In Sephardi culture, rice prep is an art form
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In Sephardi culture, rice prep is an art form

Not just a side dish anymore

Photo by ALLEKO/iStockphoto.com
Photo by ALLEKO/iStockphoto.com

Rice is a grain with endless possibilities. While Ashkenazi Jews often relegate it to the side of their plates or see it as a sponge to mop up sauces and gravies, in Sephardi culture, rice preparation is revered as an art form.

In the Ashkenazi world, rice is usually served white and plain. Maybe butter is added, but that’s about it.

However, Sepahrdi rice recipes are studded with spices, herbs, vegetables, fresh and dried fruit, beans, and nuts, which add texture, color and intense flavor to a delicate grain that can stand alone but is enhanced by additional ingredients. Many Sephardic recipes call for basmati or jasmine rice, both long-grained varieties.

The most renowned of all Sephardi rice dishes is Persian rice, which is famous for its thick crunchy crust.

“Persian rice is meant to be al dente, not soft and gushy like a lot of other rice dishes,” says Hadar Orshalimy, an Israeli-American singer, songwriter, musician and artist. She comes from a large, Persian Jewish family, which hails from Iran. She learned how to make Persian rice from her grandmother.

Treasured like jewels, rice recipes and cooking techniques are frequently passed down from one generation to the next in families. Young women, often before they marry, learn how to make rice by observing a mother or grandmother in the kitchen.

Because this precious grain is so stunning, it’s time to reimagine rice. Think like a Sephardi cook and move rice from a sideshow to the center of the table where it belongs.

Here is Hadar Orshalimy’s recipe.

Persian Rice (Pollo)
Pareve or Meat | Serves 9 people

Equipment: 2½-quart nonstick saucepan. A nonstick pan is essential.

2 medium-size carrots, or more if needed
3 cups basmati rice
1 cup raisins, or any dried fruit, such as cranberries, cherries or barberries (typical of Persian cuisine)
2 tablespoons turmeric, plus more for dusting
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
⅓ cup vegetable or canola oil, plus more for coating saucepan
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 potato, white or sweet

Dice the carrots until you fill ½ cup. Reserve.

Place the rice in a strainer and rinse it well under cold water. Move it to a large bowl. Add the carrots and raisins. Stir together, making sure the carrots and raisins appear equal in color. If not, add more of one so both colors are equally brilliant. Add 2 tablespoons turmeric, salt and pepper, stirring until well combined. Add the oil and stir. Pour in the stock and stir again, making sure ingredients are well blended. Reserve.

Peel the potato and cut into slices about ¼-inch thick. Pour a thin coat of oil into the bottom of the saucepan. Dust turmeric over the oil, creating an even yellow layer. Arrange potato slices in a single layer over the turmeric-oil. If you have too many slices, use them for another purpose. Spoon the rice mixture over the potato layer and even it out with the back of a spoon.

Move the pot to the stove. Slowly pour in enough water so it is about ½-inch above the rice. Important note: You don’t want your rice to be sticky or mushy, so it’s better to start with less water and add it as you go, as long as you keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t burn.

Place a dish towel over the pot. Cover the towel with the pot lid. If the towel touches the burner, then fold over the corners and tuck them under the pot lid to avoid burning the towel. Cook on a high flame for about 2 minutes, and then reduce to a medium flame in order to crust the potatoes and rice that are on the bottom, called Ta’adik. Check every few minutes to make sure there’s a layer of water above the rice. If not, slowly add a little more water.

After 15-20 minutes, check to see there’s water bubbling above the rice. If not, add water 1 tablespoon at a time. Reduce the flame to low. Taste the rice every few minutes. When its texture is al dente, soft on the outside but firm on the inside, the rice is ready.

Find a plate that is larger in diameter than the saucepan. Remove the saucepan’s lid and the towel. Place the plate over the saucepan. Turn over the saucepan onto the plate, using an oven mitt to hold the bottom so you don’t burn your hands. Place the plate on a kitchen counter.

Thump the bottom of the saucepan with the towel and/or a spoon to encourage the rice to loosen. Lift the saucepan and the rice should slide onto the plate. It will retain the shape of the saucepan and exhibit the world renowned crunchy crust of Persian rice. Serve immediately.

Pink Rice from Rhodes
Pareve | Serves 6

1 tablespoon olive oil, or more, if needed
2 shallots, diced fine
5 cloves garlic, minced
Kosher salt to taste
⅛ teaspoon oregano, or more, if desired
1 Italian plum tomato, diced fine
1 cup basmati or jasmine rice
2½ cups water
2 teaspoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon. parsley, chopped fine

In a large saucepan, heat the oil over a medium flame until warm, about 1-2 minutes. Add the shallots, garlic, salt and oregano. Sauté briefly until fragrant. Add the tomato and stir until it gives off some of its juice.

Add the rice and stir until the grains are coated. Drizzle in more oil, if mixture is dry. Pour in the water, followed by the tomato paste. Stir until the tomato paste dissolves. Cover the saucepan and reduce the flame to low.

Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add more water if it bubbles away too quickly. Continue to simmer for another 5 to 10 minutes, stirring often, until the rice is no longer firm in the center.
Move to an attractive bowl and sprinkle with parsley. Serve immediately.

Israeli Yellow Rice
Meat or Pareve | Serves 6

1 tablespoon olive oil, or more, if needed
4 garlic cloves, minced
½ teaspoon turmeric
⅛ teaspoon kosher salt, or more if desired
1 cup basmati rice
A couple saffron threads, optional
2½ cups water
1 chicken or vegetable bouillon cube
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped fine

In a large saucepan, heat oil over a medium flame until warm, about 1-2 minutes. Add garlic, turmeric and salt and sauté. Add the rice and stir until grains are coated with oil. Slowly drizzle in more oil, if the mixture is dry and rice is sticking to the pot. Add the saffron threads and stir. Pour in the water, followed by the bouillon cube. Stir briefly.

Cover the pot and reduce the flame to low. Simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. The bouillon cube should be completely dissolved. Check to see if more salt is needed and add gingerly, if desired. Add more water if it bubbles away too quickly. Continue to simmer for another 5 to 10 minutes, stirring often, until the rice is no longer firm in the center.

Move to an attractive bowl and sprinkle with cilantro. Serve immediately. PJC

Linda Morel is a writer for the Philadelphia Exponent, an affiliated publication.

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