Sunday, April 11, 2010

Persian rice

Two cookbooks came out of Malawi with me when I finished my volunteer tour in 1994. One was, as you may have guessed, The Malawi Cookbook. I got it mainly because there is a whole chapter on cooking bugs – you never know when that kind of knowledge will come in handy. The other book was The Complete Middle East Cookbook by Tess Mallos. I came across that one in the bookshop one day, and snapped it up as soon as I could cobble together the cash (decent books were rare at the bookstore, and this seemed so out of place with its hard cover and colour photos, that I figured it must have ended up there by some lucky accident.) Anyway, the second book came to mind the other day when I was at a potluck lunch for work. It was hosted by one of my colleagues who is of Persian origin, and who served up a wonderful rice dish. This sent me on a quest to try and emulate it (he forgot to bring me the recipe on Friday, and I’m kind of impatient when I get a food idea in my head), so I dug out this old cookbook and monkeyed around with the recipes until I came up with a close approximation. Turns out there is a whole world of Middle Eastern rice out there that is a lot different from the Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Italian approaches that I am familiar with. For one, it seems most countries have a tradition of almost burning the bottom layer to the pot to form crispy bits that you take out and serve on top of or beside the rice dish. Mmmmm…crispy bits…. This recipe is not one of the crispy bits ones, but it does use an interesting double cooking method that makes for really nice fluffy rice.

This particular dish is from Bahrain, and is called Muhammar. It’s known as sweet rice and also as pearl diver’s rice. The basic recipe is for a plain rice dish, but my potluck rice had almonds and raisins and all kinds of other good stuff in it, so I added some embellishments at the end of cooking.

For the basic rice recipe, you need a pinch of saffron, 2 cardamom pods, 1 tbsp of rose water, 1 cup of basmati rice, and a couple of tablespoons of honey.

Start by cracking your cardamom pods (another good use for that beach stone!), and adding them and the saffron threads to the rosewater. Get ready for a trip if you've never opened a bottle of rosewater before!

Fill a pot with about four cups of water and get it on the stove to boil. While this is heating up, you need to rinse the rice to remove the starchy dust in it.

Just put it in a pot, fill it with water, swirl it around a bit, and drain off the cloudy water. Do this a couple of times until the water is fairly clear.

Once your other pot of water is boiling, add 1/2 tbs of salt, and add your rinsed rice too. Boil the rice, uncovered for 8 minutes.

When the 8 minutes are up, drain the rice. While it’s still in the sieve, add two tbsp of honey and stir it around.

Heat some oil over medium heat in a small pot. (I used a 3 qt pot to boil the rice, and a 1 qt pot for this step. It worked great with the 1 cup of rice I started with – naturally you need bigger pots if you want to double the recipe!)

Put your rice in the pot and pat it down, and then pour the rosewater/saffron/cardamom mixture on top.

Then – the cool step! – poke three holes down through the rice with the handle of a wooden spoon.

Now another cool step – put a turban on it! Take a tea towel and lay it over the top of the pot. Put the lid on tightly, and then wrap the rest of the tea towel up so it sits on the pot lid (do this carefully, since you don’t want your tea towel to catch fire if it hits the stove element or falls on it later). This is a pretty common feature of most of the rice dishes in the book – the towel must help moderate moisture levels, or keep steam drops from dripping off the lid and down onto the rice. Whatever it does, this boil-then-steam technique makes for wonderful rice. Once the turban is on there, turn the heat to low and let the rice sit for 25 minutes.

While the rice is steaming, you can prepare the extra embellishments. Toast a handful of sliced almonds in oil until lightly browned (about 5 or 10 mins). Remove the almonds with a slotted spoon and set aside until needed.

Chop and onion and sauté it in the oil until translucent. Then add a handful of raisins and sauté for another minute or so. Set this aside too.

When the rice is ready, open the pot and get ready to be slammed with the smell of roses! I have never used rosewater before, but man is it amazing. It took me right back to my grandmother’s rose garden in B.C. when I was a kid. It has a strong scent when you open the rice pot, but the finished dish is not overwhelmed by it, it is nicely balanced with all the other flavours.

Remove the cardamom pods while you can still see them, then stir the onions and raisins into the finished rice.

Plate up, garnish with the toasted almonds, and bon appetit!! Not exactly ready in 5 minutes, but well worth the effort!

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