The glorious Pilaf! So satisfying with its nourishing wholesomeness and its taste bud pleasing savour. The dance of fragrant spices, colours and textures are still playing out on my palates’ memory weeks after the pilaf has been all but eaten. I remember the burst of semi-sour pomegranate kernels, the softness of pumpkin, sweetness of fried sultanas, the taste of caramelised onions and butter. Stunning scents of cinnamon, cardamom and saffron. Rice – beautiful, fragrant and filling basmati; how could anyone possibly call basmati an empty grain?! I loved this pilaf for so many reasons. It reminded me of my childhood, of weddings and family reunions, birthdays and visits to friends. It reminded me of my home and my origin.
I cooked my first pilaf when I was 12. I don’t recall how good it was or if it was any good at all, but I remember my darling Papas’ reaction, he was so proud of me.
The inspiration for the recipe I’m sharing today comes from my Mamas’ love of pumpkin and rice. She would often boil the rice and add some steamed or fried up pumpkin pieces to it. The dish wasn’t one of my favourites back then but as I’ve ascended into adulthood it has grown on me.
Prior baking, I have coated the pumpkin in honey and oil and sprinkled it with sesame seeds for their nutty flavour and the dressy look they added to the pumpkin.
Chestnuts are traditionally added to many pilaf recipes. I hear stories of attempts to peel the chestnuts, mostly they are very funny since chestnuts generally have a tendency to explode when cooked incorrectly. Yes, they have to be cooked before they are peeled.
I made a small cross-shaped incision on each chestnut, then boiled the chestnuts for 20-25 minutes and peeled them once they have cooled down.
I used an absorption method to cook the rice since I find it a little less fiddly to boiling and then straining the rice. I also believe cooking it this way preserves the fragrance of the rice.
It is said that frying the rice prior to adding the water to it helps prevent it from becoming gluggy and clumpy. As well as doing that, I used another traditional trick and wrapped a tea towel around the lid I used for covering my rice pot, to let it soak any excess steam.
Pomegranates are optional but they will add a more exotic look, surprising texture and a zing to this beautiful celebratory dish.
I hope this pilaf will bring as much jubilation to your dinner table as it did to mine!
Cooking and preparation time 1 hour 30 minutes
Cuisine – Azerbaijan
500g kent pumpkin, peeled and cubed
500g kent pumpkin, cut into 6 crescents
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp sesame seeds ( optional )
3 cups basmati rice
1 tbsp butter
1 cinnamon stick
3-4 cardamon pods
10-12 saffron threads
Water ( see method and notes )
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
3 tbsp butter
2 medium size onions, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/3 cup sultanas
150g cooked and peeled chestnuts ( see notes )
1/2 pomegranate kernels
- Preheat oven to 180C. Prepare and line a baking tray.
- In a bowl toss pumpkin, both cubed and crescents, with 1 tbsp of honey and 1 tbsp of olive oil. Evenly spread pumpkin cubes and crescents over a lined baking tray, sprinkle with 1 tbsp sesame seeds and bake for 25-30 minutes or until golden and cooked through.
- Rinse basmati rice under running cold water until water runs clear. Melt butter in the pot for the rice. Add rice, cardamom pods, cinnamon and saffron threads. Fry stirring until some of the rice granules become translucent. Add water, the required amount as says per package instruction for the absorption method (see notes at the end).
Once rice is cooked, wrap the lid with a clean tea towel, cover the pot and set aside. Tea towel will absorb the steam and help prevent rice from becoming clumpy.
- In a large pan dry fry the cumin seeds until fragrant, about 1 minute on a medium-hot flame. Add butter and sliced onions. Cook the onions stirring occasionally until caramelised, 7-10 minutes. Add sultanas, chestnuts and turmeric powder and cook stirring over a medium heat for 3-5 minutes, then remove from heat.
- Move the cubed pumpkin into the pan with the caramelised onions, gently fold the rice in with the pumpkin, onions, chestnuts and sultanas.
- Cover the pan with a lid and return to a very gentle heat, just to keep warm. In the meantime, return pumpkin wedges into an oven to warm.
- Mix pomegranate kernels with the pilaf and move the pilaf into a large serving dish. Arrange the warmed up pumpkin wedges over the top and serve.
To cook chestnuts – make a small cross-shaped incision on the flat side of the each chestnut. Cover with plenty of water and bring to a boil. Cook simmering for 20-25 minutes then let cool in the water they were cooked in, do not strain. Once they are cool enough to handle remove one chestnut at a time and peel with the help of a small knife.
When cooking rice, I suggest adding a little less water than it calls for on the packaging for the absorption method ( 2-3 tbsp less ). Doing this will balance out the added extra moisture that will come from the vegetables and dried fruit.