Cuisine – Rice to the rescue

Keeping a stocked store cupboard constantly full is all very well, but it can be annoying too. Often staples can languish there for so long that they pass their best use by date, or even attract nasty pantry moths. However, at the beginning of our recent lockdown, I was grateful to have dry goods stored in air-tight containers. Although I had little fresh food, we could still eat well and nutritiously. Most of all I find rice really useful. In my pantry I have short grained rice for risotto, sushi and rice puddings; brown rice for salads; basmati and Jasmine rice for Asian-style dishes. The basmati came to my rescue when three days into lockdown, I remembered it was our wedding anniversary. I would love to have opened some smoked salmon or a tin of caviar, but the only protein on hand was a lonely leg of chicken. Fortunately, I remembered a rice dish that I often make for special occasions. It served us well with a glass of celebratory riesling.

Fragrant rice with Persian spices

This recipe is based on one in Margaret Shaida’s book The Legendary Cuisine of Persia. I have simplified it to suit today’s busy cook and omitted most of the sugar. If some of the ingredients are hard to find, just leave them out as there’s plenty of flavour. The roast chicken can be omitted or replaced with salmon or smoked fish.

1 cup basmati rice
1 small fennel bulb or 1 onion
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tsp salt
2 small carrots, peeled and cut into julienne strips
1 tsp sugar
2 pinches of saffron threads
Thinly peeled and sliced rind of 1 mandarin (or orange)
30g almonds
30g currants
2 tsp advieh (a Persian spice mix made with 1 tbsp cinnamon, a pinch of saffron threads, ½ tbsp ground cardamom and 1 tbsp rosewater)
½ cup of stock
1 cooked chicken breast (optional)
Mint leaves to garnish

Soak the rice in plenty of water for 15 minutes, then drain. Chop the fennel or onion into small pieces and fry in 1 tablespoon of the oil in a heavy casserole dish until soft. Set aside. Fry the carrot in a small frying pan with 1 tablespoon of oil for 5 minutes. Stir in the sugar, 1 pinch of the saffron and 2-3 tablespoons of water. Cover and cook for 4-5 minutes until the liquid is reduced. Set aside.

Thinly peel the mandarins, avoiding all pith. Cut into julienne strips, place in a saucepan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Strain and repeat this process to remove all bitterness. Set aside. Cut the almonds into slivers.

Soak the currants in warm water for 15 minutes, drain and reserve. Meanwhile, drain the soaked rice and place in a saucepan with enough salty water (or chicken stock) to cover the rice – reaching about 3cm above the rice. Bring to a boil, then simmer over low heat with the lid on until the liquid is mostly absorbed and the rice is almost cooked.

To assemble and finish: Preheat the oven to 180C. In the oven dish with the fennel (or onion) add about one quarter of the rice across the base. Add one third of the carrots, mandarin peel, nuts and currants over this rice and sprinkle over one third of the advieh spice mix. Repeat this layering process twice and finish with a top layer of rice.

Make a few holes in the rice with the handle of a fork, and pour over the half cup of stock or water. Place a lid or heavy foil over the dish and bake for 30 minutes. Cut the cooked chicken into bite sized pieces and stir in. Let the rice stand for 20 minutes with the lid on, before tipping out on to a serving platter. Garnish with mint leaves and freshly ground black pepper. Serves 4.