Persian Rice: Plain to POWABUNGA!!
I hope you’ve been practicing the art of making Persian rice, because it is time to amp up the volume and foray into the eclectic wonderland of Persian mixed-rice, and making a good bed of fluffy white Persian rice (polo sefid) is its delicious prerequisite.
I’m excited to finally share with you the afore-promised “how to hack a plain Persian rice” installment of Fig & Quince’s “Persian Rice 101 series” — so named because my mom has a simple, genius method of hacking a plain Persian saffron rice into an impressive, gorgeous and sublime mixed-rice dish that is fit for any festive occasion:
What my mom does is to layer spatula-fulls of the plain rice with a mixture of sautéed barberris and candied orange peels when plating the rice on the serving platter. Sometimes, she also likes to add candied & spiced matchstick-cut carrots to the mix as well (to wit, see the sunset-colored spectacle of the rice dish below.) Optional final touches are to garnish the pyramid of rice with slivers of almond and/or pistachio, and no matter what, she always ends with a devastating coups de grâce flourish of dousing the platter with a couple of tablespoons of melted butter.
The end result is basically a modified and hybrid zereshk polo (berberry rice,) shirin polo (sweet rice,) javaher polo (jeweled rice) and havij polo (carrot rice) all in one. A stunning crowd-pleaser. Something that makes you happy to be alive when you look at it and inhale its fragrance, and the kind of food you close your eyes when you eat it.
This picture is of the dish my mom made this past Norooz and I swear by all that I consider sacred that it was the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. I boldly take some of the credit for making the candied orange peels that came out just the perfect cut and texture and taste – slightly sweet but with just the right hint of bitter zing. The combo of the candied peels with tangy berberis and soft, sweet carrots alongside with the fluffy saffron & butter imbued rice and let’s not forget to mention the crunchy tadig and the perfectly roasted rosemary chicken was … honestly: everyone was in a trance! A truly memorable dish. And so pretty!
Here’s a step-by-step how-to guide to please and entrance a crowd of your own with a gorgeous Va Va Voom Powabunga Persian rice dish:
Step #1 Make polo sefid aka Persian rice.
Follow the directions to make the perfect Persian rice as detailed here. [Introduction to Persian rice and tadig and pictorial how-to tutorials also at your disposal here and here should you need a friendly reference.]
Wash, scrub, and dry a large orange. Score skin with knife in 4 sections and peel out neatly without tearing off the skin. Using a small sharp knife, cut out the white spongy layer of the peel. Scrape any stubborn white pith clinging to the peel by running the edge of the knife against the peel in a back and forth scrubbing motion. (Do leave a thin film of the white pith otherwise the orange peel won’t withstand the several boiling baths that awaits it.) Cut into even-sized matchstick-shaped, thin, long-limbed strips.
In a small pot bring 1 cup of water to a boil, add orange peels, boil for 3 minutes, then drain in a colander. Do not rinse! Repeat this exact step two more times, each time using a freshly rinsed pot and fresh batch of water. After the 3rd boiled-water bath, bring 1 more cup of water to a boil in a clean pot, and cook orange peels and 2 tablespoons of sugar on medium heat until all the liquid has been absorbed. Keep a watchful eye to avoid burning the peels. Once finished, sample a taste and if you find it still too bitter, add more sugar to your liking and stir to mix. Sugar liquifies and it will be absorbed by the orange peels. (A hint of bitterness is a wonderful contrast with the rest of the dish’s ingredients.)
Rinse 1 cup of barberries several times; then soak in cold water for 5 minutes. After a final rinse, spread on a paper towel and allow to completely dry. Then sauté for just one minute in a mixture of olive oil and butter with 1 tablespoon of sugar, 1/4 teaspoon of cinnamon and a hint of ground saffron. Keep a watchful eye as barberries burn easily.
Step #4 : Make Spiced & Glazed Matchstick-Cut Carrots.
My mom recommends only a store-bought one pound bag of very thinly-matchstick-cut carrots for this technique:
Bring 1 cup of water, 1 cup of sugar, 1 teaspoon of lemon zest and 1″ sized cube of peeled ginger to a boil. Add carrots, bring to a boil again, then reduce to medium heat and cook for 30-45 minutes or longer until the syrup is entirely absorbed. At the last 5 minutes of cooking, add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon to the carrots. When done, fish out the ginger and discard.
This step is optional. If you skip it, you’ll end up with zereshk polo (rice with berberis) pictured on top; which is elegant and delicious in its own right and a classic Iranian rice dish.
Step #5. Roast a Chicken.
Coat chicken (washed & dried first) with a mixture of lemon juice and grated ginger and let sit for several hours. Just before roasting, pat dry the chicken with a paper towel, rub its skin with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Add a twig or two of a fragrant herb such as sage or rosemary. Roast in an oven preheated to 375 degree. Depending on the oven, the chicken will be roasted within 30 minutes. Once roasted to your satisfaction, baste it with its own juices and serve alongside with the rice.
Final Step – Putting it all together:
Once rice is cooked and ready to be served, set aside the saffron colored crown portion for a last-step garnish. Plate the remaining rice, a few spatulas of rice at a time, on a serving platter, and sprinkle each layer with a mixture of berberis and orange peels. Repeat this process till you are only left with the crunchy bottom-of-the pot yummy tadig. Form the rice plated on the serving platter into the shape of a mound and top it with the saffron-colored rice that was earlier set aside. If using candied carrots, arrange it in the shape of a thick halo around the rice. Sprinkle the remaining berberis and candied orange peels over the rice. If using slivered almonds and pistachios, artfully sprinkle those on the rice as well. Douse rice with a few tablespoons of melted butter.
As for the tadig, use a spatula to lift and remove the tadig layer out of the pot – ideally in as intact a shape a possible. Cut the crunchy bottom-of-the-pot tadig into serving wedges. Garnish with berberis and/or candied orange peels. Serve alongside with the rice and the roasted chicken.