When I was young, one of my favorite side dishes was rice pilaf. It came in a slim box with a portion of rice and a sachet of spices, dehydrated chicken stock — and goodness knows what else — all set to prepare with water on the stovetop. The results were salty, addictive and aromatically flavored. My brothers and I would fight over who got to finish the bowl on the dinner table; one box was never enough.
These days, I make pilaf from scratch — and you probably do, too, without realizing it. The principle behind pilaf is that rice, or another grain such as bulgur or farro, is sauteed to lightly toast the grains, and then steamed in a flavorful broth, along with a few aromatics such as onion, garlic and spices. When ready to serve, the rice is fluffed to separate the grains and prevent stickiness, and handfuls of fresh herbs, chopped almonds or chilies are added for extra flavor, crunch and color.
You can choose to keep the rice simple or add the garnishes selectively to your taste. I tend to pile them all on, because rice pilaf always seems to bring out the hoarder in me -- and they do add sensational taste. So, before you reach for a box of pilaf in the supermarket with a long list of multisyllabic ingredients, remember that it’s really quite easy -- and much cheaper -- to make your own from scratch.
Homemade rice pilaf
Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Yield: Serves 6 as a side dish
2 3/4 cups chicken stock
3 tbsp. unsalted butter, divided
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. sweet paprika
Generous pinch of saffron threads
1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup orzo
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped, about 1/2 cup
1 garlic clove, minced
1 1/4 cup basmati rice
1 scallion, white and green parts thinly sliced
1 small red jalapeno, finely chopped
2 to 3 tbsp. coarsely chopped almonds
2 to 3 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
Combine the stock, 2 tbsp. butter, the salt, paprika and saffron in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer and keep warm.
Heat the oil and melt the remaining 1 tbsp. butter in a deep skillet (with a lid) over medium heat. Add the orzo and saute until light golden, about 2 minutes. Add the onion and saute for about 1 minute, and then add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the rice and continue to cook, stirring constantly to coat and lightly toast the rice, for about 2 minutes.
Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and cover the pot. Cook, undisturbed, until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed, about 25 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff the rice with a fork. Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes.
Serve with the garnishes sprinkled over the top.