by Betty Thompson
"Anyone who refuses his pilav, let his spoon break" - a Turkish saying. "Anyone who breaks his promise is a coward."
Pilav, Pilaf, Pellao, Pulao, Pelau, Perleau, Pollo: all spell the titles for delicious grain mixtures cooked with an assortment of finely chopped herbs, meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts and savory stocks.
In Middle Eastern cookbooks whole chapters are devoted to pilafs. Grain dishes have been basic to that area's cuisine for centuries. One Turkish cook has collected over 100 recipes for pilaf.
The earliest pilaf was probably made with wheat in the form of bulgur. Bulgur, or bulghour, is wheat that is first boiled and dried. Some of the outer bran is removed and then it is cracked.
A good Middle Eastern market may offer several grinds from which to choose, dependent on how it is to be used. This ancient form of processing wheat was used in biblical times as a method of preservation. Bulgur is available in bulk and marketed in some grocery stores under the name Allah.
Even more popular is rice pilaf. Every Middle Eastern cook - Armenian, Turkish, Egyptian - has a favorite method for cooking rice. The most elaborate way is Persian. Rice is soaked, steamed, drained and combined with butter, egg yolk or yogurt and layered with tasty morsels. It is cooked over a low flame until a choice, crisp, golden-brown crust has formed at the bottom of the pan. When removed, these pieces garnish the platter and attest to the cook's expertise.
This month's pilaf recipes are easy. Several thousand varieties of rice exist but the long-grain type is the best for pilaf (more specifically basmati from India or Pakistan or Southern rice from the U.S.). Washing rice depends on how it is packaged. Enriched rice should not be washed. Rice coated with talc should be washed. The label should say which it is.
The grain (rice or bulgur) is lightly fried in hot oil or butter. Swelling is somewhat decreased and the grain develops an interesting color and flavor. Avoid excessive browning which can cause the rice to break up and become mushy.
The rice is then seasoned with a choice of herbs, spices, sautéed vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, sometimes meat and steamed in the best quality stock. When finished the grain is fluffy and flavorful with each grain dry and separate. (When using brown rice, double the cooking time.)
Pilafs also can be baked, which takes a little longer. Fry the grain, add the seasonings and vegetables, then the boiling stock. Slightly more liquid than for stove top cooking, 21/4 cups stock to one cup of grain, is needed. Place the pilaf in a baking dish, cover and bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes. This is convenient when serving with roasted meats as the pilaf can be in the oven at the same time.
Pilafs cooked with meat can be a whole meal or make a perfect complement to kebabs, roasted or grilled chicken or lamb and rich vegetable stews, or they make a quick snack with yogurt. If sautéed in oil, rather than butter, the dish can also be good cold. Dress leftovers with a simple vinaigrette and use as a salad.
For attractive serving, line a ring mold with buttered aluminum foil. Pack the hot cooked pilaf into the mold, pressing firmly. Weight it with a plate and something heavy for 10 minutes. When ready to serve remove weight, top with a serving plate and invert. Remove foil.
Pilafs are made with interesting and varied combinations. A few Middle Eastern combinations include: chickpeas, onion, vermicelli and cumin; onions, carrots, cinnamon and rosewater; tarragon, chives, parsley, and dill; lamb, pinenuts, almonds, cinnamon, allspice and raisins; onions, garlic, tomatoes, basil and parsley; chicken, almonds, pistachio and saffron.
In areas other than the Middle East one finds an Indian pilaf with green ginger, bananas, mangoes, cinnamon and seafood. The Moors in Spain introduced the use of saffron, cinnamon, citrus, almond and pistachio. A Carolina Pelau shows Creole influence with a recipe calling for coconut, crab and a hint of West Indies rum.
"Every hero will eat pilaf in his own way." - a Turkish saying. "Everyone will think and react in his own style"
Golden raisins, dried apricots, toasted slivered almonds and a hint of curry make this rice pilaf an all time favorite. 1 small onion, finely chopped 2 tablespoons butter or oil 2 cups long grain rice 1 tablespoon Madras curry powder 1/3 cup dried apricots, cut into 1/4 inch strips 1/3 cup golden raisins 4 cups good chicken stock, hot 1/2 cup toasted slivered almonds salt and pepper to taste 1/3 cup minced parsley or mint
Heat butter in a heavy saucepan and sauté onion until golden; add rice and stir and sauté until opaque (2-3 minutes). Add curry powder, apricots, raisins and hot chicken stock. Bring to a boil and stir to combine. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Let stand another 5 minutes to absorb any remaining moisture. Fluff with a fork, adding almonds, salt, pepper and parsley.
SPINACH & RICE PILAF
Spinach, onion, dill and rice are combined with crumbled feta cheese at the end of the cooking time to produce this delicious pilaf. 1 small onion, diced 1 10-ounce box chopped frozen spinach, thawed 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 cups long grain rice 1 teaspoons dried dill weed salt and pepper to taste 4 cups chicken stock, hot 1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
Squeeze moisture from the thawed spinach. In a heavy saucepan, sauté onion in oil until tender. Add spinach and continue frying until spinach is dry. Add rice and fry several minutes until rice is opaque. Add dill, salt, pepper and hot chicken stock. Bring mixture to a boil, stir to combine, cover and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and let stand covered for an additional 5 minutes. Toss with crumbled feta cheese. Serve with grilled chicken.
Bulgur is sauteed with small pieces of broken pasta, flavored with onion and garlic and simmered in a beef and tomato stock to make this Armenian pilav. Top with Parmesan cheese if desired. 3 tablespoons butter 1 small onion, chopped 1 clove garlic, minced 1/2 cup vermicelli, broken into 1-inch pieces 1 cup bulgur 1!/4 cups beef broth, hot 1 cup tomato juice Salt to taste 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
In a heavy saucepan, sauté onion and garlic in butter until tender. Add broken pasta and sauté until lightly browned but not scorched. Mix in bulgur and stir for one minute longer. Add hot broth and seasoning. Cover and cook over low heat for 25 minutes or until water is absorbed and bulgur is soft.
This may also be baked in the oven. After adding the liquid (plus an additional 1/4 cup, add seasoning and bring to a boil. Pour the mixture into a casserole, cover and bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Remove cover, stir and leave in the oven for 10 minutes more.
Betty Thompson has taught cooking classes in Humboldt County since 1974.
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