Thursday, July 22, 2010

Alton's Pilaf methodology works extremely well

So, I checked out an old episode of Good Eats, dating all the way back to Season 1, I believe. It was titled Pilaf to the People. You can see the condensed presentation right here.

So, I thought I knew a hell of a lot about rice, and I thought I had made Pilaf about a hundred thousand times. It turns out that I was not quite correct. Close, but no cigar. First the summary.

Pilaf is not a recipe. Pilaf is not a list of ingredients. It is a cooking methodology. Even though the word literally means "rice dish", it should mean, cooking method for rice. You can do a lot of different ingredients. Add a few, throw a few away, change these, bring in some others. This doesn't determine whether you have a Pilaf. The approach to heating defines Pilaf.

According to Alton, the cooking process runs through Seven simple stages.
  1. Sweat your vegetable soffritto in butter.
  2. Add the rice and sauté until you have a strong nutty aroma.
  3. Add the liquid--substantially less than normal for rice--stir it up, and discard your stirring spoon or utensil.
  4. Cover with a lid. Bolster the seal with a wet dish rag, which forms a gasket.
  5. Place in an oven at 350F degrees for 15 minutes.
  6. Remove and let it sit for 15 minutes.
  7. Pour the rice out on a serving dish. Flatter is better. Taller is worse.
Notice that this approach only presumes you have some aromatic vegetables, rice, butter and fluid. What those ingredients are is open to your own creative imagination. We are talking about approach to cooking, not a list of ingredients, per se. The absolute key is that you sauté first, use less water, and then finish in the oven. That is the definition of the Pilaf method: Sauté first, use less water, finish in the oven.

This doesn't mean everybody follows the rules or even knows what they are. Certainly, I was not aware of the rules as I broke them 300,000 times. I thought you simply sauté first, then cover and boil. I also used too much water.

Alton's approach was fascinating for several reasons.
  1. It seems to be the perfect case for a Lodge 5 quart cast iron Dutch oven.
  2. I have never seen anyone stick a dish rag in the oven.
  3. I recently had an experience with rice in a pressure cooker that suggested some cooking methods require less water.
  4. I have recently had many experiences with Paella which indicate that more water is necessary for this cooking method.
  5. The list of ingredients Alton used, including fruits and nuts was quite intriguing. This is a very interesting counter-point to Paella, which never includes any fruits or nuts.
  6. Another important difference between Paella and Pilaf is that Paella includes various types of meats. Pilaf does not include any meat. Pilaf is a side dish for meat.
So I chose the following list of ingredients.

  1. Carrot
  2. Celery
  3. Shallots
  4. Yellow bell pepper
  5. Red Bell pepper
  6. Garlic
  7. Ginger coins.
  1. 3 cups of Sona Massouri rice from India
  2. 18 oz of Chicken broth
  3. 12 oz of hot water
  1. 1 table spoon of Kosher salt
  2. 1 teaspoon of Turmeric
  3. couple of grinds of fresh cracked white pepper corns
  4. 1 ounce of California extra virgin olive oil
  5. 1 tablespoon butter.
  6. Way too damn much Spanish Saffron
The cooking approach was interesting.
  1. Place the dutch oven on the stove top and cranked up to high. This is only 8,000 btu on my stove, so don't be impressed by the heat.
  2. Drop my 1 teaspoon of turmeric on the dry iron and heat it up. This is what all the Indians do. You wake the turmeric by heating it on dry iron.
  3. Drop the butter on top of the turmeric and melt it. This forms a type of rue.
  4. Dropped the soffritto on into the rue of turmeric and butter.
  5. Sweat the vegetables.
  6. Drop in the rice, and stir. Continue until the rice begins to brown a bit, and you get a strong nutty aroma.
  7. I poured about 4 ounces of hot water into a ramekin, I tried to pull out a few threads and place them in the ramekin. A tumble weed of saffron fell in the ramekin. Lesson learned: extract your saffron with a pair of tweezers. Do it over a very dry surface. Let the saffron diffuse and turn the water golden yellow.
  8. Drop the Saffron water in the pot first. Rinse out the ramekin with the remaining water and chicken broth, as you pour them on the rice. Don't loose any saffron goodness.
  9. Stir it up, and discard your stirring utensil
  10. Wet down a dish rag.
  11. Place the rag over the mouth of the Dutch oven.
  12. Seal with the lid. Rotate the lid about 5 or 10 degrees to make sure you have a tight gasket.
  13. Place in the oven for 15 minutes.
  14. Remove and let it sit for 15 minutes.
  15. Dump it on a large serving tray, and spread it out.
  16. I added dried black currants (from my Spotted Dick episode) and Golden Raisins (Sultanas--also from the Spotted Dick episode). I mixed those in thoroughly.
  17. I drizzled with California Extra Virgin olive oil
  18. I sprinkled with a little Kosher Salt
  19. I cracked a little more white pepper over the top.
I was pissed off over the fact that I used too much saffron and forgot the bay leaves, and the pistachios, but the rest of the process was surprisingly golden for a first run. The results were not only edible, not only delicious, but damn near perfect. My guests were left wondering why I didn't consider this a perfect run. I have to say, I wondered to myself how bay leaf would improve the situation. I believe Pistachios would help. Nuts are great.

I have to say that the Sona Massouri rice was perfectly cooked. It was not to dry, not too wet, not sticky, not too soft, not too hard. It was perfectly done. Whilst I can tinker with the list of ingredients, the methodology is essentially perfect. No adjustments in the cooking process are necessary or beneficial.

I tinkered with the notion of sweating the vegetables in the oil, removing them, then sauté the rice in butter, put them back together and go. This would allow me to brown the rice a bit more. Still, I am not sure this would be a better approach. I am uncertain whether this would yield a better product.

It's hard to improve on Alton's method here. I highly recommend it.