Plov. This simple dish belongs to the list of my favorite comfort foods. The origins of it are definitely Asian, but no one knows for sure where exactly it came from. You can find its distinctive relatives in India, China, Middle East, Caucasus, and everywhere in between, you name it.
No matter the origin, it passed the test of ages and cultures, and in its apparent simplicity carries a ground shaking secret — there is just no amount of it you can consume and get full or feel heavy. It’s highly addictive, yet it has absolutely nothing that might be bad for you. All it is is just meat, rice, and a handful of vegetables and spices. There are so many variations of it out there, that you can say the sky is the limit when it comes to what to put in it, as long as you follow a few simple rules of preparation.
Self-proclaimed plov connoisseurs will tell you that it needs to be cooked over wood burning fire, but who can do that these days? There are some, too, who claim that only special sorts of rice can be used in it, but as this guy says (in Russian, sorry), plov was just a best known way to cook local, specific to the area, rice, so you can vary your plov recipe to adjust for your local (or locally available) rice, and you’ll be fine, again, as long as you follow a few simple rules.
There are sweet plovs, there are savory plovs, there are versions of the plov with mussels and clams, there are some with dried fruit.
My favorite kind is lamb plov. There are some arguments about what kind of meat should go into plov. There are prevailing beliefs that shoulder or leg (including chopped bones) are the best. I typically use the leg meat, and it’s perfectly ok, as long as it has some fat on it. If using bones, have them chopped, like for osso-bucco, and puchase 1.5 times more than indicated in the recipe, since you won’t be eating the bones. Bones are great because they tremendously enhance the flavor. Plus, you know, there is this, bone marrow factor, which for some may prove to be even more addictive.
Anyway, here are the few simple rules, that you must follow in order to make plov:
- Always use Dutch oven. Pots don’t work.
- If you choose tougher or slower cooking meat, use harder, slower cooking rice.
- Animal fat is preferred to vegetable oil, but if you have a choice or oils, find cotton seed oil. Never use sunflower oil.
- Never shred carrots. Always thick julienne them, or at the very least, make half rounds.
- Rinse rice thoroughly in cold water, agitating it with you hands, to get rid of extra starch. Rinse seven times (at least), water should be completely clear. Then drain.
- Once rice is added to the pot, smooth it over with the wooden spoon, and never stir
- Add boiling water slowly so that it covers the rice by about half inch. Better err on a lower side than overwater. You can always add a bit more water later.
And finally, here are the What and How, for my favorite way. Feel free to invent yours, or poke around the Internet to find the one you will call yours.
- 2-3 tbsp of fat. Lamb fat in this case is preferred, use vegetable oil if no other option.
- 2-1/2 lbs (or half of medium size boneless leg of lamb), cut into 1.5″ cubes
- 3-4 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced
- 3-4 medium carrots, thick julienned, or half rounds
- 3 cups of medium to long grain rice suitable for the type of meat you use, thoroughly rinsed in cold water, drained and set aside. If using shoulder or leg, use softer rice, such as basmati, else go tougher. Some people swear by paella rice
- boiling water
- 1 tbsp salt to start with, then some to adjust for your particular taste
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tbsp ground coriander
- 1/4 cayenne (if like it spicy)
- 1-2 small dry chili peppers, broken in half
- 1-2 head of garlic, whole, outer membranes peeled off
- 1 tsp whole cumin seed (or fennel seed)
- 1/2 tsp turmeric (primarily for color)
- If lucky to find dried berberis berries, add 2-3 tbsp of those, they are fantastic.
- Fresh cilantro for garnish
Mix all the spices together in a small bowl.
If using animal fat, render it over medium flame, until most of it is rendered, and then discard the bits. Don’t brown them.
Turn heat to high and heat the fat until smoky. Brown the meat on all sides, leaving some space between the pieces. You may brown the meat in batches if necessary. Reserve the meat.
Toss in the onions and cook until well wilted and golden brown. Add the meat, half of the spices, and salt. Reduce heat, and cook on medium for about 20-25 minutes, or even upwards 40 minutes if your meat is on a tougher side. Onions will be very soft and almost ready to fall apart. The mixture will be brown and very fragrant.
Alternatively, you can add carrots at this point, and cook them all together. I tried it both ways, and don’t seem to notice a substantial difference, other than carrots will be much softer and easily broken apart when the dish is ready
Add the garlic (whole heads of garlic) and carrots on top of it. Spread them evenly in a layer.
Cover carrots with rice. Smooth the rice over to form a crust, but don’t compact it.
Stick the handle of a wooden spoon through the rice all the way to the bottom of the pot and make a little opening by rotating the spoon slightly. Remove the spoon. Pour boiling water into the opening (this is done to prevent disturbing the rice), keep pouring water until it covers the rice by about 1/2″, no more.
Add the remaining spices. Continue cooking on medium until water “disappears” into the rice. Reduce heat to medium-low, and cover with heavy lid. Cook for about 20 minutes or so, then check. The plov is ready when water is absorbed, but the top layer of rice is slightly al dente.
Don’t overcook. If you feel there was too much water to be absorbed in 20 minutes, you can open the pot and increase the heat, to have water evaporate faster. If the opposite is true and water is gone too soon, you can add small amount of water the same way as before, with the use of wooden spoon — make several openings in the rice, and pour small amounts of water into the openings. Again, better err on a “too little” side.
Once the plov is ready, the best way to serve it is to turn the pot over onto a large colorful dish, so that rice ends up on the bottom and meat on top, over carrots. If you are not up for that, using a wooden spoon, mix the plov gently from bottom to top, and serve into bowls.
Garnish with freshly chopped cilantro and serve piping hot. It goes well with juicy salads, fresh pomegranate seeds, and washed down with hot tea.