Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Rice has been a kitchen staple of the world’s cuisine for thousands of years.
Pilafs (Turkish pilav and Hindi pulāo stemming from the Persian pilāv), as these dishes are called, are ubiquitous no matter where you are dining!
Pilaf and similar dishes are common to Balkan, Caribbean, Caucasian, Central and Eastern Asian, Northern African, Eastern European, Latin American, and Middle Eastern cuisines.
Biryani, for example, is a rice dish that was popularized in India during the Muslim conquest. A classic biryani is prepared with mutton. But the dish is so popular across India and served during special family celebrations that one finds many variations, depending on what your personal wishes or religious preferences are: with chicken and dried fruit; with cubed lamb or goat; with very aromatic vegetables similar to a risotto; with herbs, spices and pine nuts; with seafood, like a paella – it all depends on the preferences of the cook and the number of people around the table.
To say about biryani that it is fragrant, it would be an understatement. It uses a multitude of spices that create a tour de force of smells and tastes.
In the 4th century BCE, Alexander the Great and his army were reportedly so impressed with Bactrian and Sogdian pilafs that his soldiers brought the recipes back to Macedonia. Since then, in the Eastern Mediterranean and especially Greece, vegetable pilafs have been some of the most popular dishes. Spanakorizo (spinach and rice) or prasorizo (leeks and rice) are common lenten dishes, but because they are so easy and inexpensive to cook they are favored year round.
Trim, wash and cut the leeks into 1/4 inch rounds
Heat the olive oil in a large sauteuse, add the onion and cook for about 5 minutes, till the onion becomes soft. Make sure the onion doesn't burn
Add the leeks and spring onions (the spring onions can be added either at this step or with the dill and lemon juice) and sauté for an additional 5 minutes, again being careful not to burn them.
Add the rice, and sauté for 1-2 minutes until it slightly starts to color
Add the water, and bring to a boil. Cover, and simmer for about 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until rice is ready.
After 20 minutes, most of the water should have been absorbed by the rice; if you find the rice is still crunchy and there is hardly any liquid, add some more hot water and cook for another few minutes
Uncover, add the lemon juice, the salt and pepper, the dill, and stir to combine.
Remove the pot from the heat, and let sit uncovered for 5-10 minutes; it will continue to thicken.
Drizzle with some extra olive oil and top with the extra dill.
Serve with lemon quarters on the side.
NOTE: Leeks can often be full of sand; be sure to wash them well.
The spanakorizo recipe is the same as the above, except use 1/2 lb. baby spinach instead of the leeks.
Another Eastern Mediterranean favorite dish, very popular with Turkish, Greek, Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian cooks is Iç Pilav or Black Pilaf (for recipe see article) made with rice, aromatics, chicken hearts, livers and gizzards, pine nuts and currants.
An additional use in the Eastern Mediterranean is in stuffing tomatoes, peppers or squash with rice and a mixture of spices, aromatic herbs and ground beef and then oven baking them. Also making the popular yaprak sarmasi or gialantzi dolma varieties of vine leaves stuffed with rice, aromatics and pine nuts or cabbage leaves stuffed with a mixture of ground beef, rice and herbs, dutch-oven cooked and covered with avgolemono i.e. egg-lemon sauce.
And then, of course, there is Paella; the seafood version made in La Barceloneta port restaurants is superb.
Here you have a combination of rice, saffron, chicken thighs, chorizo sausage, vegetables and aromatics such as tomatoes, onion, cilantro, bell pepper and garlic, bay leaf and paprika and clams, mussels and crayfish or calamari resting on a bed of short grained bomba, a rice variety popular in the Iberian Peninsula.
Traditional paella is cooked with a crusty, flavorful rice layer at the bottom of the pan called socarrat; the socarrat is a key component of an authentic paella. So do not stir the rice; stirring the rice will make it mushy and stop the socarrat from forming.
What kind of rice is used in a family’s kitchen depends on what region of the world that kitchen is located. The further east, the longer the rice grain, such as basmati or jasmine. The further west, it is a medium or short grained rice like the Greek nichaki or nuhaki, Italian arborio, carnaroli or vialone nano and the Spanish bomba.
In the United States, we have such varieties as Texmati – a basmati variant - Calrose, Koshihikari, and Akitakomachi; all long-grained.
If you are looking for something different and exceptional, try to find Wada Kolam also known as Zini Rice or Jhini Rice, a traditional variety grown in the Palghar District in Maharashtra, India. It can be found in Indian stores in areas with large numbers of Indian emigrants, like Manhattan’s East 28th street.
There are over 40,000 rice varieties grown around the world.
Unless you are using pre-boxed, parboiled rice, most times rinse the rice first, to clean up any dirt. Also rinsing rice will wash away any powdery starch that can make the rice grains sticky while cooking. Rinse the rise under cool running water in a fine-mesh strainer. A notable exception to this rule is the Paella; when preparing that dish never rinse the rice!
Rice is usually sold in 4 commercial varieties:
Polished Rice, "polished" simply refers to white rice that has had its outer brown layer of bran and germ removed.
Brown Rice, this rice retains its bran and germ layers that give it a characteristic tan color. Brown rice takes longer to cook than white rice but the bran layers are rich in vitamins and minerals.
Black Rice is also known as Forbidden Rice because in ancient China it was reserved only for the Imperial kitchens and the aristocracy. It is high in nutritional value, with a mild nutty flavor. Slightly sticky when cooked, it is used in a variety of Chinese and Thai dishes to add color to any pilaf or rice bowl. When cooked the rice turns a very deep purple color.
Wild Rice. Wild rice grains are harvested from the Zizania grass. High in protein, wild rice adds a colorful, exotic elegance to any rice dish.
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