Fall Cooking: Pilafs
Versatile, Quick and Satisfying
Fall is officially here and that's a trigger for me to restock my pantry. I know that cooler weather will soon arrive and my cooking will adjust to days with more chill and less sunlight. That means I'll want to have on hand the ingredients for favorites that I never make in the summertime. One of them is pilaf, a perfect dish for a city cook.
- Pilaf is a pantry dish, made with ingredients you can always keep on hand.
- It can be made in less than 30 minutes.
- You can make a pilaf with almost any grain. Rice is the most familiar, but pilafs are wonderful made with bulgur, quinoa, tiny pieces of pasta, barley, kasha, millet, or couscous.
- It's a satisfying base to which you can add steamed vegetables, canned chickpeas, or chunks of leftover meat or chicken.
- You can make pilaf in advance and easily reheat it when ready to serve, making it a do-ahead dish for yourself or when cooking for company.
- It's a satisfying side or a single-bowl meal in itself.
Pilaf shows up in many different cuisines. Indian cooks make it with basmati rice. Italians will use a tiny pasta like tubetti. In North African and Middle Eastern countries it is common to find pilaf made with long grained rice or bulgur wheat. The varieties are many.
It is often made with a grain that is first toasted in a small amount of fat -- usually olive oil or a combination of olive oil and melted butter -- and then cooked with aromatics and a large amount of liquid. Unlike risotto, made by gradually adding small amounts of a hot liquid to dense Arborio or Carnaroli rice, pilaf needs little attention because all the liquid is added at once. So it's not only delicious to eat -- it's easy to cook.
My favorite pilaf is the simplest to make. I place a little olive oil and a tablespoon of unsalted butter in a large saucepan that has a cover. Once the oil is hot and the butter is melted, I add 3/4 cup of long grain rice -- Uncle Ben's is perfect -- plus 1/3 cup of the rice-shaped pasta variously called orzo or riso, and keeping the pan over a medium-high heat, I stir the rice and orzo to toast it, cooking until the pasta pieces begin to turn golden and the stirring creates a dry, scratchy sound which is a sign that the rice is ready. To this I add 2 1/4-cups of boxed chicken stock -- directly from the box without preheating -- and stir. I season with a little freshly ground pepper but no salt, because there's some in the stock. I then bring the liquid to a boil, lower the heat to simmer, and cover the pan and cook for about 20 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender.
I love this pilaf as a comfort food at the end of a long day and it’s a favorite companion to plain roasted chicken. Sometimes I'll mix in leftover vegetables. If I'm cooking for company as I did this past weekend when I made a veal roast for a friend's birthday dinner (see our recipe). I'll make a bigger roast than I need and hope for leftovers that can be cut into chunks and added to a pilaf. For my leftover veal I made a Quinoa Pilaf (see our recipe) and also added some thick slices of sweet Greenmarket carrots that I simply zapped in the microwave and the acidic contrast of a diced fresh tomato.
While you can buy boxed pilaf mixes -- Near East is a popular brand -- I don't like them for two reasons: one, they are very costly for the value of the ingredients; you can make the same amount of pilaf for a fraction of the price of that box. And two, these mixes are always very high in salt. It takes only minutes longer to put your own pilaf together instead of using the packaged kind and you'll save both money and blood pressure.
Pilaf also travels well which means it makes a perfect meal to take to work for lunch.
Tips for Cooking Pilafs
- If you're going to add aromatics -- meaning diced onion or celery -- to your recipe, before you do, gently toast the rice or other grain in the hot fat. Then add the other ingredients. Otherwise the moisture from the onion or celery will interfere with the grain getting a toasted surface and that toasting is an important step to get a more complex flavor. So start with hot oil or oil and butter, then lightly toast the rice or grain, followed by cooking the diced onion and/or celery until it's translucent and soft, and finally add the stock or other liquid. See our recipe for Toasted Barley and Onion Pilaf that uses this method.
- If you're adding other ingredients, such as vegetables or pieces of meat or seafood, add them after the pilaf has cooked. Unlike in a risotto when the flavoring ingredients are added early to the cooking process, in pilaf you want the grain to be completely cooked so that its flavor and texture contrast with the added ingredients. As an example, if you're making a pilaf with bulgur wheat and you want to add large cubes of roasted butternut squash, make the pilaf while the squash is cooking in the oven, then combine. This way the flavors and textures stay independent.
- You can make a pilaf with any grain. Just use the normal amount of liquid. If you prefer to use brown rice, you can make any rice pilaf recipe by substituting brown rice for white and adjusting the amount of liquid and cooking time. See our recipe for Red Rice Pilaf that uses the beautifully full flavored Bhutanese Red Rice. It's a bit of a splurge, compared to the cost for plain long grained rice, but it makes a dramatic dish that's special for company.
- The grain is not always toasted. Some Indian and Persian versions use basmati rice without toasting it which leaves the rice somewhat fluffier.
- Rice pilafs are often combined with nuts, dried fruit or spices. If you visit the recipe databases like Epicurious, FoodandWine.com and MarthaStewart.com, search on "pilaf" and you'll find dozens of recipes from cuisines around the world.
I know there will be the days I will get home late, tired and craving an easy dinner from an empty refrigerator. But I'll also know that on my shelf is at least one box of chicken stock, a small box of DeCecco riso, and a big glass jar filled with Uncle Ben's rice which means dinner is always something to look forward to.