Persian cooking instructor Najmieh Batmanglij makes some kind of rice every day and says it's a big part of Iranian cooking. For this stunning dish, she prefers to use Aahu Barah brand basmati rice, available at Yekta Supermarket in Rockville.
Among her secrets for the initial stage of cooking the rice: a splash of rose water and a small muslin bag that holds crushed green cardamom pods. The bag stays in through most of the cooking.
Saffron is an expensive ingredient, but grinding the threads and stirring the ground mixture into rosewater ensures maximum impact.
Servings: 6 - 8
- For the rice
- 4 cups long-grain basmati rice (see headnote)
- 10 cups water
- 2 tablespoons sea salt, for the cooking water
- 4 green cardamom pods, crushed and enclosed in a small muslin bag
- 1 tablespoon rose water
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds or nigella seeds (optional)
- For the golden crust
- 1 teaspoon finely ground saffron
- 1/4 cup rose water
- 1/2 cup canola oil
- 1/2 cup low-fat milk
- 1 small daffodil, for garnish (optional)
For the rice: Basmati rice can contain many small solid particles. This grit must be removed by picking over the rice carefully by hand. Wash the rice by placing it in a large container and covering it with lukewarm water. Agitate gently with your hand, then pour off the water. Repeat 5 times until the rice is completely clean. When washed rice is cooked, it gives off a delightful perfume that unwashed rice does not have. If using long-grain American or Texmati rice, it is not necessary to wash or soak the rice.
After you wash the rice, it's desirable but not essential to soak it in 8 cups of water with 2 tablespoons of salt for 2 to 24 hours. Soaking and cooking rice with plenty of salt firms it up to support the long cooking time and prevents the rice from breaking up. The grains swell individually without sticking together. The result is a light and fluffy rice known as "the pearls of Persian cuisine."
Bring the 10 cups of water to a boil in a large nonstick, straight-sided saute pan over high heat. Add the salt, cardamom in the bag and rose water. Pour the washed, drained rice into the pot. Boil briskly (uncovered) for 8 to 10 minutes (depending on the kind of rice you are using), gently stirring twice with a wooden spoon to loosen any grains that might have stuck to the bottom. Bite a few grains. If the rice feels soft and some of rice has risen to the top, it is ready.
Drain in a large, fine-mesh colander. Rinse with 2 or 3 cups of cold water.
For the golden crust: Stir the saffron into the rose water in a small bowl until well combined.
Combine the oil, milk, a few drops of the saffron mixture, about 2 1/2 cups of the cooked, drained rice (described in the book as "3 spatulas") and the cumin seeds or nigella seeds, if desired, in a medium mixing bowl; mix until the rice is evenly coated and golden. Spread the rice over the bottom of the same pan used to cook the rice; give it a shake or use a flat spatula to spread the rice into a single layer, then pack it down. This will help to create a tender, golden crust when the rice is cooked.
Scoop about 3/4 cup of the remaining cooked, drained rice at a time, gently building a pyramid-shaped mound on top of the golden rice in the pan. This shape will leave room for the rice grains to expand and enlarge. Return the cardamom bag to the pan, nestling it in the mound of rice.
Cover with a tight-fitting lid; cook for 10 minutes over medium-high heat to form a golden crust.
Drizzle the remaining saffron mixture over the rice pyramid. Wrap the pan lid with a clean dish towel; this will help prevent steam from escaping. Cover the pan tightly and cook for 70 minutes over medium-low heat (this is for a gas flame, so adjust according to your cooktop).
Use cool water to moisten a kitchen towel, then use it to line a rimmed baking sheet.
Transfer the pan (still tightly covered) to the towel-lined baking sheet; adjust the towel to wrap its edges around the bottom of the pan. Let sit for 5 minutes; this will help to free the crust from the bottom of the pot. Uncover; use a wooden spatula to loosen the edges of the rice in the pan. Discard the cardamom bag.
To unmold the rice, hold the serving platter tightly over the uncovered pot and invert the two together, unmolding the rice onto the platter. Garnish with a daffodil, if desired (do not eat the flower).
Serve in wedges.
Adapted from Batmanglij's "Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies, 25th Anniversary Edition" (Mage, 2011).
Tested by Najmieh Batmanglij and Bonnie S. Benwick.
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