Chelo ba Tahdig | Steamed Persian Rice with Tahdig
Chelo is Iran’s culinary gift to rice lovers worldwide. This is the traditional two-step method of rice preparation—parboil the rice and drain, add enough oil to the bottom of the pot to turn out (fingers crossed) a crispy, crunchy tahdig, add the rice back to the pot and steam. The result has the tell-tale signs of lovingly prepared Persian rice: long, individual, fragrant, saffron-stained grains of rice, scattered like jewels across a platter with pieces of golden, crispy tahdig shining alongside. I save this method of rice preparation for the weekend and when entertaining.
[Ed. Note: hear Naz Deravian talk more about the importance of tahdig in Persian cuisine and read from her book Bottom of the Pot in this interview with Francis Lam.]
3 cups white basmati rice
4 tablespoons clarified butter or unsalted butter, divided (plus more as needed)
1 tablespoon olive oil (plus more as needed)
1/4 teaspoon ground saffron, steeped in 1/4 cup hot water (see note below)
1. Place the rice in a medium bowl, and fill it with cold water. Gently wash the rice by swishing it around with your finger, then drain. Repeat until the water runs clear, about 5 rinses. Cover the rice with cold water (about 2 cups), add 2 tablespoons salt, and give a gentle stir. Soak the rice for at least 30 minutes and up to 8 hours, depending on the quality of your rice.
2. Fill a large pot with plenty of water, about 12 cups, bring to a boil, and add a big heaping 1/4 cup salt. Drain the rice (but don’t rinse) and add it to the pot. Stir once gently and don’t go anywhere, as the water can boil over very easily. Scoop off any foam that rises to the top. Taste the water for salt. It should be salty like the sea. Add more salt, if necessary. As soon as you see the first of the rice grains pop up, set your timer for 4 minutes. Start testing the rice at 4 minutes. What you’re looking for is a grain that is tender on the outside but still with a bite to it on the inside. This can take anywhere between 5 to 7 minutes, depending on the type of rice. As soon as you think the rice is ready, drain it in a colander and give it a very quick rinse with lukewarm water (use the spray option on your faucet if available; if not, place your hand under the tap and create a spray with your fingers). Test the rice; if it’s too salty give it another quick rinse. Set aside to drain completely. Wash and dry the pot, if using the same pot.
3. Place the colander beside you by the stove. Set the rice pot over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the butter, olive oil, and 1 tablespoon of the saffron water, and melt the butter. Swirl the oil around so it evenly covers the bottom of the pot and a little up the sides, adding more butter and/or oil if needed. Work quickly now. As soon as the oil starts sizzling, with a spatula, add enough rice to fully cover the bottom of the pot in a thin layer. Pack down the rice with the back of a spatula. This is your tahdig layer.
4. Gently scatter the rest of the rice over the tahdig layer in a pyramid shape, making sure the tahdig layer is covered with more rice. With the handle of a wooden spoon poke a few holes in the rice without hitting the tahdig layer, to allow the steam to escape. Turn up the heat to medium-high, cover, and cook for 10 to 12 minutes for the tahdig to set. You can also try the tahdig test: wet your finger and quickly tap or sprinkle a little water on the side of the pot. If the pot sizzles and the water quickly evaporates, it’s time to turn down the heat. While the tahdig sets, in a small saucepan or microwave melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and add it to the remaining saffron water.
5. Lift the lid (without dripping the condensation trapped under the lid back into the pot) and drizzle the butter-saffron mixture over the rice. Wrap the lid in a kitchen towel or a couple of layers of paper towel to catch the condensation. Make sure the kitchen towel or paper towels are secured up top so they don’t catch fire! Place the lid firmly back on the pot. Reduce the heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes, until steam escapes from the sides of the pot. Then reduce the heat to medium-low or low (depending on your element), and place a heat diffuser under the pot, if you have one. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes, rotating the pot a few times for even crisping, until the rice is tender and fluffy and the tahdig is crispy and golden.
6. To help release the tahdig, fill the sink with about 1 inch of cold water, and set the rice pot in the water quickly. Alternatively, you can wet a kitchen towel and set the pot on the wet towel. To serve, you can scatter the rice, like jewels, across a platter. Gently remove the tahdig whole or in pieces, and serve it on the side. Or, for a more dramatic and applause-worthy presentation, place an appropriate-sized platter over the pot, take a deep breath, and quickly and confidently flip the pot over. There should be a swish sound of the release of the tahdig. If your tahdig turns out golden, crispy, and regal, pour yourself, and family and friends, something celebratory, do a little dance, and dig in. If the tahdig doesn’t quite turn out as expected—do the very same. It’s just a pot of rice, after all. And there’s always the promise of next time. As many tahdig do-overs as you like.
TO PREPARE SAFFRON THE PERSIAN WAY
Make sure to purchase good-quality saffron strands rather than ground saffron or bottled saffron water, both of which are most likely mixed with other spices or dyed with food coloring. Grind the saffron threads to a ﬁne powder with a mortar and pestle, or use a dedicated spice grinder (make sure there is no residual ﬂavor or scent of any other herb or spice lingering). This will take a few minutes. If the threads are not dry enough and not grinding you can add a small pinch of sugar or salt to help the process, but I’ve never had any issues with excess humidity with Iranian saffron.
Carefully transfer the saffron powder to a jar (tiny jam jars are perfect); you don’t want to lose a single speck. Store the ground saffron in a cool, dark cabinet. When ready to use, bring a small amount of water to a boil, turn the kettle off, and let it sit for a couple of minutes. Sprinkle the speciﬁed amount of saffron in a small glass or bowl, and add the required amount of hot water (not boiling water, which is said to kill saffron’s soul). Stir, cover, and steep for 5 to 10 minutes. This process releases the ﬂavor, color, and medicinal properties of the saffron. This is your saffron water, and it can be added to the dish as indicated.
Before you wash out the glass the saffron was steeping in, make sure there isn’t a single speck of this liquid gold clinging to its sides. This is precious stuff. Drizzle in a little more hot water, and either add it to the dish or knock it back yourself. Saffron is said to be a natural antidepressant and aphrodisiac. But too much saffron is said to bring about “excessive laughter and delirium.” (Source: generations of Persian mothers and grandmothers.) All good things in moderation.
Excerpted from Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories by Naz Deravian. Copyright © 2018 by Naz Deravian. Reprinted with permission from Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. Photography by Eric Wolfinger.
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