Eziz Qonaqlar, Meclisimize Ash Gelir! Ok, no panicking, it’s in Azeri, I’ll translate, word by word: Dear Guests, Pilaff is Entering Our Ceremony! This is how the Tamada, a Toastmaster always announces the appearance of a festive Pilaff at the Azerbaijani wedding ceremony. Royal treatment, you would say? Now, listen to this. Beautifully presented and mouth-watering pilaff is literally escorted to the reception area with one person at the head (a dancer in a national costume or a waiter) carrying the pilaff plate and others following with torches in their hands. This plate is placed on the bride and groom’s table. And of course, all this is accompanied by beautiful music and a happy cheering of the guests. Now, this is royal!
Yes, Rice Pilaff is the king (or the queen:) of all foods in Azerbaijan. It is not prepared on a daily basis, but there is hardly any celebration, ceremony that would not have pilaff on the menu.
Azerbaijani cuisine boasts countless versions of it, with every region having its own special recipe. Typically, long grain rice is steamed with saffron on top and a layer of golden crust called Gazmag (in Azeri: qazmaq) on the bottom. Traditionally, a crust is prepared from eggs, flours, butter and yogurt. Or, if you are pressed with time, simply lay peeled sliced potatoes or flat bread – lavash on the bottom, then scoop the rice on top and steam it.
Usually this type of Pilaff is served with additions, known as ashgara (ashqara) or khurush, prepared separately from the rice. Meat, dried fruits, fresh herbs, fish, vegetables and aromatic spices are cooked in many different ways to make the addition, which, when ready, is piled on top of the cooked saffron rice on individual serving plates.
Some recipes call for the addition to be cooked with the rice, inside the same pot. Like the one I am posting today. It is a simplified version of a layered rice pilaff called Parcha-dosheme Plov in Azeri. The origianal recipe requires a crust on the bottom before other ingredients are layered on top. In our family the following simplified version of it is cooked more often. No crust, but still delicious! Make it a part of your Novruz table!
LAYERED RICE PILAFF WITH DRIED FRUITS & CHESTNUTS
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
Servings: 4 to 6
3 cups long-grain white Basmati rice (you can also use long-grain American rice)
4 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup peeled chestnuts*
½ cup pitted dried apricots (you can half them, too, if they are too big)
1 cup dried sour plums, pitted
½ cup pitted dates
½ cup golden raisins
1 ½ (700g) pounds skinless, boneless chicken cut into 2-inch (5cm) cubes
1 medium onion, peeled, cut in half lengthways, then thinly sliced in half-circles
1/3 teaspoon ground saffron threads*, dissolved in 3 tablespoons hot water
ground black pepper
VARIATION 1: You can also use lamb in this recipe instead of chicken. Boil the lamb it in a pan with water for about 5 minutes, skimming the froth with a slotted spoon, then drain and use as directed in the recipe. This is done to remove the unpleasant smell and to get rid of the excessive froth lamb releases.
VARIATION 2: You can substitute dried sour plums with dried barberries (in Azeri: zirinc) or dried pitted sour cherries.
1. Pick over the rice carefully, removing any stones or other extraneous particles. Place the rice on a fine-mesh strainer or colander and wash thoroughly under lukewarm water until the water runs clear (as close to clear as possible). The rinsing process removes the starch so that the rice grains will remain separate after cooking.
2. Soak the rice in a large container filled with lukewarm water mixed with 1 tablespoon of salt.
3. While the rice is soaking, prepare fruits and chestnuts. In a medium frying pan, heat 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add peeled chestnuts and stir-fry for about 3 minutes. Add dried apricots, plums and dates and stir-fry for another 3 minutes. Add raisins (add them last because they brown fast and can be easily burned) and stir-fry for 1 more minute. Remove from heat.
4. In a large non-stick saucepan, combine 10 cups of water and 2 tablespoons salt. Bring to a boil. Drain the soaked rice (do not rinse) and add it, in batches, to the pot. Boil for about 7 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, to prevent rice grains from sticking to the bottom. Watch the rice closely so as not to overcook. The rice is ready once it surfaces to the top. Try one grain to see if it’s ready – it must be barely done – not fully cooked and not too soft (VERY IMPORTANT). Drain the rice in a large fine-mesh strainer or colander. Set aside.
5. Rinse the pot you boiled the rice in. Melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat. Tilt the pan to distribute it evenly. Arrange meat in one l layer at the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle with ½ teaspoon salt and pepper, to taste. Follow with the layer of sliced onions. Simmer over medium heat uncovered, without stirring, for about 3 minutes to let the flavors develop.
6. Place half of the rice in the pot over the onion. Arrange the dried fruits and chestnuts in one layer on top of the rice. Pile the rest of the rice on top of the fruits, mounding the rice nicely in the shape of a pyramid. Pour 1 tablespoon melted butter over rice.
7. Place a clean dishtowel or 2 layers of paper towel over the pot and cover firmly with a lid to absorb the steam. Lift the corners of the towel over the lid as shown in the picture below.
8. Reduce the heat to low and cook for 30 minutes. Then open the lid and sprinkle the saffron water on top of the rice.
9. Cover again and simmer for another 30 minutes. When ready, meat should be cooked and lightly golden on the bottom. The onion will almost melt into the meat and will not be that visible. Rice grains should be separate and fluffy, and not sticky.
10. When ready to serve, gently take 1 spatula full of rice, fruits and meat at a time, placing it on the large serving platter. This Pilaff is delicious served with pickles, vegetable salad or fresh herbs. Nush Olsun! Enjoy!