This is the final installment of the Afghan series, and another memorable dish to anyone familiar with The Helmand Restaurant in Cambridge. Before I tell you how much our guests loved it and how you absolutely need to add this to your weekly dinner rotation, I should probably say that I’m ambivalent.
It’s not because I don’t love braised meat with plump raisins, sweet carrots and a tantalizing mix of Eastern spices. The truth is: I don’t like rice.
Give me a daily choice between potato, bread, pasta and rice, and the latter will likely sit on the shelf forever. Sure, rice is easy to cook and absorbs sauce like a dream. My father has been trying to get me (and my mother) to eat it for years, but I just don’t see the point. With the exception of Japanese food or the inside of a burrito, Francesco’s risotto is about as close to rice as I willingly get.
Making this Qabili Pilau was, in fact, the first time I’d ever cooked rice and I admit I was happily surprised – but surprised nonetheless – when the kernels quickly absorbed the liquid just as the recipe predicted. So it really is that easy to cook rice, I thought, Maybe I’ll do it again sometime.
These promising thoughts of future rice cooking were magnified when I actually tasted it. Again, I found myself happily surprised. The spices were subtle, the meat was still tender (despite my overcooking it), and the sweetened raisins and carrots balanced the whole dish in a sweet-savory equilibrium not unlike that other Afghan wonder, kaddo bourani.
And while our guests and I loved the dish, which, for all you die-hards, is a pretty accurate recreation of The Helmand’s signature, a convert I am not.
I’m not saying I can’t be convinced. If you want to cook me your favorite rice dish, I may just come around.
QABILI PILAU (Afghan chicken and rice)
I adapted this recipe very, very liberally from Saveur, where it’s lamb-based, the carrots are prepared differently, and the spices aren’t the same. It’s great to serve to a group.
Serves 6 – 8 as a main course.
2 1/4 cup (600 grams) basmati rice
1/4 cup oil
1 onion, chopped
3 lbs (1.4 kg) chicken thighs (or lamb tenderloin), cut into chunks
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp garam marsala
1 tsp ground coriander (or cumin seeds)
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp cardamom
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt
2 medium carrots, cut into very thin sticks (or grated with the largest side of a box grater)
1 cup raisins or sultanas
2 tsp sugar
Soak rice in warm water for at least 30 minutes or overnight.
In a large pot, brown the onion in the oil. Add the chicken pieces and brown all over. Add all the spices, then add 1 1/2 cups water. Cover and simmer for about 1 hour or until the meat is very tender.
Meanwhile, in a pan, heat a few tablespoons of oil and add the carrots and the sugar. Toss to coat, cooking over medium heat until the carrots are soft, about 10 minutes. Remove the carrots from the pan and add the raisins. Cook in the remaining oil until plump, then remove and reserve.
When the chicken is very tender, remove it from the liquid and set aside. Add the rice and another 1 1/2 cups of water to the liquid. Bring to a low boil, then cover and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until the liquid is just absorbed.
About an hour before serving, preheat the oven to 350°/180°C. Put the reserved meat on one side of the rice in the pot and put the carrots and raisins on the other. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until completely heated through. To serve, remove the carrots and raisins. Serve rice and chicken on a large platter with the carrots and raisins on top.