Real Armenian Rice Pilaf

Now we are getting to the nitty-gritty.  This is the classic.  More than just a side dish, Rice Pilaf is King of Armenian Cuisine.  No holiday meal is complete without it, but it also graces the table year ’round and serves as the ballast for all kinds of daily meals.  It’s quick to make and never fails to satisfy.

The Recipe:

  • 1 cup very fine vermicelli, broken into small pieces, or if you like, Orzo.  I buy imported very fine vermicelli already cut to the proper size at a Mediterranean Market.  You can also use Golden Grain Angel Hair Cappellini, which comes in tight coils and you crush it with your hands until the pieces are a uniform size, each around 1/2 inch in length.  
  • 1 cup long grain white rice.  I SO dislike the flavor and texture of Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice that I call it perverted rice, but some Armenians use it exclusively for their pilaf.  If you like it and want to use it in my recipe, just don’t tell me, please.
  • 1/2 cube of butter, which equals 1/4 cup.  I said BUTTER.  Salted.  That being said, a friend has used olive oil and says it’s good.  Feel free to experiment.
  • 1 can of Swanson’s Chicken Broth, 14.5 oz. size.  I’ve heard of people using Beef Consomme, Vegetable Broth for vegetarians or even all water, but the classic is the Swanson’s Chicken Broth/water combination.
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon salt

It’s best for amateurs to stage these ingredients prior to starting the rice.  I do this myself when I am making this rice for special occasions and there will be distractions in the kitchen or when making larger batches.  The process moves quickly and requires constant attention to stirring and the quick addition of ingredients at the proper time so there really isn’t time to find and measure out things once you get started.  If everything is already measured out and the can of broth is opened and all is ready to go, you will be much happier.  Trust me on this.

Here we go:  Melt the butter in a 3-4 quart saucepan over high, stirring constantly with a large spoon so it will not burn.  As soon as the butter is melted, add the vermicelli and keep stirring like mad over high heat until it is evenly browned and it looks like this:

browning vermicelliThe butter is now very dark brown and possibly even starting to smoke, but not burned yet.  This is where the distinct flavor comes from.  Be fearless and bold.  Take it to the limit but don’t allow it to burn.  When browned perfection has been achieved, quickly throw in the rice and keep up the stirring like mad to coat each grain of rice with butter.  You can briefly remove the pan from the heat while you are adding and stirring in the rice but as soon as all grains are coated and stirred in, return to the heat and pour in the broth, water and salt, as quickly as you can.  Give it one quick stir or gentle shake to make sure the liquid reaches everywhere within the pot and bring to a full boil.  Cover and reduce heat to simmer immediately.  Leave at the simmer for 25-35 minutes.  This stage can be stretched a bit to accommodate the rest of the meal.  The rice will stay hot and be fine.  You can turn off the heat after the 25 minutes are up and just let it sit but don’t open the lid or stir until you are ready to serve:

rice pilafDo you see how the grains of rice open up and accept some of the lovely brownness (and therefore flavor) from the vermicelli and how the vermicelli swells and releases some of its color?  If you have not browned the vermicelli enough, your rice will be pale, although still delicious.  This recipe serves 6 easily.

You can double the recipe for larger groups and proceed without concern, but if you go above 2 cups of rice, you will want to pre-heat the liquids or they will not come to a boil quickly enough and the rice won’t come out right.  You also have to make sure you have a pot large enough to accommodate the expansion of the rice.  I have done the math and method for large batches and can go as far as 6 cups of rice/vermicelli and when I make that much, I weigh out the dry ingredients rather than using measuring cups to prevent additive measuring errors and I add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice with the liquids to keep the rice from getting sticky.  Beyond THAT you need a restaurant kitchen and the strength to stir all that vermicelli without burning it or yourself and to pour large quantities of boiling liquids from one very large pot to another without mishap.  It’s harder than you might guess.  I make my 6-cup version in a 12 quart All-Clad Stockpot.




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