The family of rice and meat stews named polow, or pilaf (or pilau, pulao, pilav) can be found throughout Asia and Europe with countless varieties. The origin of the stews may be in Persia or India. Rice itself, according to Najmeih Batmanglij’s New Food of Life, arrived to Persia from Southeast Asia or from India around the fourth century B.C.
My recipe for chicken, sour cherries, pomegranate concentrate and saffron is not a traditional Persian one but is inspired by the Persian polow dishes both in its ingredients and technique. Sour cherries, saffron and pomegranate concentrate are all Persian staples that give the dish a sweet and sour taste with the gentle saffron aroma.
I use the traditional technique of cooking in three steps. First, I make the chelow, the rice itself. The rice is washed well (or soaked in water) until the outer starch is washed away. It is then parboiled in salted water.
The second step is cooking the chicken with the rest of the ingredients. And in the third step, the rice and chicken are layered in the pot and steamed together.
One of the favorite parts of any good polow is the tahdig - the rice crust that forms on the bottom of the pot. It takes a few tries to achieve the right crust, golden-brown and not burnt. You can start by cooking on the lowest heat, and then raising the temperature a little each time to reach your preferable crust. It is so good that the Persians serve it on a separate platter, as a dish on its own.
I use jasmine rice instead of the more traditional basmati, because I’ve found it absorbs the flavors better.
Traditional recipes call for clarified butter, ghee in India or samneh in Arab countries. Real butter tastes better than the clarified one, but since both will make the dish not kosher, you can substitute for parve margarine, oil, or even chicken schmaltz.
Pomegranate concentrate is available at Middle Eastern and kosher markets, and some Whole Foods stores.
Sour cherries, pomegranate and saffron polow
2 cups jasmine rice
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
2 pinches saffron
6 tablespoons parve margarine, divided (see note above)
2 lb. boneless skinless chicken thighs
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 red onion, chopped
½ cup dried sour or sweet pitted cherries
3 tablespoons pomegranate concentrate
1. In a large pot over high heat boil 2 quarts water with 2 tablespoons kosher salt and a pinch of saffron. Wash rice under running water until water is clear and add to the boiling water. Bring to boil, cook for 5 minutes, then drain into a colander. Keep rice in the colander.
2. Use 1½ teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon black pepper to season the chicken thighs. Put a large skillet on high heat until very hot, add 2 tablespoons margarine and brown half the chicken thighs on both sides. Transfer the browned chicken into a tray and continue to brown the rest of the thighs. Transfer those as well to the tray.
3. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add another tablespoon of margarine and slowly sauté the onion until golden, about 6 minutes. While the onion is sautéing, slice the browned chicken into bite-size pieces, keep in the tray together with all its juices. Add dried cherries, pomegranate concentrate and another pinch of saffron to the skillet. Mix, then add the sliced chicken and ½ teaspoon salt, stir, bring to boil, lower the heat to lowest, cover the skillet and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat.
4. Melt 3 tablespoons margarine in a tall pot or a Dutch oven. Add the rice and mix well. Arrange the chicken mixture on top of the rice, together with all the liquid. Cover the pot with a folded paper towel and then the lid. Put over low heat and cook for 50 minutes, until rice and chicken are fully cooked. Serve hot.