Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Rice Cooker Chicken Pulao (Spiced Pilaf)

If you had to explain the difference between chocolate cake and brownies to someone who wasn't familiar with either, what would you say?

I don't know about you, but I would struggle.  Cake is... well, it's cakier.  Brownies are... I suppose they're just as brown...  and as chocolatey.  They're fudgier than cake, that's for sure, but not as fudgy as fudge.  You can have very cakey brownies and very fudgy brownies, and yet we don't describe either cake or fudge as being brownie-like.  It's all very confusing to explain because defining either relies on contrasting it with the other.

This is, perhaps, a bit like the difference between biryani (rice with bits of veggie and possibly meat) with pulao (also rice with bits of veggie and possibly meat).  As best as I can understand it from reading a few dozen recipes and explanations out there, biryani is denser, usually spicier, and when you layer everything together the rice is only par-boiled (half-cooked), leaving it to finish cooking alongside whatever other stuff you throw on top of it.

Pulao, on the other hand, shares linguistic roots with plov (the first Russian dish I ever learned to cook) and pilaf.  Pulao is said to be easier to cook because you don't have to layer anything, you don't have to switch pots when the rice is half-cooked, and the mix-ins are just thrown together willy-nilly.  (But then the recipe I have for plov involves layers, too, so who knows.)

By those definitions this recipe, based purely on the fact that I don't half-cook the rice first, is pulao.  Whereas biryani prides itself on every bite being a little different, pulao is just a pile of food that doesn't really worry too much about appearances.  If they were people biryani would be the high maintenance one in Jimmy Choos and pulao would be in running sneaks with its hair in a messy bun.

We're kindred spirits, me and pulao.

So while this dish is very flavorful and features a lot of the same spices as biryani, and even in a lazy sense is layered in the rice cooker, I'm going to call this a pulao.  In the end it's probably something like cakey brownies -- it's technically one while closely resembling the other.

All that said -- beyond the how of cooking them -- content is pretty much open to your tastes.  Don't like meat?  Leave it out!  Want a ton of veggies, or different veggies, or different spices?  Whatever makes you happy, that's what needs to go into your pilaf.  Heck, Doc puts chicken nuggets and frozen peas in Uncle Ben's and calls it a day.

Let's get down to it, shall we?

Rice Cooker Biryani Pulao (Spiced Pilaf)

Total Real Time:  30ish minutes to make the mix-ins, 60 minutes in the rice cooker.
Weirdest Spice:  ground mace.

One of my favorite things about this recipe is that if I've got leftover chicken (or lamb, or whatever) and some frozen veggies, I'm looking at 20 easy minutes of active time and then I plop it all in the cooker and forget about it.  Plus the rice cooker keeps things warm indefinitely so I can make it in the afternoon and it's still hot when Doc gets home from work or a night out.

Step one is to soak and wash your rice.  Thirty to sixty minutes in warm (not hot) water, then rinse your rice in a fine mesh strainer.  Why?  Because this is the difference between unsoaked/unwashed rice (left) and grains that've been given the red carpet treatment (right):

Notice how the ones on the left are not only a dingy color, they're less plump?  Filthy rice is really gross, yo.  Soaking your rice lets it absorb some water so that they cook more evenly and don't dry out as much.  It's the big secret to fluffy rice.  So put your rice on to plump while you take care of the meat & veggies.  We'll come back to it in a bit.

If you don't have leftover chicken on hand you can pop a chicken breast or two into the oven at 350F for 25 minutes (roughly, be sure to check the temp with a thermometer).  Whatever spices make you happy are a-ok, or just throw on a little salt & pepper on and be on your way.  I used some pre-mixed tandoori spice.  Or you can throw together your own tandoori mix if you have the spices on hand: here's a tandoori mix recipe that uses just powdered spices, and here's one that uses whole spices you have to grind yourself (I use a dedicated grinder -- not the same one I use for coffee -- on those occasions when I have to grind my own blends).  But let me stress that tandoori spice was just what I felt like using at the time and can just as easily be subbed for anything or nothing.

