Is rice pilaf an eighties thing? It seems that at one point, not too long ago, the rice pilaf was always one of the “starch” options at many restaurants; “You can get that with fries, mashed or rice pilaf.” Or Greek potatoes. The word pilaf is derived from the Turkish pilav which comes from the Sanskrit pulaka: “ball of rice.”
Originally hailing from India, rice pilaf became popular in ancient Persia and the Middle East, gaining a foothold in Turkey and Greece; it is often served with shish-kebab, souvlaki or moussaka, and has made its way into other cuisines, sometimes just on the menu as an alternative to spuds. You don’t see it that much anymore, food trends come and go, but perhaps it’s time to bring back the rice pilaf .
Essentially rice pilaf is rice that has been cooked in meat broth instead of water, imparting a golden or light brown colour to the rice along with the flavor of whatever boullion, stock or broth was used; chicken stock, beef, goat etc. The rice is often then mixed with fresh herbs, spices, and sometimes finely chopped meat, onion and or finely diced vegetables and fruit like currants. In many cuisines, a hearty rice pilaf is a main dish, but it also makes a wonderful side.
A simple rice pilaf, perfect for summer dining, doesn’t even necessarily need to be cooked in meat stock; good old water works wonders, especially as you are going to doll up the rice after it is cooked anyway. Though it may seem like sacrilege to some, boiling the rice rather than steaming is a lot easier and usually more foolproof, removing the worry regarding what exactly is happening under that lid.
We like to use a fragrant rice like jasmine or basmati, rinse it two or three times and add it to boiling water and let it vigorously boil for about ten minutes. At about the 5 minute mark, take out a few grains with a wooden spoon and check for doneness; ultimately you want the grains to be a little al dente, not mushy. Check periodically and remove from heat when desired level of doneness is achieved. Strain rice well and set aside. If you like a little colour, mix in a little turmeric.
Basmatti rice is so fragrant and light and wonderful that we like to take it easy on the additions; usually a little red pepper and onion chopped very fine and then sautéed quickly, then tossed with the rice with some fresh chopped herbs like parsley, or dill or cilantro. And there it is. Super simple and quick and delicious and fragrant, it makes a lovely bed for a kebab or an accompaniment to grilled fish or meat, one that you can prepare well in advance-even the day before-and keep in the fridge. In the summer we especially like to make it the evening before and refrigerate it in a ziplock bag: it reheats beautifully on the stove or microwave and takes the worry out of having to deal with a starch side while you’re fiddling on the grill with your beautiful steak.