A chance visit to a local San Antonio restaurant that serves Afghani food changed my life. One day a couple of years ago I planned to take my mom to lunch at a small, independently-owned coffee shop that serves breakfast and lunch. When we arrived at the coffee shop, we found it closed for renovation. Next door to the shop is Azro, a restaurant that serves authentic Afghan cuisine. The owner greeted us as we walked in, and before he seated us I asked about gluten-free offerings. The menu has a surprising number of naturally gluten-free items, but even the meat patties are formed with chickpea flour and are thus gluten-free. The meal I had at Azro that day was a revelation. I know about the characteristic of foods from that region of the world, but I’d never eaten authentic dishes from Afghanistan, Iraq, or Iran. The spices in the food were subtle but flavorful. The saffron rice, especially was amazingly fragrant, with a hint of floral and citrus. So many flavors packed into just a few dishes, and all somehow balanced so that they work together in concert rather than any one of them dominating the other. The texture of the rice was amazing, as well: very soft and tender. That day, I became hooked on the creative, flavorful foods of those cultures.
Having given up meat for Lent, I am depending upon rice and pasta dishes to pick up the slack. Generally I either add meat to rice dishes or serve meat along side rice dishes, but during this period of Lent, meatless rice-based meals figure prominently on my dinner menus. With dishes such as this gluten-free jeweled version of Persian crusted rice, Tahdig, I confess I’m not suffering all that much from leaving meat out of my diet. The melody of flavor created by the addition of fruits and spices, in addition to saffron, to the crispy rice is oh, so sweet to the tongue! Additionally, the house smells heavenly while the rice is cooking. The recipe I use for jeweled rice is based on this one from the New York Times, but with the following changes: I substitute candied orange and lemon peels for the dried apricots, and I omit the raisins. I made the changes simply because I don’t have a particular affinity for dried apricots or raisins. Also, I use a non-stick pan, instead of a dutch oven, to make the rice.
To make the candied orange and lemon peels, I use this method, but I add two lemons with the two oranges. The recipe calls for enough sugar and water to handle four pieces of fruit. When the peels are finished, I reserve the syrup in which they were cooked, reduce it some, and save it for use in other recipes (such as for drizzling over cake, or as syrup for gluten-free pancakes, etc).
A note about saffron: I buy saffron from Costco. It has the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) La Mancha seal, which means that the saffron in the cute little jar is the real deal from La Mancha, the best quality saffron in the world. Brands of saffron that lack this PDO La Mancha often pass of lesser quality saffron sourced from Turkey, Iran, or India as the better quality product from La Mancha. Wherever you purchase your saffron, be sure that you see the PDO La Mancha somewhere on the packaging. Also, be sure to buy the whole threads, rather than ground saffron.
Note about pistachio nuts: pistachios are expensive. If you don’t use them all the time and so don’t keep them stocked in your kitchen, consider buying the exact amount you for a particular recipe from the bulk section at the grocery store so that you don’t waste any, nor spend any more than you need to in purchasing the pistachios. I use this method of purchasing many ingredients that I use only occasionally. Of course, you can always buy extra and store them in your freezer, if you have the freezer space.
- ¼ teaspoon crushed saffron threads
- ¼ cup hot water
- 2 cups basmati rice
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 6 tablespoons butter, divided
- 1 sm yellow onion, finely chopped
- ¼ teaspoon Ceylon (true) cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon cardamom
- ¼ teaspoon allspice
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- Peels of two oranges, candied
- Peels of two lemons, candied
- ½ cup dried cherries
- ⅓ cup blanched, slivered almonds
- ⅓ cup pistachios, chopped
- Crumble the ¼ teaspoon saffron threads into the hot water. Mix well, then set aside. Place the 2 cups of basmati rice in a sieve. Rinse well under cold water for several minutes. Bring about 3 quarts of water and the kosher salt to a boil. Add the rinsed rice and boil for about five minutes. Drain well. Sauté the chopped onion in 1 tablespoon of butter until tender. Add 1 tablespoon of saffron water, the spices, and pepper; cook together about one minute. Add the candied fruit peels and dried cherries; mix well.
- Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in the bottom of a Dutch oven or a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Spread half the parboiled rice over the melted butter at the bottom of the pan. Spread the onion, spice, fruit mixture evenly over the layer of rice. Spread the remaining rice evenly over the onion fruit layer. Let the rice cook, uncovered and undisturbed, until you can smell the bottom of the rice browning (about 8 minutes).
- Drizzle the remaining saffron water over the top layer of rice; cover, reduce heat to low, and cook for 30 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the rice rest for another ten minutes. While the rice is cooking, roast the pistachios and almonds with the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in a small skillet. Nuts quickly burn, so take care to roast the nuts for only a minute or two.
- To serve, be sure to get some of the crusty part of the rice in each bowl; garnish each serving with the roasted nuts.