Friday, November 16, 2007

Saffron Basmati Pilaf

This was my first attempt at a pilaf. The recipe looked so enticing in Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking (from the library), I'd been looking forward to making it for two full days.

I started by soaking a cup of basmati rice for a day and a half. It really only needed seven hours, but I had some unexpected leftovers last night and didn't get a chance to make the pilaf then. I strained this rice while melting two tablespoons of ghee (clarified butter) in my cast-iron wok. Even before cooking it smelled enchanting. In a separate bowl I mixed two cups of water, a pinch of saffron (crumbled), two tablespoons of raisins, three-quarters of a teaspoon of sea salt and two teaspoons of Muscovado sugar. Muscovado is exactly like brown sugar in texture, unlike Rapadura, which is free-flowing. It has a much deeper, more complex flavor than brown sugar since it is unrefined. This particular Muscovado was grown on volcanic islands off the coast of Africa.

When the ghee had melted, I added a cinnamon stick, six cardamom pods, and five whole cloves to sizzle for a while. I took them out when the cardamom pods had browned. Then came the definitive pilaf step: I fried the uncooked rice in the spiced ghee, stirring to keep it from burning, until it browned slightly. Then I poured the water and other ingredients on top, covered it partially, and brought it to a boil. From here on, it's all about experience. My instructions said to let it simmer for ten minutes, keep it at very low heat for another ten minutes, then cover it completely and let it rest in its own steam another ten minutes. Each of these steps took me about twice as long. I was too afraid of burning it to cook it at a high enough temperature, and too afraid of undercooking it to take it off the heat too soon.

In the end, the flavor and texture were so seductive it was difficult not to eat the whole batch myself. I've had Rice-A-Roni-type pilafs before, which were lovely, but never quite as subtle and fragrant as this basmati. I served it with the Indian-style braised beef I prepared earlier this week and some steamed organic broccoli and brilliantly purple cauliflower.

I hope with practice to become a more fluent and confident pilaf-chef. I will, of course, be happy to share my experience along the way, whether at the table or online.

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