I’m back in the saddle, which means that the cold has finally blown over (with the aid of about 10 boxes of Kleenex) and I am cooking and writing full force today.
I’m still in an edamame state of mind, but I’m using it today as a vehicle for exploring a tried & true dish worth revisiting: pilaf.
Alas, pilaf has been marginalized (along with fricassees, stroganoffs, aspics and all things devilled) as a dish reminiscent of 1950s home economics classes: outdated, and bereft of style and fashion. If people are familiar with pilaf at all, it is only as an oily buffet offering, studded with limp carrot and celery cubes. Who would bother making pilaf?
I would, that’s who, and I hope by the end of this posting I will have convinced a handful of others, too.
I propose a reincarnation of pilaf. Forget what pilaf has been—it has outstanding contemporary potential and minimal costs of time, effort and money. It an showcase the flavor of your favorite cuisine (e.g., Greek, Thai, Japanese, Indiana, Chinese, Tex-Mex) in a convenient preparation technique anyone can master.
Pilaf can be made with any variety of grains, but rice is the most common. Two steps make a pilaf: first, the grains are briefly cooked in a scant amount of oil or butter; second, a flavorful liquid is added to the grains to make them tender. (Although broth is the most common option, the options are wide open. Combinations of wine and broth, fruit juice and broth, or vegetable juice and broth are several of my favorites.)
Once the grains have been cooked in the liquid, other foods can be added to the pot—think vegetables, tofu, chicken, beans, seafood; you name it. As you’ve probably guessed, pilaf can escape its side dish subjugation and enter the world of entrees with a few hearty additions.
That’s it—an ideal everyday dish in minutes. The preparation remains constant, which means it’s easily memorized: no need to look at a recipe except perhaps for a quick reminder of the rice-to-liquid ratio. Yet the flavor combinations are limited only by your imagination. And as long as you keep a large bag of rice and a few containers of chicken or vegetable broth in the cupboard, a delicious dish is moments away.
Any long grain rice will make a fine pilaf, but if you have an extra dollar to spend, consider specialty rice, such as basmati or jasmine. Basmati is an extra-long grain rice, thin, cream-colored and aromatic. If you never knew rice cold have a flavor in its own right, this discovery will be especially sweet. Jasmine rice, most often associated with Thai cuisine, cooks more quickly and is slightly stickier than other long grain rices (check the cooking time a few minutes early); it yields a creamier pilaf.
Because I have made many a pilaf (it appeared at my dinner table often through graduate school), I offer not one, not two, but three recipes today: a basic rice pilaf, a basic quinoa pilaf, and my wild rice pilaf studded with edamame, toasted pecans and dried tart cherries. The first two are template recipes, wide open for flavor additions and variations.
The wild rice pilaf strays from the basic template since wild rice takes longer to cook. There are a few more steps, but most of the cooking is in the oven, unattended. I had a great time putting it together (in part because I can smell again—everything tastes especially good today).
A quick note about making additions to the template recipes: you can make the additions at one of several stages. Add dried spices, dried herbs and chopped, uncooked vegetables (no more than 1 cup total) at the sautéing stage (along with the minced shallots). Add dried fruits (no more than 1/2 cup total) along with the addition of liquid (this will allow them to plump up with the rice). Cooked meats, tofu, beans, seafood, and fully cooked vegetables can be added once the pilaf is fully cooked; stir in and cook several minutes longer to heat through. If adding nuts or cheese, sprinkle on the pilaf just before serving.
One final benefit of pilaf: it ages well. In other words, it can be made early in the day and reheated (that’s my plan with the wild rice pilaf; I made it this morning for tonight’s dinner). It can also be savored the next day for lunch (or dinner again, if you are up for leftovers—I am).
Wild Rice Pilaf with Edamame, Toasted Pecans and Tart Cherries
Although I am serving this as a side dish tonight, it easily qualifies as a main dish (my husband disagrees—but he grew up in Arkansas and I grew up in California). It is also easily made vegan-friendly: just use vegetable broth in place of the chicken broth.
1/2 cup pecan halves, coarsely chopped
4 teaspoons olive oil, divided use
3/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup minced shallots or onion
1 and 1/4 cups wild rice (about 1/2 pound), rinsed well and drained
3 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 cup frozen (thawed) shelled edamame
2/3 cup roughly chopped dried tart cherries (or dried cranberries)
Preheat the oven to 375°F. In a small baking pan toss the pecans with 1 teaspoon of the olive oil, the thyme, and the salt until they are coated well. Toast them in the middle of the oven for 10 minutes, or until they are crisp and fragrant. Set aside.
In a flameproof casserole cook the shallots (or onion) in the remaining olive oil over moderately low heat, stirring, for 5 minutes, or until softened. Add the rice to the casserole and cook it, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Stir in the broth and bring the mixture to a boil.
Bake covered, for 40 minutes. Stir in the edamame and cherries. Bake, covered, 30 minutes more, or until the rice is tender and the broth has been absorbed. Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir in the pecans just before serving. Makes 8 side-dish servings.
Nutrition per Serving (1/8 of the pilaf):Calories 222.1; Fat 7.1g (poly 1.6g, mono 4.1g, sat 0.6g); Protein 7.6g; Cholesterol 0mg; Carbohydrate 34.1g; Sodium 590.9mg)
(Note: I did the nutrition analysis using Diet Analysis Plus 7.0.1)
Camilla's Basic Rice Pilaf
1 and 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup minced shallots or onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 and 1/2 cups long-grain rice
2 and 3/4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over low heat. Add the shallots (or onion) and cook and stir 5 minutes. Add the garlic; cook 1 minute longer. Add the rice and cook & stir 1 minute. Add the broth. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, covered, until all the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork. Makes 8 side-dish servings (or 4 main dish servings with the addition of cooked chicken, shrimp, tofu, beans, pork, or other main-dish standbys).
Camilla’s Basic Quinoa Pilaf
Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) is something of a wonder food. Technically it is not a true grain, but is the seed of the Chenopodium or Goosefoot plant. It is used as a grain and substituted for grains because of its cooking characteristics. Beets, spinach and Swiss chard are all relatives of quinoa. It looks a lot like couscous, both in cooked and uncooked forms.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup minced shallots or onion
1 garlic clove, minced
3/4 cup uncooked quinoa
2 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan set over moderate heat; add the shallot and garlic and cook 2 minutes. Add the quinoa; cook and stir 1 minute. Add 1 cup of the broth and bring to a simmer. Cover, and reduce heat to medium low. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed and quinoa is tender. Makes 4 servings.
Camilla's Quinoa Nutrition Notes: I'll be writing about quinoa again soon, but for now I'll keep it to the highlights of this amazing food. It is high in protein, calcium and iron, a relatively good source of vitamin E and several of the B vitamins.
A few ideas for variations for the basic pilaf recipe (to get you started on your own creative path):
Fresh herb mélange: add a mix of your favorite chopped fresh herbs.
Persian: lime zest, a bit of cinnamon and cardamom, and a sprinkling of chopped roasted pistachios to finish
Greek: lemon juice and zest, dill or oregano, cooked shrimp or chicken, a sprinkling of feta cheese
South of France: white wine in place of some of the broth, shallots, roasted peppers, piquant black olives, rosemary or herbes de Provence.
Southern: diced dried peaches or apricots, toasted pecans and chopped green onions stirred in at the very end.
Japanese: wasabi powder, edamame, carrot, chopped pickled ginger stirred in at the very end. Southwest: chipotle chile, ground cumin, corn, black beans/roast pork/roast chicken, chopped cilantro