 If the amount of effort I wanted to put into this could be summed up in a word, it would be "meh."

If you're making chicken / Meat of Your Choice in the moment, use the time while it's in the oven to make the veggie mix.  I used onions + whatever whatever I reached first on the freezer door:

Onions & more onions.  Oh, and apparently liced mushrooms?

Much like our turkey curry and lentils excursions, this starts with Oil of Your Choice on medium-high heat and 1 teaspoon of cumin seeds.

I used olive oil, you can use whatever you like.

Thirty to sixty seconds should be sufficient to start roasting the cumin seeds.  Then throw in one onion cut into fine julienne strips.

No need to worry about fancy, this is just a way to say "long, thin strips."  To remember what julienne is, I picture a woman named Julianne who is tall and thin.  ...if that helps.

Mix the onions up so that they're coated in the oil and cumin seeds and saute them on medium-high heat for maybe 5-10 minutes, or until they're as brown and caramelized as you like.  No need to get too worried about them since we'll be boiling them with the rice in the cooker.

Next add in a generous dollop of our old friends, ginger and garlic pastes.

Mix that around, give it 2-3 minutes to heat up, and then add in whatever other veggies you want.  I used spinach, bell pepper, jalepeno pepper, and mushrooms.  What we're making here is a stir-fry that's going to go atop the rice, so if you've got something you enjoy in your stir-fry add that here.  Frozen is just as good as fresh.  As you can see here I've got a mix of both to use up whatever I had on hand:

You can see the frost sticking to some of those.  That added a bit of cooking time for me to get rid of all the water that oozed out of the frozen veggies.  If you use fresh or canned vegetables you might not need as much time.  About 10 minutes was plenty to cook off most of the water, at which point I added in spices that were inspired by biryani:  3/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon ground clove, 1/4 teaspoon mace, 1 teaspoon cumin, 1 teaspoon coriander powder, and 1/2 teaspoon turmeric.  For those that follow the link there, you'll notice I cut the spice list in about half.  You can cut it further, or add your own.  Heck, if you wanted to try a version with oregano, rosemary, and thyme, you could do that instead.  Again, this is your stir-fry.

The spices will help to absorb any remaining liquid in the mix.  The reason you want to get this as dry is possible is so that it doesn't throw off your rice measurements later.

What is mace, you ask, and is it necessary?  If you're wondering if it's the same stuff in mace spray, it is not.  Mace-the-spray is named after the old-timey spiked weapon knights used to carry and is made from hot peppers (hence the other name, pepper spray).  Mace-the-food is a warm, peppery spice that's actually made from the bark-like hull that surrounds a nutmeg seed, which is why it sometimes makes an appearance in things like pumpkin pie blends.  And no, it's not necessary in this dish.  You could add a dash of black pepper or allspice instead if you want, or leave it out altogether.

Okay, so 3-5ish minutes should be enough to "cook" your spices.  (The idea of "raw" spices still weirds me out.)  Sometime in this process your chicken probably dinged, didn't it?  Let it sit long enough to cool, and then use two forks to shred it.  Or heck, dice it.  Whatever.

Again, "meh."

So now your veggies and your meat are done.  Time to turn back to the rice.  Drain it, make extra sure you've rinsed it until the water runs clean, and then plop it into your rice cooker.  I used 1.5 cups of basmati rice.

You'll want to go by whatever proportions your cooker calls for when it comes to rice: liquid.  Mine calls for 1.5 cups of liquid to 1 cup of rice for white rice, so I used about 2.25 cups of liquid, minus a tablespoon or two of liquid to compensate for the moisture in the veggies and chicken.  (Too much liquid will make your rice gluey.)  I used chicken stock.  You could easily swap out water or vegetable stock here.

On top of that I poured first the veggie mix:

Followed by the chicken, a teaspoon of mint leaves, a bay leaf, and 2 teaspoons of coriander (cilantro).  All I had was the frozen stuff, normally I'd use fresh cilantro.

