Rice is Nice, but Pilaf is Perfect

Not so often, but now and then, a meal I prepare harkens me back to the early days of my cooking in a professional kitchen at Jour et Nuit in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. Recently we revisited a classic of the “Continental Cuisine” menu many fine-dining restaurants offered in the 60s and 70s. Filet of Flounder in a lemon-caper brown butter sauce served up with Rice Pilaf and Haricot Vert with Shitake Mushrooms (thank you to my sister Chetty for sharing “Carol’s Peerless Green Beans” with us this past Christmas).

My journey into a world food staple: rice weaves a thread through a lifetime of meals. My mother cooked white rice perfectly, tender to the bite, moist but not wet, carried to the dinner table in her gold-edged bone-china bowl, steaming, with a Sunday roast and gravy. On weeknights, we occasionally suffered the abomination of Minute Rice. One weekday evening in my childhood, when my sister and I returned from our piano lessons, Mom re-heated dinner for us. I don’t remember what else was on the plate, but the rice stood out. Off-color and scented like fruit, we tasted it carefully. “Mom, this rice is WRONG!” proclaimed my sister, always brave about speaking up. “There’s nothing wrong with that rice,” responded my dad, “Now eat it!” Mom confessed later that she tried a new recipe from the Ladies Church League Cookbook: Orange Rice Pilaf. For decades after that meal, I looked suspiciously at cylinders of frozen orange juice concentrate, as well as spiral-bound community fund-raising cookbooks.
 
As a teenager, I discovered sushi rice, rolled hot with raw egg, and Tamari into a softened sheet of seaweed, breakfast at my friend Lynne’s house. Her mother translated for the Japanese embassy. White rice took on a European international status when I learned the French method of soaking and rinsing the rice, parboiling it in salted water, and then finishing it in the oven with flaky salt and good butter. I embraced the chewy texture of unpolished brown rice, sauteeing it with onions, and simmering it in a mixture of beef consommé and white wine to serve with the best-selling Mediterranean Beef on the menu at my restaurant, The Purcellville Inn. I raised our family on Persian rice, aromatic with saffron, eager eaters arguing over the choicest parts of the Tahdig crust.
 
Now pre-cooked grains in shelf-stable bags and various dry gourmet blends fly off grocery store shelves: black rice with pecans, farro risotto with porcini mushrooms, five grains with flax seeds. I love most of them, but Rice Pilaf remains the hallmark dish my husband requests repeatedly. I vary it by mood, main dish, and whatever resides in my pantry or sprouts in my herb garden.
 
Check out the recipe–and notes for no-recipe-recipe variations.
And no, I have never forced orange rice on our children, but I do own a growing collection of community-fund-raiser and Ladies Church League cookbooks. That’s another story.

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