Cardamom-and-Cumin-Spiced Pea Pilaf
At the deep end of my pantry sits a large glass jar filled with basmati rice—with exquisitely long grains accompanied by an equally splendid aroma. In most Indian homes, basmati rice is a staple used to make everything from the most basic, simple pot of everyday rice to the glorious pulaos, or pilafs, and biryanis that are served at celebrations. Basmati is also used to make desserts like kheer, a sweetened rice pudding made with milk and mildly infused with spices. Basmati rice is sold in a variety of forms, from brown (which still contains the nutritious germ and bran) to white (which has been polished to a more purely starchy form). There’s aged basmati rice, where the grain is left to sit for months, or even years, which helps intensify its flavor and aroma (the bags are usually marked with a date). You might even notice a basmati rice labeled “broken basmati,” which is usually slightly cheaper because (as the name suggests) it contains a higher proportion of rice grains that are broken. This “broken” variety should be used when you don’t care about the texture of the rice, for example, when you’re going to grind the rice to make rice flour for making fermented rice batters, such as for dosas. When making a dish like this pilaf, long, unbroken grains are the ideal choice. There are a couple of different ways to prepare basmati rice. The first involves cooking the rice in an excess amount of boiling water followed by draining the water away from the cooked grains. The second method (and the method I find the best) is the absorption method. In this method, the rice is cooked with a definitive amount of water and cooked slowly until the water completely evaporates and you’re left with long, fluffy grains. I have a couple of pointers to keep in mind when cooking rice for a pilaf. First, I like to start with the most flavorful rice possible—so I use aged basmati rice for its stronger aroma. Next, I wash my rice. Washing the rice is an important step to prevent sticking of the grains; any loose starch present is washed away. Finally, when it comes time to cook the rice, I like to fry it in a bit of fat, such as ghee, to help coat the grains, which acts as a second level of insurance against sticking. I like to add whole aromatic spices to the ghee, which releases their oils and infuses the ghee and rice with their warm and intoxicating flavors. If you don’t have whole spices in your pantry, I encourage you to make a trip to your nearest Indian or Asian market and stock up. It’s cheaper to buy them in bulk, and the flavor is much more intense than most ground varieties you can find. Store them in sealed jars in the back of your pantry—they’ll keep your basmati rice company.