Meal in a Bowl: Central Asian Rice and Beans…

  …what to eat with your fabulous chile sauces (see previous post)!

Dinner in a Bowl

Pilaf, Pulao, Pilau, Polow, Palov–these are all names for the grain dishes of Central Asia, culinary cousins of Spanish paella or Italian risotto. The names change from country to country, but the preparation techniques are similar: grains are sautéed in oil or butter with aromatic spices and cooked with various other ingredients to create a dish rich in flavor and beautiful to look at. Add beans or lentils, and you have a meal in a bowl.

Long grain white Basmati rice is the traditional grain of choice for many pilaf recipes because it is refined, fragrant, and has the perfect texture for absorbing seasonings and remaining distinct. Other grains can replace the white Basmati with delicious results, and combining two or three grains in one dish makes for interesting variations in taste and texture. Special pilaf dishes are often made for celebrations and holidays–infused with saffron and decorated with flower petals, pomegranate seeds, and candied orange peel. Even a more humble pilaf  is rich with flavor and makes a festive and aromatic centerpiece for any meal.

Grain Close-up

Making pilaf dishes provides a good opportunity to explore the qualities of different kinds of grains as well as the wide selection of rices available. Long-grain rices are preferable for pilaf because their grains become fluffy and distinct when cooked. I often cook with brown basmati and brown jasmine rice, which are mild and tender but chewier and more assertive than white rice. California wehani and Bhutanese red rice are both good in pilaf, adding earthy, nutty flavor and beautiful red-brown color. My pilafs often include farro, kamut, pearled barley, bulgur, quinoa, or wild rice.  Be sure to cook grains with different cooking times separately. Soaking brown rice or other whole grains 1/2 to 2 hours in room temperature water allows the grains to swell more fully and reduces the cooking time somewhat.

Indian Rice and Beans Pullao

Ingredients: 3/4 cup mung beans (or substitute split mung beans or red lentils), 2 bay leaves, one 2-inch cinnamon stick, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 1/2 cups white basmati rice, 1 Tbs oil, 1 Tbs butter, 1 tsp coriander seed, 2 cardamom pods, 1 1/2 cups diced onion, 1 cups diced carrot, 1 1/2 Tbs minced ginger, one chopped serrano chile, 2 cups water

Tarka: 1 1/2 Tbs oil, 1 tsp cumin seed, 1 tsp black mustard seed, 1/2 tsp fennel seed, 1/2 tsp fenugreek seed

Wash the beans or lentils in several changes of water. Drain and put in a saucepan with 3 cups water and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer 15 to 25 minutes, until tender. Remove from the heat, drain excess liquid, and stir in 1/2 tsp salt.

Wash the rice in several changes of lukewarm water, drain, and set aside. Warm the oil and butter in a Dutch oven or similar pot over medium heat. When hot, add the coriander seed and cardamom pods; cook 10 to 20 seconds. Add the onion and cook 5 or 6 minutes. Add the carrot, ginger, chile, and rice and stir-fry 1 or 2 minutes. Add 2 cups water and 1/2 tsp salt; bring to a boil, stirring gently. Reduce the heat, cover tightly, and simmer over low heat 20 to 25 minutes, until all the water is absorbed. Remove from the heat and let sit 10 minutes.

Make the tarka: Warm 1 1/2 Tbs oil in a skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the spices and cook about 30 seconds. Add the cooked rice and stir to distribute the spice-oil. Gently stir in the beans. Season to taste with salt, cover and cook until heated through, 1 to 2 minutes.

Garnish: Chutney of chopped cucumber, diced tomato, minced shallot and ginger, and chopped fresh mint; dressed with fresh lime juice and a sprinkle of salt, with a bowl of fresh chile-garlic sauce on the side

Persian Rice and Lentil Polow

Ingredients: 1 1/2 cups brown basmati rice, 1 cup small brown or green lentils, 2 Tbs oil, 1 tsp cumin seed, 2 tsp coriander seed, one 2-inch stick cinnamon, 2 cardamom pods, 1 1/2 cups thinly sliced onion, 2 carrots cut in short matchsticks, 1 1/2 cup diced tomatoes (fresh or canned), 1/2 cup currants or dried cranberries, 1/2 tsp ground allspice,  1/2 cup chopped parsley

Garnish: toasted walnuts and quick pickled lemon slices

Wash the rice. Put the rice in a pan, cover with plenty of lukewarm water, and set aside to soak 1/2 to 2 hours (this helps the rice absorb water more easily when it cooks). Wash the lentils and check for grit or small stones; drain. Put the lentils in a saucepan with 3 cups water and 1/2 tsp salt. Simmer gently 15 to 20 minutes, until just tender. Drain and set aside.

