I taught a class this week called "Simple Suppers." One of the things that I wanted to teach when I proposed this class was how to make a grain pilaf that is essentially a one dish meal. We are hearing so much about whole grains and how Americans really need to incorporate more whole grains in their diets. A main course pilaf is a great way to do just that.
A pilaf is a grain that has been prepared in a very specific way. If a grain has been cooked using the "pilaf method", it has been sautéed in some butter, oil or other fat before the liquid is added. Frequently onions and possibly some garlic or spices are cooked in the fat before adding the grain. Grains will vary in the amount of liquid that they require and in the length of time that they will need to cook (this information can be found on the box or the bulk bin), but the basic method will remain the same.
The word pilaf is most often applied to rice dishes, but almost any grain can be cooked using the pilaf method. Some examples include quinoa, bulgur, pearled barley, farro, spelt, and wheat berries. Once you learn how to make a grain pilaf, you will be ready to create all kinds of interesting, satisfying and nutritious, grain-based entrées.
To make any grain into a pilaf: First, cook some onion (use whatever kind you like—white, yellow, red, shallots, spring onions, or green onions) in a generous amount (at least 2 T. for a cup of your chosen grain) of olive oil or butter. After the onion is tender, add garlic and any spices that you are using—cumin, coriander, fennel seed, paprika, curry, chili powder, turmeric, allspice, ginger, cinnamon, etc.—and cook until fragrant. Add the grain (rinsed, if necessary) and cook for a minute or two to coat the grain in the fat and get it hot. Add the liquid (water or stock) and salt and bring to a full boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered, until tender—grains vary from 12 to 15 minutes cooking time for quinoa or bulgur, to a couple of hours for wheat berries. When the grain is tender, remove it from the heat and allow it to sit, still covered, for 5 minutes. The grain will continue to absorb any remaining liquid as it rests.
You could serve your grain pilaf as is as a side dish. But you can also think of your pilaf at this point as a blank canvas for all kinds of additions and garnishes. It can become the star of the meal instead of just the supporting player.
To almost any pilaf, I like to add a dried fruit of some kind—I enjoy the sweetness and chewy texture that this contributes. Add the fruit by scattering it over the surface of the finished pilaf while it rests. This will help the fruit to soften a bit. I think sundried tomatoes also fall into this sweet-chewy category and can be added in the same way. If you want to go in the chewy-salty direction, olives can be added to the final dish. Whether you are adding dried fruit, sundried tomatoes, olives or some combination of these, aim for about 1/3 to 1/2 cup for every cup of raw grain.
I also like to add about 3 cups of a cooked vegetable of some kind—cooked beans, blanched, sautéed or roasted vegetables, wilted greens, etc. If you want to add roasted vegetables, think about the fact that roasting shrinks vegetables, so start with a volume of prepared, raw vegetables that is about twice the volume that you want to end with. So, for example, if you want to end up with 3 cups of roasted vegetables, start with 5 or 6 cups raw vegetables. If you are going to serve the pilaf hot (as opposed to turning it into a room temperature or cold salad-type dish), any vegetable you add should also be hot. If you are blanching or sautéing the added vegetables, do this while the pilaf rests. Roasted vegetables can be timed so they are finished when the pilaf is, or they can be cooked ahead and reheated in the oven.
Nuts are another favorite addition—not only for flavor, but for texture. Good choices include pine nuts, pecans, walnuts, almonds and pistachios. Always toast the nuts (350° oven, until golden and fragrant) before adding them. Toasting nuts deepens their flavors and in some cases gives them a more delicate crunch. As with the dried fruit, I add 1/3 to 1/2 cup to the basic recipe.
Don't overlook the addition of fresh herbs--they add loads of flavor. Herbs like rosemary, sage, winter savory and thyme can be added to the pilaf with the onions and spices. Herbs like mint, parsley, basil, cilantro and dill are better added at the end with the vegetables and nuts.
When your pilaf is finished, taste it. Correct the salt and pepper. Don't be afraid to add some lemon or garlic if the flavor seems flat or olive oil if the pilaf seems dry. I like to serve pilafs with a slice of cheese or a little yogurt.
