Pilaf, Pilaff, Pilaffi, Pilau, Perloo, Pillao, Paella

Sunday May 12, 2013

A pilaf, so to speak, is as old as the hills.  Derived from the Turkish word pilau, the method of cooking rice by first cooking it in meat fat or oil to coat the grains to enrich the flavor and keep the grains perfectly separated when they are cooked before adding meat or poultry broth for steaming, was invented in ancient Persia.

Persia, the site of today’s Iran and sharing the western Indian border at the time, was conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century and soon the technique for the wonderfully flavored rice was moving with their foreign military campaigns across Northern Africa, into Spain and Mediterranean Europe.  The Arabs planted their rice along the way, the main ingredient in their pilau, wherever it would grow.  It was so tasty that countries that had any Arab influence quickly assimilated the simple recipe for the culinary staple as their own, so there is a pilaf to be found from Greece and Egypt to Spain and Provence.  A pilaf can be made with any type of rice, either long or medium grain, depending on what is available.

Egypt was one of the first cuisines to use Persia’s technique for cooking rice, they fried it in olive oil, and it spread quickly to Greece (Alexander the Great had brought rice back from his campaigns).  Recipes for the fragrant pilaffi were recorded in their earliest cookbook, “Gastrology” by poet Archestratus in 350 B.C.  Greek cookbooks have recipes for pilaffi with everything from mussels to chicken, but they have a good repertoire of delicious meatless renditions with simple vegetables or nuts, topped with mounds of fresh sheep or goat yogurt, served during their rigorous weeks of Lenten fasting.  Rolls of stuffed grape leaves, dolmathes, are stuffed with lemon, dill, and mint-scented pilaffi.

India, known for their art of cooking which was given the status of divine revelation in rhythm with their religious life, had a multitude of rice dishes already in their repertoire by the time of Christ, dictated by the vegetarian diet outlined in the first Hindu Holy Book, the Rig-Veda.  Centuries later, the Moghul Empire of Muslims from Turkey brought their recipe for pilau as they settled in the Ganges valley.  The Sultan’s rice immediately caught on in a world where beautiful cooking was a fashionable kingly pursuit.  Made with one of the premium rices of the world grown in the Himalayan foothills, long-grain basmati, pullao became a dish fit for royal tables, state occasions, and major religious holidays, often concocted by the king or prince themselves.  Recipes evolved to include the multi-layered biryani, one of the most complex and subtle variations on the pilaf family.  Today it is still traditional to make an Indian pilaf with basmati.

The cuisines of Eastern Europe, the Austrian Empire, and part of southern Russia, influenced by hundreds of years of Turkish occupation, all have pilaf.  Known as rys sumiany, rice sautéed as for a roux until brown, pilaf was a favorite of the Old Polish nobility and Hungarian peasants, soaking up the juices of spit-roasted meats and game.

Due to the Arab influences, French Provence is known for its delicious pilafs, although surprisingly, rice dishes did not become a part of overall French cuisine until the late 19th century, after the French Revolution, due to their love of bread as a staple carbohydrate.  Larousse Gastronomique, the French bible of cooking, has a separate heading for pilaf and describes it as “the method of preparing rice originating in the East.”  French pilafs, riz pilaf, often have the addition of a bouquet garni, a fat bundle of aromatic herbs and parsley tied together, set into the liquid after sautéeing the grains for flavor; it is removed before serving.  Favorite renditions include arranging the pilaf around cooked chicken livers, foie gras, or dotted with slivers of truffle.  Rice pilaf with toasted almonds is a traditional Provence specialty.

photo bob chamberlain

The Spanish explorers brought pilaf to the New World along with the wonderful Spanish version of paella (paella is the Spanish word for pilaf).  A full-meal pilaf with meat (there is a recipe that includes frog’s legs), fish (even octopus and lobster), shellfish, rabbit and poultry, sausage, olives, and vegetables, paella is baked in it’s own oversized (at least 12-inches in diameter) shallow iron or copper pan of the same name, a paellera. Paella a la Valenciana is described as a work of art instead of just a dish of food.

Mexico had a steady supply of long-grain rice after the conquest, imported from the Spanish-occupied Philippines (sometimes known as Java rice) to make their lusty, simplified version of paella, the sopa seca, the wonderful first course Mexican “dry soup” that literally scorches the rice by initially frying it with mashed onion and tomatoes.  Anyone traveling in Mexico for the first time and having ordered a bowl of soup, only to get a mound of burnished red-colored rice, has a fond memory of their first sopa seca.

In South America, the coastal lowlands of Colombia are perfect for growing rice.  Arroz con coco is a pilaf with raisins using titoté, coconut oil rendered from fresh coconut milk, made especially for special occasions and served with turkey, ham, or locally caught grilled pescado–swordfish and talápia–and fried slices of plantain.

With the settling of the American colonies and slave labor, rice seed from Madagascar was planted in the Carolinas and Georgia.  Thus named Carolina gold, the beautiful long-grain rice flourished.  America had its own rice plantations and the rice ended up being some of the best in the world.  African-American, Caribbean, New Orleans, and South Carolina cooks all devised a variation of pilaf, often known as a perloo or pulao, with their regional touches.  The early Joy of Cooking contains a recipe for Miss Emily’s Perloo.  Dishes such as hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas and rice), Louisiana Creole and Cajun jambalaya, and Carolina red rice, filling, affordable peasant food at its finest – concocted to keep body and soul together – have become part of America’s culinary heritage.  The Italian risotto, really a stirred pilaf made from short-grain rice that is deliberately overcooked without a lid on the pan, has also been adopted as a favorite preparation in America.  All the dishes mentioned are familiar to seasoned cooks for their common, yet distinctively different, character.

Pilaf in the Rice Cooker Basics

I recommend plain long grain white rice, basmati, white Texmati, Jasmati, or Carolina long-grain rice for best results.  If you like to use Uncle Ben’s converted rice, be sure to increase the liquid by 1/3 to 1/2 cup to compensate for the rice’s longer cooking time.

You can sauté rice right in the cooker bowl before adding the liquid.  It will then just finish cooking on the regular cycle like plain rice.

1.  Place the butter, in pieces, or oil in the rice cooker bowl.  Set the bowl into the machine body.  Plug in.

2.  Press the On switch to cook or program to start the regular cycle.  If your machine has a pre-soak built in, use the Quick Cook cycle.  Butter will melt in about 5 minutes.  Leave the cover open or off.

3.  Add the measured amount of rice to the hot butter or oil and stir with a wooden or plastic rice paddle.  Leave uncovered.  The rice will gradually heat up and gently sizzle, releasing the rice’s natural fragrance.  Stir occasionally.  Cook for about 10 to 15 minutes.  You can cook the rice a short time, just until warm, or a longer time until it turns golden, according to personal preference.  Cooking the rice in the cooker like this will always take a bit longer than if you were doing it stovetop.

4.  Add the liquid, salt, and any other ingredients as specified in the recipe.  Close the cover and complete the cooking cycle (If you used the Quick Cook cycle, reset for the regular cycle).

5.  Let the cooked rice rest 10 to 15 minutes on the Keep Warm cycle before serving.  If the rice is too moist, leave longer on the Keep Warm cycle or else press Cook or reprogram the regular cycle again and set a timer for 10 minutes and continue to steam until the desired consistency.  Turn off the machine or unplug to stop cooking.

Excerpted from The Ultimate Rice Cooker Cookbook, by Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann. (c) 2002, used by permission from the Harvard Common Press.

Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2013

Please enjoy the recipe and make it your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.

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