One of the best-traveled of recipes, pilaf originated in Persia and spread through the Middle East and into the Mediterranean area, where it became the preferred method for cooking rice.
Lunch or supper entrees based on pilaf and prepared in a single pan are perfect for the busy American cook. They even fit in with current nutritional recommendations that we eat more grains and less protein. Unfortunately, what frequently passes as pilaf in this country is a far cry from the real thing, partly because the packaged imitations seem to taste mostly of stale spices.
Pilaf has more flavor than boiled or steamed rice because the rice is first sauteed in a little oil or butter, often with a chopped or sliced onion, before being simmered. The sauteing helps keep the rice fluffy and each grain distinct. White or brown rice can be used for pilaf, though white rice cooks faster, requiring about 20 minutes of simmering compared to 35 to 40 minutes for brown rice. Pilaf is easy to prepare, reheats well and can be kept warm.
To turn pilaf into a main course for lunch or supper, stir bite-size pieces of seafood, poultry, meat or vegetables into it. Good choices are poached or sauteed shrimp, lobster or crab, steamed mussels or clams, or roasted, sauteed or poached poultry or meat. Diced sausages or thin strips of smoked turkey taste great in pilaf. I also like to enrich pilaf with bits of grilled chicken, meat and vegetables that remain from a previous night’s barbecue.
In fact, my husband and I find pilaf an ideal way to make use of food we bring home from restaurants, as we often over-order. Whether it’s Italian, Chinese, Indian or Thai food, we simply cut everything in small pieces and add it to the rice, without stirring, after it has cooked about 10 minutes. The result is an exotic pilaf that’s different every time.
Vegetables contribute freshness and color to pilaf entrees. While sauteing onion for pilaf, add diced peppers or quartered mushrooms. Quick-cooking vegetables such as peas, diced zucchini or frozen vegetables can be added to the rice with the liquid.
Any spice or fresh herb can add zest to pilaf. Tarragon, basil, dill and chives can be stirred gently into the finished rice. A friend from the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain sautes chopped cilantro along with onion. Garlic, ginger root and hot peppers can be used in the same way, and so can spices such as cumin and curry powder.
When I lived in the Middle East, I was introduced to three popular side-dish versions of pilaf: yellow rice with saffron or turmeric, red rice with tomato and white or plain pilaf. I now use all three as flavorful foundations for main dishes.
As a cooking liquid, water yields the whitest pilaf, but meat, poultry and seafood stock or poaching liquid give a richer flavor. For festive pilafs, crunchy toasted nuts can be sprinkled over the rice for garnish.
As rice pilaf entered the cuisines of various nations, it gave rise to such sumptuous dishes as Indian pilaus and Spanish paellas, according to culinary historians. Yet these great classics probably began in a similar way--with cooks making the best use of ingredients at hand.
For this tasty Mediterranean pilaf, sausages add flavor to the rice as they cook together. I prefer light turkey sausages but you can use any cooked sausage you like. A refreshing salad of diced cucumbers, tomatoes and green onions is a perfect accompaniment.
CORSICAN RICE PILAF
WITH BLACK OLIVES
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
6 ounces turkey frankfurters or other small cooked sausages, sliced or diced
1 1/2 cups long-grain white rice
3 cups hot water
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1 cup halved and pitted black olives, preferably Greek style
1 roasted sweet red pepper, diced, or 3/4 cup diced bottled roasted sweet red pepper, optional
Freshly ground pepper
Heat oil in medium saute pan or deep skillet. Add onions and saute over medium heat about 10 minutes or until softened. Stir in garlic, frankfurters and rice. Saute 3 minutes, or until grains begin to turn white.
Add hot water, thyme and bay leaf. Stir once and bring to boil. Cover and cook over low heat, without stirring, 15 minutes. Sprinkle olives and red pepper over top. Cook, covered, 3 to 5 minutes longer or until rice is tender. Discard bay leaf. Add black pepper and toss lightly with fork to blend ingredients. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add salt if needed, depending on saltiness of olives and sausages. Makes 2 to 3 servings.
Note: Instead of roasted red peppers, you can add diced oil-packed, sun-dried tomatoes or diced fresh tomatoes.
If desired, substitute blanched or frozen broccoli florets or asparagus spears for the zucchini. For brown rice pilaf, use long-grain brown rice and increase total simmering time to 35 to 40 minutes.
RICE PILAF WITH
SHRIMP AND ZUCCHINI
3 tablespoons olive oil or butter
1 pound medium shrimp, shelled and deveined
Freshly ground pepper
2 or 3 small zucchini, cut into thin sticks about 1 1/2 inches long
1/2 cup minced onion
1 medium clove garlic, minced
1 1/4 cups long-grain rice
2 1/2 cups hot water
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons minced parsley or cilantro
Heat 2 tablespoons oil in saute pan or deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add shrimp, salt and pepper to taste and saute about 2 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon. Add zucchini, salt and pepper and saute about 2 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon.
Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to pan along with onion and saute over medium heat until tender but not brown, about 7 minutes. Add garlic and rice and saute until grains begin to turn white, about 3 minutes.
Pour hot water over rice and stir once. Add thyme, bay leaf, salt and pepper to taste. Bring to boil over high heat. Simmer, covered, without stirring, 15 minutes. Scatter shrimp and zucchini over top. Simmer, covered, 3 to 5 minutes or until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed. Discard bay leaf. Fluff rice gently with fork and add parsley. Taste, adjust seasonings and serve. Makes 2 to 3 servings.