I used to throw in a pinch of saffron here, but I've found that I can't taste it over the other strong spices and since it doesn't come cheap I don't really bother any more.

That's the end of the effort part!  I closed the lid and switched it on.  Now, my rice cooker is kind of fancy, so it has a bunch of different settings.  I've found that when making rice-with-stuff-in-it the "Mixed Rice" setting works best.  You may have to play around with yours to get it just right.

Which brings me to my next point while we wait the hour or so it takes for the pilaf to cook:  what if you don't have a rice cooker?  Unless you eat rice pretty often you probably don't have/need one.  If you do have one but you're not sure what to do with it other than plain rice, let me direct you to the late great Roger Ebert's cookbook.  Otherwise, my best guess is that all this will work equally well with a typical stovetop rice cooking method, though that's untested so you'll have to be sure to let me know any tips you have to share if you do it that way.

Ding, rice is done!

Let it sit for 5-10 minutes or so before you take the cover off or stir it.  I've found that really helps keep the rice from getting gummy.

Be sure to pick out the bay leaf before anyone who might complain about it sees it.  That is, if you have someone like that in your house.

And that's it!  It kept the layers, more or less, so I suppose you could call it a biryani if you wanted to (but I don't):

It's much less attractive once you mix it up and serve it out, unfortunately.

Next up is a true beginner's recipe: making your own stock in the slow cooker.  Stay tuned.

Rice Cooker Biryani Pulao (Spiced Pilaf)

  • 1.5 cups of uncooked basmati rice
  • 5-6 cups warm tap water
  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 1-2 teaspoons tandoori powder
  • 1 teaspoon oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1 onion, sliced thinly
  • 1.5 teaspoons ginger paste
  • 1.5 teaspoons garlic paste
  • 1/4 cup each of vegetables of choice (e.g. spinach, bell pepper, chili pepper, mushroom
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves 
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground mace
  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder
  • 1 teaspoon coriander powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • 2 cups + 2 tablespoons stock or water (or adjust according to your rice cooker's instructions, subtracting 1-2 tablespoons to compensate for the mix-ins)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon mint leaves
  • 2 teaspoons coriander leaves

  1. Rinse rice under warm tap water using a fine mesh sieve.  Place rice in warm water bath for 30-60 minutes while cooking chicken and vegetable mix-ins.
  2. Coat chicken breasts in tandoori powder.  Bake at 350 degrees F for 25 minutes or until chicken reaches 165 degrees.  Set aside to cool, then shred or dice.
  3. While chicken is baking, heat a frying pan on medium high heat.  Add oil, allow to heat until shimmering.
  4. Add cumin seeds, roast 30-60 seconds until sizzling and fragrant.  Add onions.
  5. Saute onions 5-10 minutes.  
  6. Add ginger & garlic pastes, saute another 2-3 minutes.
  7. Add remaining vegetables, saute until soft and only a small amount of liquid remains in the pan.
  8. Add cinnamon, cloves, mace, cumin, coriander, and turmeric and heat for an additional 3-5 minutes or until the remaining liquid has evaporated.  Turn off heat and set aside.
  9. Drain rice and rinse again in warm tap water using a fine mesh sieve until water runs clear.  
  10. Place rice in rice cooker and cover with chicken broth.
  11. Gently lay vegetable mix on top of rice.  Do not mix.
  12. Layer chicken on top of vegetables.  Again, do not stir or mix the layers.
  13. On top of this add the mint, coriander, and bay leaf.  The bay leaf should be under the liquid layer, meaning it may need to be pressed down into the layers so that it is in the broth.
  14. Cover the rice cooker and set for one cycle.  If your rice cooker has multiple settings, use the one for white rice or for mixed rice, if available.
  15. When the cycle is done, allow the rice to sit for 5-10 minutes untouched, then fluff the rice with a fork or rice paddle to mix the layers.

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