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. When hot, add the coriander, cumin, cinnamon and cardamom; stir 10 to 20 seconds, until fragrant. Add the onion, stir to coat with oil, and cook 6 to 8 minutes. Add the carrots and drained rice; stir-fry 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, currants, and allspice. Add 3 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover tightly, and simmer 30 to 35 minutes, until all the water has been absorbed. Remove from the heat and let sit, covered, 10 minutes. Stir the lentils and parsley into the rice and fluff gently with a fork.

Season the polow with salt and freshly ground black pepper, transfer to a serving platter, and top with toasted nuts and lemon slices. Serve with zhoug or other fresh salsa.

 Three-Grain Pilaf with Spiced Chickpeas

OK, two of the three “grains” are not true grains–wild rice is a grass (if you are really lucky, someone will harvest it for you from their canoe), and quinoa is the seed of a plant related to lamb’s quarters.  Each has a unique texture and flavor to contribute, and the combination becomes more interesting. Because they require different lengths of time to cook, the grains need to be cooked separately.

Ingredients: 1/2 cup wild rice, 2/3 cup quinoa, 2/3 cup farro, pearled barley, or coarse bulgur wheat), 1 1/2 Tbs oil, 1 Tbs cumin seed, 2 tsp mustard seed, 1 cup finely chopped onion, 3/4 cup diced carrot, 1/3 cup chopped sundried tomato, 1 Tbs chopped garlic, 1 Tbs minced ginger, 1 minced fresh hot chile, zest of 1 orange, salt, and water

Garnish: chopped toasted nuts or seeds, chopped fresh herbs (parsley, cilantro, mint, basil, dill…), lemon slices

Wash the wild rice, drain, and put it in a pot with 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer until all the water is absorbed–15 minutes for truly wild rice, about 40 minutes for cultivated wild rice. Toast the quinoa  in a dry heavy skillet 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a saucepan with 1 1/3 cup water. Bring to a boil, cover tightly, and simmer over low heat 15 minutes. Note: true wild rice and quinoa may be cooked together, as they cook in the same length of time.

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the cumin and mustard seeds and cook 10 to 20 seconds. Add the onion and cook until translucent, about 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in the carrot, tomato, ginger, garlic, chile, orange zest, and grain, stir-fry 2 or 3 minutes. Add 1 1/3 cups water and 1 tsp salt, bring to a boil, cover tightly, and simmer over low heat until all the water is absorbed–15 to 20 minutes for bulgur, 25 to 35 minutes for farro or barley.

Make the spiced chickpeas. Toss 1 1/2 cup cooked chickpeas with 1 1/2 tsp curry powder. Heat 1 Tbs oil in a skillet. Stir-fry 2 tsp cumin seeds 10 to 20 seconds. Add the chickpeas and cook 1 to 2 minutes.

Gently combine the chickpeas, wild rice, and quinoa with the cooked grain. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Transfer to a serving dish and top with toasted seeds or nuts and a generous handful chopped fresh herbs. Serve with fresh or quick pickled lemon.

Wild Rice Pilaf

Wild Rice Pilaf

A quick and easy pilaf…make it with freshly cooked wild rice, or use some other rice or kernal grain. It’s a great way to turn leftover rice into something delicious.

Ingredients: 1 cup wild rice, 2 Tbs olive oil, 1 finely chopped medium-large sweet onion, 2 or 3 diced carrots, 1 diced red bell pepper, 1/3 cup dried cranberries or currants, 2/3 cup chopped fresh parsley, salt and freshly ground black pepper

Wash the wild rice in several changes of water, drain, and put in a saucepan with 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, cover tightly, and simmer over low heat until all the water is absorbed and the grain is tender. Cook true wild rice 15 minutes, cultivated wild rice 40 to 50 minutes. Add more water if needed.

Warm the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.  Stir in the onion and cook a few minutes until translucent. Add the carrot and bell pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Add the cooked grain and dried fruit to the pan and stir to combine. Season with salt and black pepper and stir in the chopped parsley.

Serve with harissa, preserved lemon, or a bowl of yuzu kosho.

Welcome additions: steamed green beans, snap peas, shelled peas, or fava beans


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