When students of mine grumble that they can’t make a good pot of rice, I suggest they try pilaf. Simple and practically foolproof, pilaf is a popular side dish because it has a lot more flavor than steamed or boiled rice.
To prepare pilaf, you briefly saute the rice in oil or butter to give the grains a toasted flavor and to help keep them separate. Next you pour in hot broth or seasoned water--two cups for every cup of rice--and stir once. The rice cooks in a covered pan until it is tender but not mushy. By then, it has absorbed all the liquid. You don’t need special rice; you can produce excellent pilaf with common long-grain white rice, and brown rice works well too.
“Do not disturb” is the rule to remember. Resist the temptation to lift the lid as the rice simmers. Avoid stirring, as that would cause the grains to stick together. Handle the cooked rice with a light touch. Use a fork to fluff it and to gently incorporate any last minute flavorings. Mixing other ingredients in vigorously, especially with a spoon, would crush the grains to a paste.
To flavor my pilaf, I opt for eastern Mediterranean accents--garlic, tomatoes, herbs such as thyme, oregano or dill or spices such as cumin, turmeric, allspice or red pepper. When I want to prepare a one-pot pilaf entree, I gently add diced cooked meat, poultry, seafood or legumes. For a Parisian pilaf I include butter-sauteed mushrooms, and occasionally diced vegetables like carrots, asparagus or peppers for extra color, taste and nutrition. I love to garnish my pilaf with plump raisins and toasted almonds to lend it a festive finish in the grand tradition of the Ottoman Empire.
Faye Levy is the author of “1,000 Jewish Recipes” (Wiley, 2000).