06 August, 2010

indian pilaf

When we made our recent move to Chicago, my husband and I were determined to have everything moved-in, to explore the neighborhood, and to be thoroughly settled into our new home before I began medical school. We met a few road blocks along the way but were comfortable enough to have a relaxing evening together before my first day. I wanted to cook a nice meal together and we did exactly that.

It was a three-course Indian dinner using recipes from the Easy Indian Cookbook by Manju Malhi. It's a small, brightly-colored, glossy book, probably available at Borders, definitely the kind of book I would never consider buying. I don't trust most cookbooks. But this one was a gift from my Organic Chemistry professor who grew up in India and is a fantastic cook.

We made: 1) Bhuna dal, translated as fried legumes, a soup-like dal made with four different lentils and beans and topped with a spice mixture that has been cooked in butter; 2) Baingan bharta, translated as smoked eggplant; and for dessert, 3) Kaaju ki barfi, translated as cashew nut diamonds, simply made of ground raw cashews, melted powdered sugar and green cardamom. We had planned on making our own Naan, a light and chewy flat bread, but by the time we started preparing everything else it completely slipped our minds. The meal was delicious and I am glad to have this cookbook.

As good as that was, I have an even better recipe to share with you: the recipe for the rice pilaf that my Indian professor taught me how to make. During the summer break she invited me to her house to cook lunch with her and her mother, who was visiting from India. Of course I accepted. Learn how to prepare some authentic Indian dishes from two Indian women - could anybody say no? It turned out to be quite the afternoon of cooking, talking, and eating. We made a pureed soup with pumpkin, carrot, and red lentils, topped with these beautiful fried red onions.

Cauliflower with potatoes and tomatoes.

A beet salad with tomatoes, red onion, cilantro, lime juice and ground peanuts (probably the most interesting and my favorite of the day).

And a rice pilaf with veggies and cashews.

See how the basmati rice stands up-right once it's done cooking? I love that.

It was a new experience for me to try to keep up with the cooking and write down everything we did. I am confident that I learned from two women who really know Indian food. My professor's mother, in a pale blue saree that matched her stunning eyes, spoke infrequently and softly, but everything about her exuded a calm confidence. She did snicker as I pulled out my camera, quickly snapping photos of each dish as we sat down to eat.

I want to share the rice recipe with you because it is incredibly versatile. In fact, before I left Texas a friend of mine had a baby and I brought her this rice along with lentils. Using what I had on hand, I made it with a wild rice blend, had to omit some of the spices, and skipped the fried cashews to make it a bit healthier. I'm sure you could come up with at least one hundred variations.

Indian Basmati Pilaf Recipe:
You can easily substitute butter or a different oil to make this healthier, just make sure you keep the heat lower if you use olive oil. You could also just add the spices with the rice and water for a quicker no-fat version, but you will definitely be missing out on some of the flavor. Finally, note that cooking time will vary if you use something other than basmati rice.

2 Tbs vegetable oil 
1 tsp cumin, ground
5 whole cloves
1 1/2 inch cinnamon stick, broken up
3 cloves black cardamom, seeds removed and pods discarded
15 black pepper kernels
5 bay leaves

1 cup basmati rice
2 cups water
1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup carrots, chopped
1 tsp ginger, grated
1/2 cup warm water
1/2 cup frozen peas

In a large skillet/pan, heat the oil over high heat. Add the spices and cook until they begin to sizzle, 1-2 minutes.
Add the rice. Stir to coat and cook until it begins to turn color.
Add the water and salt, cover and bring to a boil. Keep a steady boil going for about 5 minutes.

Gently stir in the carrots and ginger along with 1/2 cup of warmed water. The grains of rice will break if you use cold water or are too rough with them.
Stir in the peas.
Cover. Turn the heat to high just long enough to generate a good amount of steam.
Cook on low heat for about 10 minutes, covered.
Remove from heat but do not disturb for 10-15 minutes.

Optional: top with sliced red onion and raw cashews that have been fried in a couple Tbs. of hot oil.

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