Special Everyday Persian Rice

Chelo

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Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Easy

  • Serves

    6

Appears in

Seductions of Rice

By Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

Published 1998

  • About

As the more elaborate form of everyday Persian rice, chelo is a wonderful treat, usually served with kebabs or with a moist stew-like khoresh. The rice is soaked, then briefly cooked in plenty of boiling water. To create a delicious crust and perfectly textured rice, the rice is then returned to the pot and gently steamed for thirty minutes. But first the bottom of the pot is covered with oil or butter with a binder such as egg or yogurt (or both) and a thin layer of rice or some flatbread or thinly sliced potatoes. This bottom layer cooks to a golden crispy crust known as the tahdig and is served beside or on top of the finished dish.

Though the instructions may seem elaborate, you’ll understand the sequence and be delighted by the perfection of the results after you’ve made this rice once. Serve it with Persian Lamb Kebabs with Sumac, Golden Chicken Kebabs, or Silk Road Kebab, with a yogurt sauce and sliced ripe tomatoes or cucumbers.

Ingredients

  • cups basmati rice (see Note)
  • ¼ cup salt
  • Water
  • ¼ cup vegetable oil or 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons plain yogurt (whole-milk or 2%)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon saffron threads, dry-roasted, crumbled to a powder, and dissolved in 3 tablespoons warm water (optional)

Method

Wash the rice thoroughly, then place in a large pot with 3 tablespoons of the salt and enough cold water to cover by 2 inches. Let soak for 2 to 3 hours.

Drain well in a fine sieve. In the same pot, bring 4 quarts of water to a vigorous boil. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon salt, then gradually sprinkle in the rice. Stir gently to prevent sticking, and bring back to the boil. After the rice has been boiling for 2 minutes, test for doneness. The rice is ready when the outside is tender but there remains a slight uncooked resistance at the core of the grain. If the core of the grain is brittle, it’s not done enough. Continue to check the rice until done, usually about 4 minutes, then drain in the sieve and rinse with tepid to cool water (to prevent it from cooking any more).

Place the pot back over high heat and add the oil or butter and 1 tablespoon water. In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt and egg. Stir in about ½ cup of the rice, then place in the sizzling oil and spread over the bottom of the pot. Gradually add the remaining rice, sprinkling it in to form a mound. Use the handle of a wooden spoon to make three or four holes through the mound to the bottom, then cover the pot with a lid wrapped in a tea towel. (The towel helps seal the lid and absorbs moisture from the rising steam.) Heat over medium-high heat until steam builds up, 1 to 2 minutes, then lower the heat to medium-low and cook for about 30 minutes. When it is done, the rice will be tender and fluffy with a flavorful crust, the tahdig, on the bottom.

The tahdig comes off more easily if, before removing the lid, you place the pot in an inch of cold water (in the sink) for a minute. Then remove the lid and, if you’re using saffron, gently spoon about 1 cup rice into the saffron water mixture; stir to blend. Mound the remaining rice on a platter. Sprinkle on the saffron rice, if you have it. Place chunks of the crust on top or on a separate plate; it’s a big treat.

Herbed rice

In spring and summer, when fresh herbs are available, you can add to the rice 1 to 2 cups of a mixture of some or all of the following, finely chopped: tarragon, flat-leaf parsley, dill, and/or chives. Add the herbs just before the rice finishes boiling.

Crust options

Instead of mixing the rice with the egg and yogurt, you can use pieces of flatbread (split pitas, or flour tortillas, for example) or some grated potato for the crust. Place the oil or butter and water in the pot and heat. Line the bottom of the pot with pieces of flatbread or with the potato. Pour the egg and yogurt mixture over, then mound the rice on top and proceed with the recipe.

Leftover chelo

Because it has some oil in it, chelo will stay fairly tender for a few days if stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator. It can easily be reheated by tossing it in a lightly oiled skillet or wok. It also makes a filling lunch dish whisked with a little egg, seasoned, and gently cooked in a thin omelette like the classic Spanish tortilla; serve with a green salad.