In The Kitchen:
Sometimes you’ll see the spelling as “pilaf” or even “pilau”.
This recipe is dedicated to Abe Sahak, wherever he may be. It was posted to the site December 2008.
Culinarily, I have never hesitated to rush in where angels fear to tread. When I was in graduate school and just beginning to teach myself to cook, I was dating a Chinese girl from Taiwan whom I invited over for dinner, along with a few other friends. I had gotten excited about “Chinese” cooking—which to me at the time meant any stir-fry in a cornstarch-thickened sauce seasoned with soy sauce. And I blithely proceeded to cook and set before my friend—nurtured in one of the greatest culinary traditions on earth—my “Chinese dinner.” She smiled sweetly as she ate the overcooked meat and the soggy vegetables, coated with a gelatinous glue of soy-sauced cornstarch. Perhaps she was a saint in an earlier incarnation.
I had better luck with the pilav. I invited five friends over, including my Afghan friend Abe Sahak, for an “international” meal prepared in my apartment kitchen the size of a closet. Each of the five (yes, five!) courses was from some “United Nations Cookbook” I (perhaps fortunately) no longer possess; and the entrée was the pilav, which is still part of my repertoire. My friend Abe pronounced it quite authentic, though he gave me two pointers about the carrots and raisins, which I hereby pass on to you. It should now be obvious that this is a fail-proof recipe. It is also one that people invariably respond well to. It is simple, subtle, and deeply satisfying.
“Pilav” is more a concept than a recipe. It is quite variable, and totally forgiving. If you don’t have all the ingredients I suggest, don’t worry—go with what you got. If you include meat, it serves very well as a main dish, particularly for a prepare-ahead summertime meal, or for a picnic. Without the meat, it will do nicely as “the rice dish.”
- rice: 1-½ to 2 cups raw white rice
- whole natural almonds: a generous handful
- good olive oil: for sautéeing
- raisins or dried currants: a generous handful
- carrots: 2 or 3
- onion: one medium to large, or 2 small
- celery: a couple of stalks
- leftover roast meat: How much you got?
- black olives: at least ¾ cup in good-sized pieces
- parsley: a good handful, chopped
- a dressing: maybe ½ cup, probably more, made of good olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and cumin
- raw sweet red pepper: to garnish
- more black olives: to garnish
Cook the rice ahead of time—say, early morning for afternoon assembly of the pilav. (Remember to salt the rice when cooking, and you won’t have to heavy up on the salt in the dressing.) Dump into a large mixing bowl, and continue dumping in the other ingredients as they are prepared.
Toast the almonds lightly (try 250°F for 8 minutes or so) and chop coarsely. Heat some olive oil in a sauté pan and add the raisins or currants—sauté at a pretty brisk heat but stirring constantly. (They burn readily because of their high sugar content.) Look sharp: As soon as they puff up and change color (from black to brown), remove them from the heat.
Slice the carrots “matchstick” style (rather than across the grain). Sauté “hot and fast” in the pan, stirring constantly. You want to cook the carrots enough to develop their flavor, but retain some “crunch.” If the carrots scorch a little, that’s okay. Dice the onion finely and sauté until translucent. The celery is not authentic in this Middle Eastern dish, but it adds a nice texture contrast. Dice.
The best meat for this dish is leftover leg of lamb—or sometimes, in my house, kid goat. (Sometimes I will roast a whole shoulder or two just for use in this dish.) But use what you have. Slice into small bite-size pieces. As for olives, please don’t use those bland canned pitted mushy things. Use a briny, tangy (yeah, funky!) black olive—calamatas are excellent. Pit the olives and cut them into thirds or quarters. Finally, add the chopped parsley. For the dressing, juice at least one lemon, add ½ teaspoon salt, and add enough olive oil to make ½ cup. Crush one tablespoon of whole cumin seed with mortar and pestle, and add. (Cumin is the only spice I ever use in my pilav. I strongly recommend against using powdered cumin.)
Now pour the dressing over the ingredients and mix all together thoroughly. (I just use clean hands to mix—much easier than a big spoon.) Taste. Add more of any of the four ingredients in the dressing as needed. You may end up using another tablespoon of cumin seed. The cumin should “scent” every mouthful of pilav as a subtle background flavor, without being dominating or “medicinal” in tone. As for the lemon juice and olive oil: Aim for a bit of “tang” in the taste, and just enough oil to moisten the rice. A sharp, heavily vinaigretted “rice salad” is not what you want to achieve.
Mound the pilav in a serving bowl and garnish with strips of sweet red pepper radiating from an open center. Into that center you can mound more of your funky black olives, pitted but left whole.