Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Armenian Pilaf

I have a keen interest in regional cooking—primarily Italian—but the food I know best and grew up eating is Armenian. Last year A Serious Bunburyist covered a treasured recipe for choreg, an Armenian yeast bread traditionally made to celebrate Easter. Over the course of this year I plan to explore more Armenian food starting today with perhaps the most ubiquitous dish on the Armenian-American table: Pilaf. Made well, pilaf’s humble ingredients—rice, butter, noodles and seasoned stock—become sublime: A savory, butter-rich comfort food. Every Armenian cook has her or his version of this dish, most likely passed down from generation-to-generation.

Let’s begin by getting some definitions out of the way. In my family, pilaf means a white rice dish although occasionally cracked wheat (bulgur or bulghour) replaces the rice. Both versions contain a thin noodle (vermicelli, capellini or angel hair pasta); chicken stock seasoned with salt, black pepper and cayenne; and butter. Often quite a bit of butter. In my family, a pilaf’s success depends upon butter to color the noodles to a golden hue and butter to enrich the chicken stock before adding the rice. For the record, I’ve slightly dialed back the butter in my family’s recipe; my grandmother would use an entire stick or more without batting an eye.
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
  • Dash of cayenne pepper
  • 6 tablespoons butter, in total (approximately 85 grams)
  • 85 grams dried vermicelli, capellini or angel hair pasta
  • 350 grams extra long grain white rice

1) In a heavy, medium saucepan, add chicken stock, salt, peppers and two tablespoons butter. Bring to a boil.

2) While the seasoned stock comes to a boil, melt 4 tablespoons butter in a heavy, small skillet over medium heat. When the butter begins to foam (but before it browns), break the the dried pasta into 1- to 1½-inch pieces and add these pieces to the melted butter. Stir to coat the pasta in the butter and cook, stirring often, until the pasta turns a golden to light brown color. If necessary, reduce heat so not to burn the butter and/or pasta.

3) When the pasta has colored to your liking, turn off heat and add a ladle or two (approximately ½ to 1 cup) of the boiling chicken stock to the skillet with the browned pasta. Take care! The stock will sputter, boil and steam. When the ruckus settles down, carefully pour the contents of the skillet into the saucepan with the boiling chicken stock.

4) Add the rice to the chicken stock mixture. When the stock returns to a boil, cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer the rice, undisturbed—no stirring—for 20 minutes. When the pilaf is cooked, fluff and serve.

If you try the recipe, which generously serves 6, and something goes amiss, take heart—although the recipe seems simple, it takes time to master. You may need to make slight adjustments to the amount of the ingredients to get the right balance of seasoned liquid to rice and noodles. Eventually you’ll know how your ingredients work with one another and making pilaf will become second nature. I’ve provided precise measurements to help with this process. My grandmother would laugh at the idea of measuring out ingredients by grams; she gauged the correct amount of rice using a teacup and measured seasonings by eye in the palm of her hand.

Don’t be surprised if you find other Armenian pilaf recipes that contain different ingredients or employ different techniques; variations abound. Some families use jasmine or basmati instead of plain long grain white rice. Occasionally you’ll find recipes where orzo replaces vermicelli. I’ve also come across versions that contain nuts (pine; slivered almonds; and/or pistachio) and/or dried fruits (apricots, dates, prunes and/or golden raisins). If these variants appeal to you, that’s fine; the world is large enough to hold more than one pilaf recipe.

I admit that my family’s pilaf technique is a little out of the ordinary. Why don’t I brown the vermicelli in a medium saucepan, add the rice, stock and seasonings then cook? The best answer to this fair question is: Because my grandmother used the two-pan technique. Who am I to break with tradition?