WHEN I WAS growing up, rice meant one of two things: boiled Carolina long-grain or the boxes of steamed white rice that came with our take-out order. My mom would boil the long-grain rice with a pat of butter, water and a pinch of salt. I thought of rice as the side dish of desperation, meaning we were out of everything else. The only hint that rice could be so much more were the paellas and saffron-scented rice dishes we would get at the Spanish restaurants in Jersey City.
Enter cooking school, where my rice world opened up. I was introduced to my new friend, the rice pilaf. A chef’s choice mix of rice, broth, vegetables, herbs, spices and, sometimes, proteins, the pilaf took rice from an afterthought to the forefront. And my range of rices expanded: fragrant basmati and jasmine varieties, medium- and short-grain and a choice of white or brown.
The pilaf concept itself is simple. A basic pilaf starts with chopped onions sautéed in butter with a pinch of salt or oil (or both) until soft; rice is added and mixed until coated with the fat, then hot broth is added. The mixture is brought to a slow boil and can be finished on the stovetop or, better yet, in a 325-degree oven. From there, your imagination is the only limit. You can add vegetables, spices and meats. As for the rice, I’ve grown partial to basmati and jasmine rice varieties for my pilafs. For some pilafs I sauté the vegetables and then add them to the uncooked rice to finish cooking. If I’m using my rice cooker, I prefer to add the mix-ins after the rice is done. Whichever direction you choose, hold off on the fresh herbs until the last minute. Mix the chopped herbs with the finished rice just before serving to release the full aroma and keep the fresh taste.
Here are examples of two methods:
Rice Cooker Brown Basmati Pilaf With Carrots and Parsnips: Cook the brown basmati with broth (chicken or vegetable) and a little salt in the rice cooker. While the rice is cooking, sauté diced onions, carrot and parsnip in olive oil with salt and pepper to taste. When the rice is done, mix with the sautéed vegetables and serve alongside roast chicken or turkey, or just enjoy as is.
Jambalaya-Inspired Jasmine Pilaf With Chicken, Andouille Sausage and Peas: In a large, shallow, oven-safe pan, sauté thinly sliced smoked andouille sausage with diced onion and a little olive oil until the onion is soft and the andouille pieces lightly browned. Add the rice (I use Goya-brand jasmine) and stir to coat the rice. Add diced cooked chicken and chicken broth. Stir everything together and let the broth come to a slow boil. Cover and transfer to a 325-degree oven. Cook for the time recommended on the rice package. Let the pilaf rest for 10 minutes after removing from the oven. While the rice rests, cook the frozen peas. When the rice is ready, mix in the peas and serve.
—Stephanie Witt Sedgwick
LittleBird “Stephanie Cooks” is former Recipe Editor for the Washington Post Food section. She shares her ideas for hacking dinner every week.