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Author Notes: In Persian cooking, all roads eventually lead to rice. The holy grail of making “polo” (Persian-style rice) is a bed of aromatic fluffy rice, not one single grain sticking to another. (Like all tasks demanding finesse, this accomplishment takes practice and patience and some luck. A good polo is the true test of how one reckons a cook to be an accomplished one in Iran. )
Iranians are quite proud of their rice dishes and truthfully, there is a just basis for the bragging rights. Conjure this for example: candied carrots, berberries, slivered pistachio and almonds layered inside a bed of fluffy rice steaming fragrant with saffron and a touch of butter. These are the delectable building blocks of a crowd-pleasing rice dish called “shirin polo” or sweet rice.
Sweet rice is somewhat of a misnomer though, in that the sweetness of this dish is subtle and is punctuated with the most wonderful bursts of contrasting tangy flavor courtesy of the barberries, and is also nicely balanced with the nutty flavor and crunch of the almond and pistachio garnish.
Shirin polo, when produced in a more elaborate and meticulous incarnation, is called "javaher polo" or jeweled rice, a dish fit to be served on festive occasions, including weddings. This Shirin Polo recipe is my mother's go-to-simplified-version for just a nice dinner at home. (Although it won't be that out of place in a wedding after all!)
—Fig and Quince
- 2 1/2 cups rice (the best rice you have, i.e. Basmati)
- 1 pound carrots (thin-matchstick cut)
- 1/2 cup barberries (soak in cold water for 5-10 minutes, rinse a few times, drain)
- 1/4 cup slivered almonds
- 1/4 cup pistachios (slivered or chopped )
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon ground saffron (dissolve almost all of it in 2 tablespoons hot water but save a tiny pinch or two in its dry from)
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- small pinches cumin
- small pinches coriander powder
- butter (optional)
- Wash rice grains with cold water, using your hands to swish it around. Repeat several times until the water runs clear. Drain. (Optional: soak washed rice in cold water and 1 tablespoon of salt for 1/2 to an hour.)
- In a large pot bring 4 quarts of water and 2 tablespoons of salt to a boil. Gradually and gently add the rinsed rice. Bring to a gentle boil again and boil rice for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally & gently. Drain in a colander. Pour 2 to 3 cups of tepid water over the rice in the colander. Drain again.
- In a big pot, bring 1/2 cup water and 2 tablespoons oil (plus an optional but recommended tablespoon or more of butter) to a boil. Then, one spatula of rice at a time, arrange rice in the pot by first covering the bottom of the pot, using a spatula to spread it, then layering the rest of the rice to taper on top in the form of a quasi pyramid or dome. Make several wells in this rice dome with the handle of a wooden spoon. Cover and cook over medium heat until rice steams – usually around 20 minutes. (Keep a watchful eye.
- Once steaming, reduce heat to low, and continue to cook for another half hour – until rice is fully cooked. (One test for when the rice is properly done is to moisten finger tip and touch the pot, and if you hear a “pszzst” sound, the rice is ready.) When done, turn off heat and let rice rest undisturbed in the pot for 5 minutes. Then, wet a kitchen towel with cold water and place pot on top of the towel. (The pot should make a fizzing "pszzst" sound again. That'd be a good sign.)
- At some point before rice is done, prepare the carrots and barberries. First heat olive oil (plus an optional dab of butter) in a large skillet. Add carrots and saute over medium heat until pliant - usually around 5 minutes. Season carrots with cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and a tiny pinch of saffron. Add sugar as well. Stir to mix, lower heat, place lid ajar on top of pan to capture steam, and cook for another 5 minutes. (This allows sugar to liquify and carrots to really soak up the sugar.) Set aside. Wipe skillet with a paper towel, heat more olive oil (with yet another optional touch of butter) till very hot; reduce heat and saute barberries with 1 tablespoon sugar on low flame, stirring frequently, for no longer than a minute. Set this aside as well.
- Once rice is ready to be served, place 2 spatulas of rice in a small dish and sprinkle with saffron water, using a fork to fluff the rice grains and evenly coloring it with saffron water. This saffron-colored rice will be used to top rice as a decorative dome. Set this aside for now.
- Taking one spatula full of rice at a time, arrange a layer of rice topped with a good sprinkling of carrots and barberries. Then add another layer of rice and top it again with carrots and barberries. Repeat till you've used all the rice but once you get to the "tah digh", the crunchy crust at the bottom of the pot that is, gently detach that in as intact a shape as you possibly can and serve in a separate platter. Finish off the rice platter by topping it with the saffron-colored rice you'd set aside earlier, and using your hands or a spatula mound the rice back to the shape of a dome. Garnish rice with remaining barberries and carrots, and the slivered pistachio and almonds. (Optional: To make this dish more scrumptious and moist, you can melt 2 tablespoon of butter and pour evenly over the serving platter at this point.) Serve hot. With the "tagh digh" (crunchy crust - best part of rice!) and with or without cooked chicken. Serve hot. With or without cooked chicken.