumin seed. Stir them round in the butter for a minute or two, until the fragrance wafts up. Drain the rice and tip it into the warmed spices, cover with a 1cm depth of water and bring to the boil. Season with salt, cover with a lid and turn the heat down to a simmer.

After 5 minutes, remove the lid and stir gently. Replace the lid and continue cooking for a further 5 or 6 minutes until the rice is tender but has some bite to it. All the water should have been absorbed by the rice. Leave with the lid on but the heat off for 2 or 3 minutes.

Remove the lid, add a knob of butter if you wish, check the seasoning and fluff gently with a fork.

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