Manisha Pandit, creator of the popular food blog Indian Food Rocks, is a master behind the stove and camera lens. In her monthly column, she shares Indian recipes and cooking techniques that are as pleasurable to see as they are to swallow.
In this post, Manisha takes a moment to celebrate rice through her mother's recipe for vegetable pulao.
I had never thought of rice as being mutually exclusive to potatoes. Over a decade ago, I remember asking Betty, my landlady in a teeny town in the Adirondacks, if I could bring rice to the dinner she was hosting, as I had noticed that it was not on her menu. Rice, to me, was a staple. I was taken aback when she said that since she was making twice-baked potatoes, there was no need for rice. Until then, I had never thought of a meal in terms of carbohydrates and proteins. It was always in terms of the dishes: a pickle or a chutney, papad, a raw salad, at least one veggie side with rotis, followed by a dal or a luscious curry to drown my bed of steamed rice. Sometimes that curry even had potatoes swimming in a hot-and-sour coconut sauce. I learned quickly that rice was not as popular as it is in India, and breads were the preferred vehicle to mop up sauces.
Indian rice is not as starchy as its American cousin. It is, however, polished, reducing its nutritional value considerably. Yet, it is comfort food. Rice is an integral part of most meals in an Indian home, especially in the southern regions of India, as it was in my home. But we do a lot more with rice than just steam it. Rice and dal are cooked together to make khichdi, a meal that is often served when the cook needs a break or when the palate has had enough of spicy foods. It can be served with kadhi or plain yogurt. My husband grew up eating it with potatoes in a hot-and-sweet tomato sauce. Khichdi, though, is considered a lesser meal than, say, a pulao or a biryani.
The wonderful thing about rice, especially polished white rice like basmati, is that it takes on the flavors of the spices that are added to it without compromising its inherent aroma. While biryanis are elaborate, festive dishes, simple pulaos break the everyday monotony of steamed rice. Vangi bhath is a type of pulao that is a favorite in my home. However, the pulao I make frequently is my mother's vegetable pulao. It is cooked with oil that has been seasoned with whole spices that are usually found in garam masala, with a hint of ginger. This pulao goes very well with meat and seafood curries because it complements the spices used in those curries. It can also be eaten with plain yogurt or even a raita like Cucumber Raita.
I like to use frozen mixed vegetables in this pulao for convenience. Any vegetable is fair game as long as it can hold its own while being steamed for at least half an hour. Needless to say, potatoes make it into this set!
My mother would often use vinegar instead of lime juice. I take that a step further and use leftover brine from my pickled jalapeños. If the pulao is left to cook on low heat for a longer time, the sugars in the rice begin to caramelize, giving a crispy layer of socarrat. As children, we fought over who got more of that layer -- though we called it "burnt rice."
I explained all this to Betty and asked her to give my pulao a chance at her next dinner party. The worst that could happen was that nobody would eat it. It freezes well, so I was not worried about leftovers. But I needn't have been concerned because my mother's pulao was so popular that it became a must-have item on her dinner party menu!
My Mother's Pulao
4 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
4 green cardamoms
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/2 cinnamon stick (approx 2" in length)
2 serrano peppers, halved along their length
1 medium onion, sliced thin
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 cups basmati rice
2 cups mixed vegetables (frozen is fine)
4 cups water
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 teaspoons salt
3-4 sprigs cilantro, chopped for garnish
Like this post? See Manisha's previous topic: Hara Bhara Kabab.
All photos by Manisha Pandit.
Manisha writes the food blog Indian Food Rocks, spiced with eclectic Indian food and entertaining anecdotes.