Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Uzbek Chicken Pilaf

Most weeks, I try to pick common cookbooks.  I reach for cookbooks that you might have in your kitchen or that you’d be able to borrow from the library (or if you’re like me, that you’ll put on your Amazon wish list). 

But this week I’m pulling out the obscure.  One of my best friends, Linda, lived in Uzbekistan for three years.  She brought me back many goodies from Tashkent, the capital city, and one of my favorites is the cookbook Uzbek National Dishes (1995) by Khudayshukurov, Makhmudov, & Ubaydullaev. 

I have over 300 cookbooks, but this one wins the prize for its uniqueness.  Every recipe in this cookbook is printed in three languages:  Uzbek, Russian, and English.  I can’t read a word of the Cyrillic alphabet and I have no idea whether the Uzbek or Russian recipes are complete, but the recipes translated into English are bizarre, a surprising mix of tight-fisted precision and vague hand-waving.  Opening the cookbook to a random page, the ingredients read “750 grams beef or mutton.”  The amount, “750 grams” is exact, but which cut of beef or mutton?  Should I be asking for a flank steak or ground lamb or maybe cow’s tongue?  The part of the cow or sheep you use in this recipe seems to left up to the reader’s taste, budget, and comfort level.

Relax.  I didn’t go with cow’s tongue in this recipe.  I went with chicken.

So given this cookbook’s obscurity and the ambiguous recipes, why am I sharing it with you? 

Because one of my all-time favorite recipes comes from this Uzbek cookbook.  It’s a chicken pilaf that's gluten-free, but I’ve been making this pilaf for years, long before I’d heard of gluten.  It’s delicious, it’s pretty, and it uses ingredients that you’ll already have in your pantry or that you’ll find easily at the grocery store.  If I’m asked to bring a main dish to a potluck and I don’t know many people at the party, this is typically the dish I bring.  Strange though the origin may be, it’s a “safe” dish, one that consistently pleases people.  

Best of all, there’s no gluten, dairy, nuts, soy, or eggs – it’s one dish that deftly navigates many dietary restrictions and still tastes fresh and interesting.  (Except for vegetarians.  Sorry, guys).

The list of ingredients is short and you may be thinking “Really?  That’s it?  Did she leave out some magic ingredient?”  But if you’ve ever had cumin and carrots sautéed together, you know that is where the magic lies.

Adapting the Recipe
There was no gluten or dairy in the original recipe (called "Bukhorocha Palov"), but there was a fair amount of creative guessing to do.  First, I had to choose the meat for this dish.  The cookbook's only suggestion was “large bits of boiled meat."  Not a big fan of "boiled meat," I typically use leftover rotisserie chicken.  Beef or mutton would be more consistent with the Uzbek kitchen, but leftover chicken is more common in ours.

Once I’d decided on chicken, I had to choose the spices.  The cookbook simply listed “250 g. salt and spices to taste.” I wasn’t sure if that was 250 grams of salt plus additional spices to taste, or 250 grams total of salt and spices combined.  Then again, since I was basically making up this recipe every step of the way, I figured it probably didn’t matter.  I checked with my friend Linda and she agreed that cumin was a very common spice in Uzbek cuisine, so I made cumin the primary spice in this adaptation.

As I said, this is one of my favorite gluten- and dairy-free main dishes. Colorful, chewy, and wonderful layers of flavor.  Great in the winter as comfort food, but equally welcome in the summer when you have fresh cilantro from your garden. Plus Uzbek Chicken Pilaf freezes well, so if you make a double batch and freeze some for later.  
The carrots, cumin, chicken and cilantro compliment each other perfectly. 

3-4 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
4 large carrots, peeled
1 T. cumin seed
5 C. cooked, cooled rice (brown or white, whatever you have on hand – we use cooked brown jasmine or basmati.  Leftover rice from Indian or Thai restaurants works well)
½ tsp. salt, plus more to taste
3 C. cooked chicken, ideally still warm, torn into bite-sized pieces or cubed, and covered to stay warm (we usually use a combination for white and dark meat pulled from a rotisserie chicken)
4 T. cilantro, chopped

Preheat the oven to 170 degrees F.  Place a large ceramic serving platter on the middle rack in the oven and allow it to warm.

Heat 3 T. olive oil on medium-high in a large skillet.  Add the chopped onions and stir to coat the onions with oil.  Cover the skillet and cook until the onions are softened and lightly browned, 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the onions are cooking, julienne the carrots for the prettiest presentation.  To julienne a carrot, cut each whole carrot into 3 or 4 pieces (each 2-3” long).  Lengthwise, slice the outer edge from one of the carrot pieces so it will lie flat.  Place the cut side of the carrot down so it won’t roll as you work. Cut that carrot into thin slices lengthwise.  Stack several slices on top of each other and slice lengthwise again, creating matchstick-size pieces.  If you are in a hurry and don’t have time to julienne the carrots, just slice them into simple ¼”-thick rounds.  The rounds aren’t as visually pretty as the matchsticks, but the flavor is just as good.  Set the carrots aside. 

Add the cumin seed to the browned onions, and sauté 1-2 minutes, stirring to ensure any browned bits of onion are loosened from the pan.  The cumin should begin to release a wonderful fragrance.

Stir the rice into the onions and cumin, stirring well to distribute the oil and seeds.  Add the ½ tsp. salt to the rice and stir well.   If the rice seems dry and likely to burn, drizzle in a little more olive oil, up to 1 additional tablespoon.

Cover the rice and turn the heat to very low, allowing the rice to warm up while you finish preparing the chicken and carrots. 

Meanwhile, place the julienned carrots in a microwave-safe dish, add 2 T. of water, cover, and microwave on HIGH heat for 2 minutes.  Keeping the cover on the carrots, remove the carrots from the microwave and allow them to continue to steam. 

If the chicken was not already seasoned, sprinkle it with salt and pepper.  If the chicken has cooled down, place it in a microwave-safe bowl and heat it on HIGH as briefly as possible, in 30-second intervals, stirring the chicken in between heatings, just until it’s warm again. (Microwave it 1 ½ minutes at most.  If you microwave the chicken for too long, it becomes rubbery)  Keep the chicken covered to keep it warm. 

Drain the carrots.  Salt lightly. 

Now it’s time to assemble the pilaf.  Remove the heated platter from the oven – it will be hot, so be sure to use an oven mitt or pot holder.   Make a large bed of rice, then cover the rice with the chicken.  Pile the julienned carrots on top of the chicken and sprinkle the top with chopped cilantro. 

Serves 5-6 as a main dish, 8-12 as a welcome side dish in a buffet

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