Deliciously Fragrant, Fruity & Nutty Armenian Rice Pilaf

by Caterina Borg, Good Food Gourmet on May 30, 2015

Armenian Rice Pilaf, www.goodfoodgourmet.comOne of the regular side dishes my family would make at home was something called Rice Pilaf. It was a combination of long grain rice and small, cut up pieces of vermicelli pasta that were cooked together in the same way that mum made her delicious fried rice. As a kid, I never knew anything more about this dish other than it tasted good and was made with rice and pasta – but my curiosity as an adult, had me thinking that there was much more to this dish than just rice and pasta.

If you look at the rich history of this dish, you will find that different variations span the globe. Places like the Balkans, Middle East, Central & Southern Asia, East Africa, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Latin America, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Iran and Turkey, along with a few others, have created their own versions of pilaf.

It is believed that the proper preparation of pilaf was first documented by a tenth-century Persian scholar named Abu Ali Ibn Sina, who dedicated a whole section of his writings on how to prepare various meals — including several types of pilaf.

Pilaf is thought o have first been served to Alexander the Great, to celebrate one of his territorial conquests. Ancient texts reveal that soldiers from Alexander’s army brought the pilaf preparation back to Macedonia, which then spread throughout ancient Greece.

So what actually is this ancient preparation known as pilaf?

The ancient Indian text Mahabharata mentions rice and meat cooked together, along with the Sanskrit words pulao or pallao to define the dish. The dish may be made with lamb, chicken, beef, pork (pig tails) or fish. Some of the many different spices that may be used to flavor the rice are things like saffron, mint, cumin, coriander, turmeric and pepper. Onions, garlic, peas, pigeon peas, carrots, pumpkin, potatoes, red or green bell peppers, corn and legumes may also be used as are dried fruits (raisins, apricots, cranberries or cherries) and chopped nuts (pistachios, walnuts or almonds). Whatever the ingredients, they are all combined and cooked together in rich, flavorful broths. The final result will be a dish that reflects the prominent flavors and ingredients of each country.

OK, so we have nailed down rice as an ingredient in pilaf — but where does the vermicelli pasta come in?

It appears as though vermicelli comes into play in both Armenian and Middle Eastern versions of rice pilaf, and more than likely came about to prevent the waste of staple items.

I decided that if I was going to make this from this day forward, I was not going to make this as we did at home, but rather find a more authentic version. The resulting recipe was an homage to Armenian flavors and ingredients that we may have not considered trying.

I will tell you that this was so delicious that it will forever be my go to recipe for rice pilaf.

Armenian Rice Pilaf
1 ½ cups long grain rice (I used long grain rice)
½ cup of uncooked vermicelli pieces **break into 1” pieces
3 cups boiling water (or use 3 cups chicken stock and omit bouillon cubes)
1 ½ bouillon chicken cubes (I use Knorr or Maggi)
Salt (use sparingly because of bouillon cubes)
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1/3 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/3 teaspoon ground cumin
1/3 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons dried parsley
1 small onion plus 2 tablespoons of flour to coat (slice thinly into strands, coat in flour and fry)
¼ cup roasted walnuts **roast then coarsely chop (or pine nuts, roasted almonds)
3 tablespoons dried cherries (or cranberries)
3 tablespoons currants (or use golden raisins)
¼ cup grapeseed oil (or you can use vegetable oil)

NOTE: I use Canilla brand long grain rice because that is all we ever used at home. I did find recipes using basmati rice that seems to be the most traditional. If you choose to use basmati, follow the cooking instructions for this rice on the package, because there are differences in the amount of water used and how it is prepared. I have provided directions below based on conventional long grain (not par boiled) rice.

Before you begin cooking the rice, it’s important to prepare all of the other ingredients that will be added to it. The rice cooks up fairly quickly, so this part is important. I sliced up my onion into thin strands, coated it in a little flour and fried it. I also roasted and chopped my nuts and re-hydrated my cherries and currants with some hot water, and then strained them before tossing into the pilaf. If you choose to use red or green bell peppers, make sure to finely dice these and lightly sauté them in a little oil, then set them aside. You can add raw vegetables, but they are not as tasty as those that are lightly sautéed.

Armenian Rice Pilaf, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Armenian Rice Pilaf, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Armenian Rice Pilaf, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Armenian Rice Pilaf, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

When you are ready to cook the rice, place the ¼ cup of grapeseed oil into a medium sized pot and heat on moderate flame. Add the rice and the vermicelli to the oil and use a wooden spoon to gently cook them in the oil, stirring often so that they do not burn.

Armenian Rice Pilaf, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Armenian Rice Pilaf, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

You will see the some of the grains of rice turn an opaque color, like this…

Armenian Rice Pilaf, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Continue stirring for about a minute or two. You want about half the rice to turn this opaque color, but not all of the rice will. This is critical when you are preparing rice this way. The oil cooks the starch in the rice and prevents the rice grains from sticking together.

Once you are ready, pour in your 3 cups of boiling water and turn down your heat to low. Crumble in the bouillon cubes if you are using them and stir well to melt them in the broth. Taste the liquid to make sure that you don’t need any more salt. If you choose to add more, I would not add more than ¼ teaspoon or so…I generally don’t add any extra salt. Quickly add your ground pepper, turmeric, cumin and cinnamon along with your dried parsley. Stir it well together one last time, and cover with a lid and allow the rice to cook slowly. Do not peek too often because the water will evaporate and the rice will not be cooked.

Armenian Rice Pilaf, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Allow the water to evaporate completely until you no longer see it bubbling through the rice. This should take about 5-8 minutes. You will see the water slowly evaporating if you quickly peek under the lid…

Armenian Rice Pilaf, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Armenian Rice Pilaf, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

When it’s ready, you will see the rice grains split open, just make sure to keep it covered until this happens. You can also take small spoonfuls to taste and make sure before turning off the heat. If it has not completely cooked, just leave it for another minute or so with the lid on. Once it is ready, lift off the lid and remove all of the condensation that has collected on the lid by letting it drain off in your sink and not back on your rice. Place the lid back on the pot but leave a small space for the rice to breathe and release the extra moisture, about 10 minutes or so.

Armenian Rice Pilaf, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Once it has cooled slightly, use a fork to ease the cooked rice out of the pot into a large serving bowl. Add in all of the extra ingredients you have prepared and toss everything together gently and serve.

Armenian Rice Pilaf, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

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