“When are you going to change that cookie picture on your blog?,” a good friend of mine recently reproached me. She is right. I have been away for too long. But my mind has always been here, really. Please bear with me as I disappear and emerge from the abyss of silence from time to time. I am not quitting blogging. I am here. Just a bit (actually a lot) slow for the myriad of reasons for which I am not going to complain. All is well and life is beautiful and colorful.
Speaking about colorful. Rice pilaf can be colorful, too. Just like in today’s recipe, in which rice is happily married with sun-bright butternut squash and pretty tiny brown beans. I’ll tell you more about this delicious rice pilaf.
This pilaf comes from Azerbaijan where it is also called balgabagli ash. Many variations of rice pilaf made with butternut squash are made across the country. Some call for butternut squash only, to mix with the rice, others take additional ingredients, such as dried beans, while others require meat for a more elaborate taste. This particular recipe comes from the regions of Balaken and Zagatala and I learned to make it from my aunt, an excellent cook of the region’s dishes.
Here the slightly sweetened butternut squash is sprinkled with dill seeds, the region’s cooking staple. You will love what the dill seeds do to the squash–lots of aroma and flavor. The meat addition is cooked separately and is either combined with the cooked rice before serving, or served separately in a bowl, to pass around. Another method to make this pilaf with meat is to arrange tender raw pieces of young lamb onto one half on the bottom of the pan along with butternut squash that takes the other half, then spoon the rice on top and steam together. This recipe is my all-time favorite.
I hope you enjoy it.
Rice Pilaf with Butternut Squash and Beans
Serves 4 to 5
Note: If you are a vegetarian, skip the meat in the recipe altogether.
1 cup dried small brown or red beans, presoaked in water overnight (optional)
5 cups butternut squash cubes (about 3/4-inch / 20-mm cubes)
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon dill seeds
3 cups Basmati rice, washed thoroughly, drained, and presoaked in lukewarm water mixed with 1 tablespoon salt for 30 minutes
4 ounces (115 g / 1 stick / 1/2 cup / 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
2 pounds (1 kg) boneless lamb or beef, cut into 3/4–inch (20-mm) cubes
2 tablespoons butter or oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped (2 cups)
Drain the beans, place them in a medium saucepan, and fill the pan with water. Bring to a boil and simmer until the beans are tender, adding more water to the pan, as necessary. Drain and rinse the beans. Set aside.
Prepare the meat addition. Put the meat in a medium frying pan or shallow saucepan. Add 2 tablespoons butter or oil. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the liquid has evaporated and the oil remains. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add 1 cup water. Cover and simmer over medium heat until the meat is tender and the liquid has evaporated. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Meanwhile, put the butternut squash cubes, sugar, salt, and dill seeds in a medium mixing bowl. Let the ingredients sit in the bowl, until the squash releases some juices, about 15 minutes, then discard the juices (some butternut squash varieties do not release juices, so it is ok if you do not see any juices at all).
Fill a large heavy-bottomed non-stick saucepan with 12 cups water. Add 2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil. Once it is at a boiling point, add the rice and boil for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to loosen any grains that may be stuck together, until the rice is half-cooked. To test for doneness, take a bite on a grain of rice—if it is soft on the outside and somewhat grainy inside, then it is ready. Immediately, toss in the cooked beans, then immediately drain the rice with the beans on a large fine mesh sieve. Set aside.
Heat 4 tablespoons of the butter on the bottom of the same pan. Add the butternut squash cubes and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes.
Level the squash to form one layer. Using a slotted spoon, gently spoon the rice-bean mixture on top of the squash cubes. Shape the rice as a pyramid. Cover the pan with a clean kitchen towel, then secure the lid on top. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 minutes. Uncover, dot the remaining 4 tablespoons of the butter on top, put the kitchen towel—lid back on top, and cook for 45 minutes more.
You can serve the rice pilaf either way: 1) Gently mix the butternut squash and the meat with the rice and scoop the pilaf onto a round or oval serving platter; 2) Scoop the rice onto a round or oval serving platter. Arrange the butternut squash cubes on a separate plate to serve with the rice. Place the meat addition separately, to add to the pilaf to taste.