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Whole grain pilafs are a winter comfort

Oven-baked whole-grain pilaf (Provided photo — Yvonna Fast)

Winter days are short, dark and cold. We crave comfort food: hearty, carbohydrate-rich meals that soothe.

For a change from pasta or potatoes, try a whole-grain pilaf — a timeless Middle Eastern classic that has become popular in India, parts of Africa and throughout the countries once part of the British Empire.

Pilafs are standard fare throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, with many regional variations. In the Ottoman kitchen, currants, raisins, apricots, figs, cherries and grapes were often part of the pilaf. Uzbeks usually include beans in their pilaf dishes. In central Asia, lamb or beef is often included.

Russian conquests of Central Asia brought pilafs to dinner tables in Russia and the Ukraine. British sea captains brought Middle-Eastern dishes to England; pilau recipes first appeared in an English cookbook in 1747. Today, it is a common take-out dish in Britain and you can buy packaged pilaf mixes at the supermarket.

But a pilaf can be so much more!

So what exactly is it? Pilaf (American) or pilau or pulao (British) is a one-pot flavored rice or grain dish. In a pilaf, the grains remain distinct, unlike risotto.

When preparing pilaf, the grain is first browned in fat, then cooked in broth or stock. This gives the cook many opportunities to add flavor with seasonings, meat and vegetables. It can be cooked on the stove or baked in the oven.

It is simple to make: First fry aromatic ingredients — onions, garlic, mushrooms — in a little fat. Then add seasonings and spices — cardamom, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon and bay leaves are traditional, but feel free to play around. Add the grain to the skillet, brown, then add the liquid, cover and simmer, or place in the oven and bake.

As a side, it’s a delicious accompaniment to spicy meat or vegetable curries as well as less spicy savory main dishes. When meat, lentils and vegetables are mixed in, pilaf can be a flavorful main dish. Using brown rice or adding other wholesome grains can make it a whole-grain or multi-grain. Combining several grains and lentils or beans offers variety in color, texture and flavor.

In India, the fragrant rice for a pilau is usually cooked separately and everything is mixed together at the end. But some cook vegetables like onions, carrots, mushrooms, green beans right in the rice.

Today you can find recipes for a pilaf made with any grain, using a variety of seasonings and ingredients. Using whole grains gives pilafs a dose of healthy carbs, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, along with great flavor and a wonderful chewy texture.

Use your imagination to combine grains and vegetables to create your own delicious pilafs.

Oven-Baked Whole-Grain Pilaf

Ingredients:

1 Tablespoon olive oil or other fat

The aromatics:

1 onion (about 1 cup, diced)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 carrot (about 1 cup, diced)

1 stalk celery (about 1 cup, diced)

5 to 6 portabella mushrooms (about 1 cup, diced)

3 to 4 cloves garlic

The seasoning spices:

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

The Grains and Legumes:

1/3 cup brown rice or basmati long-grain rice

1/3 cup barley

1/3 cup quinoa

1/2 cup lentils

3 cups liquid (broth or water)

1 Tablespoon soy sauce

Vegetables:

2 cups cauliflower florets (frozen or fresh)

2 cups Oriental pod peas (frozen or fresh)

Directions:

Heat oil in large skillet or Dutch oven. Peel and dice the onion, sprinkle with salt, cover and cook on low heat. Wash and dice the carrot; clean and dice the mushrooms; wash and slice the celery. Add the vegetables to the skillet with the onions.

Cook 5 minutes or longer until vegetables are soft and caramelized. Stir in garlic, turmeric, black pepper, cumin and cinnamon; cook another 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the rice, barley, quinoa and lentils; stir a couple minutes to absorb the flavors.

If you’re doing this on the stove in a Dutch oven, add the liquid and soy sauce, cover, bring to a boil, lower heat to simmer and cook about 15 minutes. Stir in the cauliflower and peas and cook another 10 to 15 minutes or until everything is cooked through. Taste and adjust seasonings.

To cook in a casserole, preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly oil 2 quart baking dish. Transfer contents of skillet to the baking dish. Stir in cauliflower and pod peas. Sprinkle with soy sauce and pour in the liquid.

Bake 40 minutes. Turn off the oven but leave the casserole in another 20 minutes.

Serve.

This goes well with a side salad of fresh greens.

Serves 6.

Note: Try this with different grains, or just 2 grains instead of 3. Kamut, farro, buckwheat, millet are all good options.

Central Asian Lamb and Rice Pilaf

Ingredients:

1 pound lamb shoulder, trimmed, cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes (can substitute beef stew meat)

Salt, freshly ground pepper

2 Tablespoons vegetable oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 medium onions, chopped

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup brown rice or basmati rice

3 cups broth

3 large carrots, sliced

1/4 cup dried currants or golden raisins

1/2 cup fresh minced parsley

Directions:

Season the meat with salt and pepper. Heat oil in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add meat, brown on all sides for about 10 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Add garlic and onion to the Dutch oven. Cook, stirring, until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in spices and rice; cook 1 minute. Stir in broth, scraping bottom of pan to dislodge anything sticking to it. Return lamb to pan. Stir in carrots and raisins. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to simmer. Cook until rice is done and liquid is absorbed, about 45 – 60 minutes.

Stir in parsley, and serve.

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Author of the award-winning cookbook “Garden Gourmet: Fresh & Fabulous Meals from your Garden, CSA or Farmers’ Market,” Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be found at www.yvonafast.com and reached at yvonawrite@yahoo.com or on Facebook at Words Are My World.

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