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Shirin Polo

A platter of sweet shirin polo

(Persian sweet rice pilaf)

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This fabulous Persian rice dish is served on special occasions in Iran, especially at weddings and for Nowruz celebrations.

Shirin polo — also known as shekar polo — is a sweet rice pilaf, sometimes very sweet. The recipe below tries to find a balanced middle ground between sweet and savory.

Toasted nuts, dried fruits and candied carrots and citrus peel are traditional toppings, and the whole shebang is imbued with the subtle, sensual aroma of saffron.

6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

For the rice

  • Basmati rice -- 3 cups
  • Water -- 8 cups
  • Kosher or sea salt -- about 2 tablespoons
  • Olive oil -- 1/4 cup
  • Butter, cut into pieces -- 4 tablespoons
  • Warm water -- 1/4 cup
  • Saffron -- big pinch

For the sweet garnishes

  • Candied citrus peel -- 1/2 cup
  • Raisins -- 1/2 cup
  • Pistachios or slivered almonds -- 1/2 cup
  • Butter -- 2 or 3 tablespoons
  • Carrots, peeled and shredded or julienne -- 3, or about 1 1/2 cups total
  • Cinnamon -- 1/2 teaspoon
  • Sugar -- 1 tablespoon

Method

  1. Place the rice in a large bowl or pot and wash with 2 or 3 changes of water to rinse off the extra starch. When the washing water runs fairly clear, drain the rice well and add enough fresh water to cover the rice by a couple of inches. Set aside to soak for at least an hour and up to eight hours.
  2. While the rice is soaking, prepare your garnishes. Add the candied citrus peel to a bowl and cover with hot water. Let soak for 30 minutes. Add the raisins to another bowl and cover with hot water. Set aside to plump for 30 minutes. Then drain both well.
  3. Place a dry cast-iron skillet over medium flame. Add the nuts and toast gently, stirring now and then, until the nuts are just starting to brown. Remove the nuts to a plate to cool.
  4. Melt the 2 or 3 tablespoons of butter in the same skillet you toasted the nuts in over medium flame. Add the shredded or julienne carrots and the cinnamon. Saute, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are cooked down somewhat, 2 or 3 minutes. Then stir in the sugar, reduce the heat to low, and continue to cook gently until the sugar gives the carrots a nice glaze and begins to caramelize a bit, 4 or 5 more minutes. Remove the glazed carrots to a bowl and set aside to cool.
  5. Once your garnishes are ready, drain the soaked rice well. Bring the 8 cups water and salt to a boil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Add more salt if needed to make the water taste good. Stir in the drained rice and return to a boil. Cook the rice at a rolling boil for 4 or 5 minutes, and then immediately drain the contents of the pot through a fine-meshed sieve or colander, discarding the cooking water. (Or you can save the water for soups or stews.)
  6. Rinse out the pot and spread the olive oil over the bottom of the pot. Add half of the partially cooked rice to the pot and smooth it out with a wooden spoon. Next spread half of each of the garnishes evenly over the rice in the pot. Then add the rest of the partially cooked rice to the pot and smooth it out again with the wooden spoon.
  7. Stir the saffron into the 1/4 cup of warm water and pour the saffron water evenly over the rice in the pot. Using the handle of the wooden spoon, press five or six holes down into the rice. This will allow any steam to penetrate all the way through the rice, cooking it more evenly. Dot the top of the rice with the 4 tablespoons of butter pieces.
  8. Cover the pot tightly with aluminum foil and then with a lid and set over medium-high heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low and simmer gently for another 30 to 45 minutes. Remove the pot from heat and set aside to rest another 15 minutes.
  9. Remove the cover and foil from the pot and stir the rice gently with a large fork to mix the garnishes evenly throughout. Gently stire in a little more saffron water if you would like more color. Mound the pilaf nicely onto a serving platter and top with the remaining garnishes. Serve immediately. Goes well with chicken dishes or Persian meatballs.

Shirin Polo Variations

  • To make your own candied citrus peel: Remove the peel from a mix of oranges, lemons or limes using a vegetable peeler. Take care not to get too much of the bitter white pith. You should end up with about 1/2 cup of peel. Cut the peel into shreds. Bring 2 cups water to boil. Add the shredded peels to the boiling water and boil for 2 or 3 minutes. Drain and repeat three or four more times with fresh water. This boiling and draining removes excess bitter oils. Next add 2 cups of water and 1 cup of sugar to the blanched peels. Bring to a boil over medium heat, and then reduce heat to medium low and boil uncovered for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, to reduce the syrup and thoroughly candy the shredded peel. Cool, drain and use for the recipe. Save the deliciously flavored syrup to stir into the finished pilaf, or refrigerate it and use it for other recipes that call for a simple syrup.
  • Dried fruit: Use a mix of regular and golden raisins. Or add some dried apricots, dried plums or dried apples.
  • If you don't have saffron, substitute about 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric.

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