Pulao Recipe (Indian Vegetable Rice)
Pulao is an Indian rice dish filled with sabji ("vegetables" in Urdu). In this version, I flavored the rice with only three vegetables: lima beans, carrots and green peas. Lima beans are packed with protein and are very filling. The combination of lima beans and rice makes a perfectly balanced meal for a vegetarian diet.
I served this one-dish meal family style with raita or chutney on the side. This weekend, we prepared a large pot and everything was gone at the end of lunch time! My favorite is the fried "burnt" rice at the bottom of the pot, called kurchan.
Yields: 8 servings3-½ cups basmati rice
juice of a lemon
3 tablespoons canola oil (or any neutral oil), as needed
1 yellow onion
1 large carrot, shredded into grain-sized bits
1-½ cups frozen baby lima beans, thawed
1 cup frozen green peas, thawed
2 teaspoons ginger garlic paste (see tips)
2 jalapeño peppers (to taste), stemmed
4 green cardamom pods, slightly crushed
1/3 cup plain yogurt
1 bay leaf, torn in half
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
½ teaspoon garam masala
¼ teaspoon red chili powder, to taste
1-½ teaspoons salt, as needed
½ teaspoon saffron threads
4 tablespoons ghee (clarified butter), as needed
4 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped
Thinly slice the onion. Heat 2 tablespoons of canola oil in a skillet. Fry the onions in the oil, stirring frequently to prevent the onion from burning until the color is evenly golden brown. Drain the onions on paper towels.
Using a paring knife, create a 2-inch incision in the jalapeño peppers. Set aside.
In a mortar and pestle, grind the saffron threads. Add about ¼ cup of water. Set aside.
Prepping the rice:
Wash and rinse the rice thoroughly in several water baths (about three times). Place in a large bowl; cover with water. Add the lemon juice. Soak for at least 1 hour. Drain as much water as possible.
Fill a large pot about 4 quarts of water. Add the cardamom pods. Bring to a boil. Add the rice. Bring the liquid back to a boil, then immediately lower the heat to a gentle boil. That way the rice is cooked all the way through evenly. Cook for about 7 minutes at a bubbly simmer. Add 1 teaspoon of salt half-way through the cooking process. Keep stirring the rice every now and then so that it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot. The grains of rice should still be a little hard, about 2/3 of the way cooked. Check often and do NOT wait until the grains are soft (see tips); this step is crucial. Drain the liquid from the rice using a fine mesh colander. Do NOT rinse. Discard the liquid. Set aside.
For the lima beans:
In the skillet you used for the onions, add more oil, the cumin seeds and ginger garlic paste. Cook until fragrant. Add garam masala, jalapeño peppers, bay leaf and yogurt. It will form a thick paste. Add the lima beans. Keep the temperature at a high heat. Stir frequently for about 2-3 minutes. Add the carrots and ¼ cup of water (up to ½ cup). Season with salt and red chili powder. Cover and continue to cook for about 5 minutes. Keep stirring every now and then so the vegetables don't stick to the bottom of the pot. Add the green peas at the end.
Once the water evaporates, check the softness of the beans (add water and cook a bit longer if not fully cooked). Adjust seasoning. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Coat the inside of a cast iron pot with oil. Place a thin layer of the vegetables at the bottom. Add 1/3 of the rice. Sprinkle with salt and 1 tablespoon of fresh mint. Add another generous layer of vegetables. Repeat the same precedure and finish with rice.
Using the pestle (the stick) of a mortar and pestle, create 3 evenly-spaced holes (forming a triangle) in the pot of rice and drizzle about ½ to 3/4 cup of water into the rice. Pour the saffron liquid into the rice. Add another ¼ cup of water into the mortar to ensure all the saffron is used, then sprinkle some more saffron liquid into the pot of rice. Place little mounds of ghee all over the rice. Sprinkle with the reserved fried onions, cilantro and mint. Seal the pot with an aluminum sheet and cover the pot. Place on the stove over high heat for about 3-4 minutes. Steam should escape from the pot. Transfer to the oven and bake for about 8-10 minutes. Remove from the oven. Allow the rice to set for at least 15 minutes. Do not remove the lid.
Gently fluff the rice using long chopsticks (or a fork) without breaking the grains of rice. The vegetable rice is ready.
Serve the pulao with raita (yogurt based sauce) or chutney if you'd like.
I have always used frozen lima beans and green peas. I've never used the canned ones. Frozen vegetables are frozen at the peak of ripeness and are as close to fresh as you can get without growing them yourselves or finding a local supplier.
Ghee is the Indian version of clarified butter. You can find it in jars at Indian stores. But if you don't have ghee, you can add butter to the rice instead.
I usually use plain yogurt from the Indian store or Greek-style yogurt because it has a denser consistency than the regular ones.
Adding shredded carrots to the rice gives the illusion that you added a lot of saffron to the rice. Just julienne the carrots and cut them the same size as the grains of rice. The visual will look like saffron rice with small golden orange grains of rice.
You've probably noticed I use ginger garlic paste a lot in my cooking. It tastes great and is very healthy for you as well. Just clean a 3-inch chunk of ginger, carefully removing any dirt. Peel the ginger root with a paring knife or the edge of a spoon, then finely chop it. Place the chopped ginger and 5 cloves of garlic in a blender and, add about 2 tablespoons (or more) of water for a smooth flow. Transfer to a jar and store in the refrigerator. You can keep this paste for at least a week in the refrigerator.
For a healthier (and vegan) version, substitute olive oil for the ghee or butter.
The key to this dish is to cook the rice perfectly. If the grains of rice are already turned soft before starting the steaming process, do not throw it away (nothing goes to waste); make a rice congee (cháo gà in Vietnamese), a type of chicken rice porridge. You can also make a veggie version. I'll post the recipes soon.