For my class, I planned to teach a bulgur pilaf. Bulgur is a grain that is easy to like--it has interesting texture without being too chewy and it cooks quickly, making it great for a spur of the moment or weeknight meal. Since the class was to have a seasonal theme, I had planned to use asparagus as the main vegetable addition—but I wasn't particularly thrilled with this idea because I already had an asparagus dish in the class. Then, while reading up on grain pilafs, I ran across a bulgur and spinach pilaf at 101 cookbooks. I have not made this recipe, but it looks excellent. In any case, I thought the use of wilted spinach as a vegetable addition was inspired. Spinach is also a seasonal addition. In fact, I already had some on hand from my Saturday trip to the market:
Once I had settled on the spinach, the remaining ingredients fell into place. Chickpeas are good with bulgur and they are also a traditional Spanish and Mediterranean accompaniment for spinach. Other flavors that are good with these two ingredients are cumin and mint. If you are not crazy about mint, dill would also be a good choice. With the texture that the chickpeas provide, you don't necessarily need a nut, but I love them, so I decided to add some toasted walnuts. Pistachios would have been good too (and colorful). Finally, I added golden raisins. I also really like the idea of dried apricots with the bulgur and walnuts, so when I made the dish again last night, I made it with the apricots. It is nice either way. The whole idea is to make a pilaf that pleases you. A good friend told me that she made this recipe with Swiss Chard, Currants and Almonds.
I could continue at length about possible combinations--there are so many different directions you can go when putting together a grain pilaf. You could change this recipe by using quinoa instead of bulgur. If I had chosen to make a bulgur pilaf with asparagus, I might have then included some roasted artichokes and most certainly would have added some blanched English peas (instead of chickpeas). I might have added some thyme and fennel seed to the cooking onions and would have finished the pilaf with parsley, mint and pine nuts...and maybe some lemon zest.
If you need some ideas, recipes for grain based entrées are becoming more and more common and are readily found on-line. A few years ago Gourmet published a barley pilaf-based salad with roasted summer vegetables that has become one of my favorites. This past March, Food & Wine ran an article, "Amazing Grains", that included basic pilaf instructions along with a couple of recipes using this basic pilaf. If you are completely new to the world of grains, Deborah Madison has an extensive and user friendly section on grains in her book Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. Madison even gives pointers on which grains are the friendliest for people who are not used to eating whole grains.
Someone told me recently that people would eat more "healthy" food if it could be made to taste good. Well, this pilaf tastes really good.
Bulgur Pilaf with Chickpeas & Spinach
2 T. olive oil3 or 4 spring onions, including some of the green, sliced--keep the white & green separate
1 fat clove garlic, minced
1/2 t. ground cumin
1 c. (6 oz.) medium bulgur, rinsed and drained
1 1/4 c. water
1/2 c. julienned dried apricots or golden raisins
2 T. olive oil
pinch hot pepper flakes
1 15-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
10 oz. stemmed spinach, washed (Cook the spinach in the water clinging to the leaves in a covered pot. When the leaves have wilted, remove from the heat and cool. Squeeze out the excess liquid and roughly chop.)
1/4 c. mint chiffonade
1/2 c. toasted walnuts, broken or coarsely chopped
Warm 2 T. olive oil in a medium saucepan with a tight fitting lid over moderate heat. Add the white portion of the spring onions along with a pinch of salt and sweat until tender and translucent. Add the garlic and cumin and cook until fragrant—about a minute. Increase the heat to medium high and add the drained bulgur. Continue to cook for a minute. Add the water and some salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered until the bulgur is tender—12 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and scatter the apricots over the surface of the bulgur. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes.
While the bulgur is resting, heat 2 T. olive oil in a wide sauté pan set over medium heat. Add the pepper flakes and chickpeas along with the green tops from the spring onions and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until the chickpeas are hot.
Scatter the spinach over the chickpeas. Season with salt and continue to cook and stir until the spinach is hot through.
Transfer the bulgur to a large bowl. Scatter the mint over the bulgur, followed by the chickpea/spinach mixture along with the walnuts. Toss until everything is well combined. Taste and correct the seasoning. Serve accompanied by some plain yogurt, if you like. Serves 4 to 5 as an entrée.
Note: I used spring onions for this pilaf because I had some from the farmers' market, but you can use any onion that you have on hand--you'll need about one cup. Unless you are using green onions as a substitute for the spring onions, omit the addition of the green portion of the onion to the chickpea/spinach mixture.