The first time I heard about this dish was from a Persian friend in college who raved about his mother's cooking. Or maybe it was from his girlfriend at the time? Because she was describing his ex-girlfriend. Ex for many reasons, but one of them was because she picked out the cherries from his mother's sour cherry rice dish. *Gasp.* I know! The cherries are the best part! And also, she should have known better than to offend her boyfriend's mother. From that moment, my curiosity about this dish began.
Polow in Persian, pilaf to us, according to Wikipedia, is a Middle Eastern, and Central and South Asian dish that was first mentioned in the histories of Alexander the Great in describing Sogdian hospitality. (Sogdian was an eastern Persian province that may have been the birthplace of Alexander's wife Roxana, now Uzbekistan.) Uzbek plov is considered to be one of the oldest polow/plov rice dishes. It was served to Alexander upon his capture of the Sogdian capital of Marakanda (now Samarkand).
Cooking basmati rice involves soaking and parboiling and then steaming. I'm lazy and always looking for a shortcut. I've found that soaking the rice first to soften it, and then cooking it in my rice cooker, before putting it on the stove top to form its crispy crust works just as well.
It looks splendid, doesn't it? Except lil' sis said I should have known she doesn't like cherries. And I've already said she didn't like my kebabs. So at midnight, midnight!, I made her a cheap $2 steak with regular jasmine rice. And yes, I knew, that's why I had already bought steaks to begin with. You're so spoiled lil' sis!
Albalu Polow (Persian Sour Cherry Rice)
Adapted from AsiaFood.org
For 6 cups, you'll need:
1 24-oz jar of sour or morello cherries in light syrup (I got mine at Trader Joe's for $2.29.)
3 cups basmati rice (TJ's has 3-lb bags for $2.69.)
1 or 2 pinches of saffron, depending on how much you want to splurge (Again, TJ's $3.99 for a 1 gram jar.)
1/4 cup sugar, or more if you have a sweeter tooth than I do
1 stick, or 1/2 cup butter
Clean and wash 3 cups of basmati rice. I used a rice cup, which is equivalent to 3/4 of a measuring cup. Fill with water and let the rice soak for at least two hours. This step is not absolutely necessary but it softens the rice and helps it cook faster once it goes into the rice cooker. Just set it aside, go do your usual things, and then come back in a few hours, OK?
Take 1 or 2 pinches of saffron and put in 2 tblsps of hot water. Set aside.
Wash your rice once more and fill it up to the proper watermark in your rice cooker and let it cook. I'm not sure about you, but my mini-rice cooker makes a pot of rice in about 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, drain the cherry juices into a small saucepan. Add 1/4 cup sugar and stir until it dissolves. Let the mixture simmer on medium heat until it reduces and a syrup is formed. Since I don't like overly sweet food, I only used 1/4 cup of sugar so it's a very, very light syrup. The other recipes go up to 1 cup of sugar, so if you want a thick, sweet syrup, add more. The syrup will take 15 minutes on up depending on how much sugar you used and how much liquid was in the jar.
When the rice and syrup are done, you're ready to start layering and steaming (Yes, again!) your polow. In a large pot (I used my 7-quart Dutch oven.) on high heat, add 1/2 of a stick of butter, or 1/4 cup. When the butter is mostly melted, add a light layer of the basmati rice until it covers the bottom of the pot. Then add about 1 cup of cherries in the center. Add another cup of basmati rice. Keep alternating between the basmati rice and the cherries, always adding them on top of each other into the center so a pyramid shape is formed. When all the basmati rice and cherries have all been added, cut the remaining 1/2 stick of butter into small chunks and add them in a circle on top of the rice. Pour the cherry syrup over the mixture. And then add the saffron and saffron water on top.
Wet a paper towel or two and place that over the top of the pot. This seals in the steam when you put the cover on top. Turn heat down to medium and cook the rice mixture for another 20 minutes or so. The butter on the bottom of the pot will form a nice ta dig (crispy rice crust). You may even cook this up to 45 minutes if you want an even crispier rice crust, or for the cherries to shrivel up more.
Serve with kefta kebabs.