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Tender Is The Rice

With Sour Cherries and a Little Cussing, the Humble Grain Becomes an Adventure in Eating

October 22, 2000|MARTIN BOOE | Martin Booe last wrote for the Entertaining section about allioli

WHEN I WAS KID, I'D GET DOWN ON MY KNEES at least once a week and beg my mother to make rice for dinner. This wasn't because I loved rice all that much, but because I hated Mom's mashed potatoes. I still do. I've never figured out how an otherwise good cook could so thoroughly ruin something so simple, but they were slimy and gray and I missed many an episode of "Batman" for my refusal to eat them. (In my family, you didn't leave the dinner table until you cleaned your plate, no matter how long it took.)

So I begged for rice, especially since part of my mother's devious plot to force me to eat her mashed potatoes was to serve them on "Batman" night. Traditionally prepared American rice may have been mushy and flavorless, but it was relatively inoffensive.

Chinese food aside, it never occurred to me that rice could be much of anything besides a benign repository for gravy until a number of years back, when I became friends with the Partovi sisters, Elli and Zoreh, who are Iranian. Their cooking has made me a partisan of Persian cuisine, which bestows upon rice the status of a minor deity. It's also a symbol of hospitality. Before this, I never knew rice could be fluffy and tender, yet with the texture of the grain still intact. I just assumed they knew about some secret variety I'd never heard of (turns out it's basmati). So I started spying on them while they cooked it. Persian rice, or "polo" as it's known in Farsi, is first soaked for two hours, then boiled for several minutes, drained and steamed for 30 to 40 minutes. There are endless variations: sweet-and-sour rice, rice with dill and fava beans, sweet rice, rice with fresh herbs, rice with beef. Saffron is usually lurking somewhere in the background. Each contains a treasure trove of goodies that make it an adventure in texture and flavor.

I told Elli I had read somewhere that reflected in most Persian cuisine is the Parthian belief in the struggle between light and darkness. She started laughing and employed an unequivocal barnyard epithet. My own experience is that it reflects the eternal battle between the Partovi sisters. For sisters, they are actually very good friends, and when they collaborate on a meal, there's always a good deal of cussing in Farsi, which by my estimation is a pretty evolved language for cussing.

Elli's specialty is sour cherry rice, otherwise known as Polo Albalo. A traditional Iranian festival dish, it's concocted mostly of basmati rice, sour cherries and saffron with chopped chicken mixed in, but Elli prefers to serve the rice and chicken separately. At the bottom of the pot lies tadiq, the crunchy layer of rice and pita bread browned in butter. This is always the object of stiff competition as everyone tries to get more than their share without seeming greedy.

Elli, I'm afraid, has become a victim of her own prowess in the kitchen. Whenever there's a birthday or cause for celebration among our group of friends, somebody is bound to whine for sour cherry rice. It's a lot of work, but Elli likes to see people enjoying good food. And if you don't eat at least enough for three people, she won't let you watch "Batman."

Sour Cherry Rice

Serves 6

3 cups basmati rice

4 tablespoons salt

Large yellow onion, finely chopped

1/2 pound butter (2 sticks)

3/4 teaspoon saffron, crushed finely into powder with pestle

3 cups sour cherry (Morello) preserves

Slice of pita bread

*

Fill large pot with water. Add 2 tablespoons salt. Soak rice for two hours. Drain. In large nonstick pot, add 9 cups water, 2 tablespoons salt and pre-soaked rice. Bring to boil. Stir gently occasionally to prevent rice from sticking. Cook until al dente. Drain. Rinse with cold water, then shake colander to remove excess water. Set aside.

In skillet, fry onion in 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter until golden. Lower flame. Add saffron to onions. Add sour cherries. Simmer for 15 minutes, being careful not to burn.

Cover bottom of nonstick pot with olive oil. Separate one piece of pita bread and place it on the bottom of pot. Spoon thick layer of rice over pita bread; spoon layer of sour cherry preserves over rice, then alternate layers, forming a mound. Poke holes in rice mixture with handle of spatula to allow steam to rise. Mix until rice takes on color of preserves.

Melt remaining 11/2 sticks of butter (6 ounces). Pour evenly over rice. If juice from cherries gathers around edges of pot, skim off excess so tadiq at bottom won't be mushy. Cover with clean towel. Then put lid on.

Place pot on medium heat. When you hear sizzling at the bottom (after about 5 minutes), then bring down heat to low. Cook covered for 45 minutes to an hour.

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