One of the loveliest moments in Indian-American restaurants is when the waiter appears, wiping off your hot, empty dinner plates with a clean towel. They are placed on the table, and within seconds, usually, a steaming platter of fragrant, colorful rice appears. That’s when my appetite really kicks into gear. You can know such Pavlovian bliss at home—and the even greater bliss of a great pilaf. It is extremely easy to reproduce the light and fluffy texture they achieve—if you use the best quality of Basmati rice, and if you follow the instructions below carefully (including the unconventional soaking of the rice, then using very little cooking liquid—which works like a charm!) If you can find fresh curry leaves at an Indian grocery—bright green, nutty-minerally-smelling leaves that have nothing whatsoever to do with curry—your fragrant pilaf will be more wonderfully fragrant still.
makes 4 side-dish servings (or 2 servings for rice fanatics)
1 cup Basmati rice, preferably Dehra Dun (a growing area northwest of Delhi)
1 heaping tablespoon clarified butter, or regular unsalted butter
1/3 cup very finely minced onions
6 pods of cardamom, cracked slightly
3 pieces of cinnamon stick, each about 2″ long
1/2 firmly packed teaspoon of saffron
6 fresh curry leaves (or 3 bay leaves)
1/2 cup chicken stock mixed with 3/4 cup water
1. Pour 1 1/2 cups of water into a measuring cup. Add the Basmati rice to the water. Let stand for 30 minutes.
2. When ready to cook, place the clarified butter in a high-sided sauté pan with a tight-fitting lid (any vessel about 10″ in diameter that holds two cups of rice will do.) Place over medium-low heat. Add the onions and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the onions are very soft (about 10 minutes.) Do not allow the onions to brown.
3. Drain the rice in a sieve, and run the rice under cold water from the faucet for a minute or so. Shake off the excess liquid, and add the rice to the cooked onions. Add the cardamom, cloves, cinnamon stick and saffron. Stir together for a minute or so, coating the rice with the butter. Turn heat to high, and add the curry leaves along with the stock-water mixture. When the liquid begins to boil, turn heat down to medium-low and taste the liquid carefully for salt. Adjust seasoning, if necessary. Cover tightly and cook over medium-low heat until the rice is tender and fluffy, about 15 minutes. Keep off heat, covered, for 5 minutes, and transfer the rice to a platter with a fork, fluffing the rice as you go. Serve immediately.
Making the Pilaf Even More Festive
Most Indian restaurants in the U.S. give us a taste of (or a look at) the traditional celebratory red color that turns up in Indian food in India; the dyeing of Chicken Tandoori is a good example. But the most memorable use of the red color, for me, was at a place in New York called India Pavilion, where Oswald Stevens, the owner, would dye red some of the rice going into his rice pilaf. The result was really quite beautiful, and extremely festive. I’ve seen others use orange dye for the same process. If you’d like to try it, here’s what you do:
1. Bring 1 1/2 cups of salted water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add about 10 drops of red (or orange) food color.
2. With the water boiling, drop 3 tablespoons of Basmati rice in the red water. Boil until the rice is tender, 12-15 minutes. Drain the rice in a sieve and reserve.
3. When you reach the end of step #3 in the recipe for Fragrant Indian Rice Pilaf with Saffron and Curry Leaves, you’re ready to incorporate the red rice. After the pilaf has cooked for 15 minutes, blend in the red rice with a fork, fluffing as you go. Keep off heat, covered, for 5 minutes…just as the recipe instructs. Transfer, fluff and serve as you would the regular pilaf recipe.