Summer is cherry time, and restaurant expert, cook and serious foodie Natalia Golumb shares her favourite pilaf recipe: an indulgent, bejeweled cherry creation
Every nation has its signature dish and every guest of Azerbaijan knows that here in Azerbaijan, that means rice pilaf or plov. No Azerbaijani holiday – whether it’s our springtime celebration of Novruz, or a special occasion such as a wedding – is complete without a nice pilaf.
We have so many variants of this beautiful, hearty dish and it really is a moveable feast, as you can use a whole array of seasonal ingredients. There are pilafs with lamb, chicken, greens and other herbs, dried fruits, cherries, pumpkin, smoked fish – the list goes on. What I also love about it is its versatility, for, despite being an ancient dish, new variations of pilaf are constantly being invented. Also, I would recommend you eat your pilaf with a spoon, and not a fork, for the best experience, and to scoop up all those lovely flavours.
Not only are there endless taste combinations possible, but there are also several different preparation methods. The first, known as dashma pilaf, is a one pot approach and involves cooking rice and any other ingredients, such as vegetables, lamb or fruit, all together in boiling water until all liquid is absorbed. The second, for suzme pilaf, features something we call gazmag, which is a crunchy golden crust that forms when presoaked, part boiled rice is heaped on top of a layer of ground rice and then cooked. We add saffron and butter and the rice on top ends up fluffy and steamed, and the bottom layer, the gazmag, becomes crisp and delicious. We then serve this with various toppings, such as chestnuts, lamb, fish, poultry or fruit. The third most popular method, which makes dosheme pilaf, is made by layering part boiled rice in a pot with lamb, poultry, fish, herbs, fruits and chestnuts.
I am going to share my favourite pilaf recipe (a suzme pilaf– so get ready for that delicious crispy gazmag) – which I make with cherries. Usually we make it with fresh sour cherries, but you could just as happily make it with frozen cherries if fresh ones are not available. You could even try cornelian cherries – as I said it’s a moveable feast, so it’s really up to your taste and experimentation.
You will need:
5 cups basmati rice
2-3 round lavash flatbreads
3 cups pitted cherries
2 cups finely chopped onions (about two medium sized onions)
Ghee or unsalted butter (about 18 tablespoons)
½ teaspoon grounded saffron
1 teaspoon sugar
Generous pinch of ground cinnamon
1-2 tablespoons of salt (most will be drained with pre-soaking water)
Melt the butter in a medium-sized pan over medium heat. Add the onion and gently fry until they are almost golden. Then add the cherries. Once they start to break down slightly and release liquid, add the sugar and cinnamon. Any liquid in the pan should be boiling and bubbling at this point, so keep stirring until the sugar has melted and you have a thickened, syrupy sauce (be careful not to let all the liquid evaporate!). Take pan off the heat and set aside.
Next, rinse the rice thoroughly in warm water, running your fingers gently through the grains, until the water runs clear.
Fill a pot with rice and enough warm water to cover it by two inches. Add two tablespoons of salt and let the rice soak for half an hour. Do not skip this step, tempted as you might be, as it will minimize the time it takes to cook later in the recipe. This means you’ll have fluffy and nicely separated rice grains when everything is ready. After half an hour, drain the rice (but do not rinse again), and set aside.
Put the ground saffron into a small cup and add five tablespoons of hot water. Cover the cup and leave the saffron to infuse.
Now we can begin to bring all these elements together. First, parboil the rice. Fill a big saucepan with about 20 cups of water, add one tablespoon of salt, and bring to the boil. Then add the presoaked rice, and cook for no longer than 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, if bitten, the grain should be soft on the inside but still hard on the inside – it is important not to overcook the rice at this stage. When it is parboiled, drain it and again, set aside.
Next, prepare the crispy crust, the gazmag. Melt about half of the butter (or ghee) and swirl it around the bottom of the pan to get an even layer. Layer the lavash breads on top of the butter, lining the bottom of the pan (you can cut them into wedges first, if you like, to allow you to fit them better). Spoon over some of the parboiled rice, and then, with a slotted spoon, take some of the cherry mixture and carefully distribute it over the rice (try not to get any of the syrup yet, only cherries). Continue in this manner, alternating layers of rice and cherries, finishing with a layer of rice and shaping the pilaf into a pyramid shape (which allows the pilaf to properly expand while cooking).
Cover the pot with a clean kitchen towel, add the lid of the pot, and fold the edges of the towel over the lid. Put it over a low heat and cook for 15 minutes.
While this is happening, take five tablespoons of your butter or ghee, and as soon as it is melted and starting to sizzle, lift the lid and pour the mixture over the rice. Then pour in the saffron infusion, put the lid back, and do not open it for the next 45 minutes. After this, you should have a delicious pilaf that has fluffy rice grains, and isn’t sticky. The crust should be golden on the bottom. You can check with a slotted spoon. Remove your pilaf from the heat, and let it rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.
To serve pilaf, arrange it on a serving plate in a shape of a pyramid and arrange pieces of the crust decoratively over the rice, golden side up. Usually we put this serving plate in the middle of the table with crispy crust on top and different toppings on the side, but you can serve it in portions – each portion should consist of pilaf rice, topping and crust.
You can also add meat to this if you like – whether chicken, lamb or fish, and don’t forget a nice red wine to finish this to perfection. The best wine pairing for this kind of pilaf, in my opinion, is a good Cabernet Sauvignon or one made from Azerbaijani grapes, a Madrasa.
A die-hard foodie, Natalia Golumb graduated from the Oil Academy, and spent many years working in the field of international relations in the banking sector. It was during her extensive travels that she began to experience an irresistible craving for the art of gastronomy and decided to put herself through culinary school. Golumb believes that gastronomy is actually the alchemy of love, and that food can affect our emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing and awaken love. She works as a consultant on the creative development of restaurant businesses and has published a book, Metbex Couture, on the culinary scene in Azerbaijan.
Main image courtesy of Richard Haughton. Image courtesy of Getty Images