Although I have wandered far from my desert home of snowless winters and juicy pomegranates, I still miss my native cuisine, which, is my opinion, is among the best in the world. To make matters worse, some of it cannot be re-created quite in the same way outside the region, especially not deep in the heart of North America. Fortunately, the all-around wonderful bi-lingual AZ Cookbook website offers numerous traditional Azeri recipes adapted for stateside measurements and ingredients. Thanks to its author, Farida, I have been able to add to my repertoire a classic Azerbaijani pilaf – the heart and soul of every celebratory occasion.
Now what makes Azerbaijani pilaf stand out is the texture of the rice – tender and fluffy but with each grain holding its own rather than clinging to others. There are many variations on this beloved classic, which can incorporate a range of ingredients such as lamb, fish, poultry, greens, or winter squash, but, in my mind, the archetypal pilaf includes dried fruits, chestnuts, and chicken, and this is precisely the version Farida shares on her site.
Although I deviated from the original recipe once or twice, the only notable difference is in my decision to cook my chicken differently from the method suggested because a farm-raised eight-pounder takes much longer to cook than its supermarket counterpart.
Now here’s the most important secret: to get the grain to cook just right, the first step is to soak the rice for about half-an-hour to remove excess starch in a bit of salty, lukewarm water. Farida actually rinses the rice first before soaking, but for some reason I didn’t.
White basmati rice. Not brown. White.
Just a little bit of salt…
Rather than rinsing the rice before soaking, I rinsed it afterwards (for no particular reason).
Now we’re going to be committing a bit of a sacrilege here – using a rice cooker!
I used twice the amount of water as that of rice, which is consistent with the rice-cooker’s instruction booklet and my general knowledge of cooking white rice. Note that, in this step, we’ll only be cooking the rice until it is partially done and not all the way. Farida does a real good job explaining the exact degree of desired doneness in her recipe.
These kids keep hanging around the kitchen. Not sure where they came from.
And then compare with mine. I just pierce the skin in the middle and sort of slice through the skin in each direction.
We’ll have to boil our chestnuts for 10 minutes before we can peel them.
At which point mine will kind of fall into halves, which I don’t mind (although Farida’s stay intact). But first let them cool, eh?
Next, dried fruit. You can use a variety here – golden raisins, dried plums, but, whatever you do, be sure to include dried apricots.
Aren’t they beautiful?
I always use sulphured ones because unsulphered apricots, in my opinion, look and taste terrible.
My goodness, are these ever gorgeous.
The other type of dried fruit I opted to use in this case was craisins, or dried cranberries. They are pretty and tangy and I thought they worked perfectly.
Next, we will saute the fruit and the chestnuts in butter for a few minutes. However, I found that dried fruit thus cooked stayed, for the most part, too tough and dry (note that this was NOT Farida’s experience – I checked in with her about that. Must be the quality of the fruit available at our food cooperative). Anyhow, next time I intend to soak these before sauteeing.
Either way, the fruit will plump up and start looking like this.
Next, I sauteed the onions in butter (not shown) instead of cooking them together with the chicken as suggested by the original recipe. I did it in a dutch oven, which is where I cooked the actual pilaf.
The other component we’ll be needing is saffron water for flavoring and partially coloring our rice. In this case I didn’t know that the strands were supposed to be ground in a mortar and pestle first before adding hot water, but it worked anyway. Farida’s method for proper saffron-water preparation can be found here. This saffron that you see here, by the way, came from Azerbaijan.
Now we are ready to roll – we’ve got carved roast chicken, sauteed fruits and chestnuts, sauteed onions in the dutch oven, saffron water, partially-cooked, drained rice, and not-here-shown melted butter. This is a layered pilaf, by the way, so we want all of the ingredients to be ready to go before we begin.
I started by layering chicken on top of the onions…
Half of the rice on top of chicken…
All of the dried fruit on top of the rice…
Then topped everything with the remaining rice and drizzled with melted butter…
And saffron water.
Note that Farida was careful to arrange her rice in a mound, but for some reason I had a hard time doing that. I don’t think that was a problem, though.
And here is a neat trick – wrap the lid of the pot where you’ll be cooking your pilaf in a kitchen towel and tie the ends on top of the lid (lest they catch fire). This is done to absorb the steam and to prevent rice from becoming soggy and goey. And then you pretty much cook it, thus covered, over low heat until the rice is done (for me it took 20 min).
And this is what it will look like. Now note that this picture was taken before I realized that you are supposed to stir together all of the pilaf components to re-distribute the butter and the onions evenly, for a proper pilaf is nice and buttery. As you can see, some of the grains have been colored by the saffron and some haven’t, but I think this little bit of contrast is part of the idea.
It’s a little funny to see my American kids eating Azerbaijani pilaf in Wisconsin…
But I think they approved.