I love grain pilafs. I love their textures...I love their taste possibilities...I love their versatility. They can always be counted on to make an interesting side dish, but more and more, I am enjoying them as the main event. And because many of the things I like to put in my pilafs are pantry staples—grains, nuts, dried fruits, spices—they can be pulled together quickly and easily without too much advance planning.
Typically I don't think of making a meatless entrée pilaf out of rice (possibly because rice is fixed in my mind as a side dish). But recently, when I ran across a recipe for a Chicken, Chickpea and Rice Pilaf at Cookstr, the presence of the chickpeas made me think of a couple of bulgur pilafs that I have posted here—both of which I serve as a main course. I thought a meatless pilaf in the style of this one would make a good main course too. And it did.
To make the pilaf, I started with a base of saffron rice. One of the tastiest ways I have ever had saffron rice is with a topping of crispy fried onions. I'm not crazy about frying in general—and certainly not for a weeknight meal (every cook has certain tasks they would rather not do)—so I just incorporated some caramelized onions into the base of a French-style pilaf. It isn't the same, but it tasted very good.
|Lightly caramelized onions|
|Briefly cooking the rice with the onions|
Other changes I made to the pilaf were aimed at adding color and a bit of contrasting tartness. With an eye to both of these things, I substituted tangy and dark dried tart cherries for the pale and sweet golden raisins. I added more color by using pistachios instead of almonds. For a final bit of zip, I sizzled the chickpeas in some olive oil along with a bit of Cayenne.
Serving the pilaf with plain yogurt adds some nice contrast too. If you are not going to serve it with yogurt, you should definitely give the pilaf a squeeze of lemon juice at the end. Even if you are serving it with yogurt, you might still want to add the lemon—it seems to lift and enhance all of the other flavors.
The original pilaf didn't include a roasted vegetable. Because I like chunks of vegetables in my main course pilafs, I added some roasted carrots.
|Carrots roasted with cumin and coriander|
If you don't like carrots, cubed and roasted winter squash would also be good. And while they have an entirely different flavor profile, I think turnips would be a nice option too (or almost any root vegetable, for that matter).
I do of course understand that many people feel they haven't had dinner if they haven't had meat or fish. If you fall into that category, you can still make this flavorful pilaf. Just serve it as a side—as is, or without the carrots and chickpeas. I think it would be especially nice with lamb...but fish—or the original chicken—would be good too.
Basmati Pilaf with Chickpeas, Dried Tart Cherries & Pistachios
1 lb. carrots, peeled and cut on the diagonal 1/3-inch thick
Salt & Pepper, to taste
1/2 t. (heaped) ground cumin
1/2 t. (heaped) coriander
2 T. olive oil
1 medium onion (about 8 oz.), diced
1 fat clove garlic, minced
1 c. basmati rice
2 c. boiling water
a generous pinch of saffron
1/2 c. dried tart cherries
1 T. olive oil
1 15-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/8 t. Cayenne (or more to taste)
3 T. minced flat-leaf parsley
1/2 c. toasted pistachios, coarsely chopped
Lemon juice, to taste (optional)
Place the carrots in a large bowl. Season to taste with salt & pepper. Add enough olive oil to coat along with the spices and toss to coat. Spread on a baking sheet. Roast in a 425° oven until tender and browned in spots, stirring once—about 25 to 30 minutes. Set the vegetables aside until ready to assemble the pilaf and reduce the oven temperature to 350°.
While the vegetables roast, warm 2 T. olive oil in a medium saucepan with a tight fitting lid over moderate heat. Add the onions along with a pinch of salt and cook until they are tender and beginning to caramelize (20 minutes or so). Add the garlic and cook until fragrant—about a minute.
Add the saffron to the water and keep hot.
Increase the heat under the onions to medium high and add the rice along with a generous pinch of salt. Continue to cook for a 2 minutes or until the rice is well-coated with oil and has begun to turn opaque. Add the water and bring to a full boil. Season with salt, reduce the heat to low, cover and transfer to a 350° oven. Cook for 18 minutes. Remove from the oven and scatter the cherries over the surface of the rice.
Cover and let stand for 5 minutes.
While the rice is resting, warm a tablespoon of oil to a medium sauté pan. Add the chickpeas and cayenne and heat through. Return the roasted vegetables to the oven to heat through.
Transfer the rice and cherries to a large bowl. Add the carrots, chickpeas, pistachios, and parsley. Toss until everything is well combined.
Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. If the pilaf tastes flat, add a squeeze of lemon. Serve accompanied by some plain yogurt. Serves 3 or 4 as an entrée.