Why It Works
- Rinsing the rice and soaking it briefly in hot water helps ensure that the rice grains stay separate and cook evenly.
- Toasting the pasta in butter (which itself toasts in the process) lends the pilaf an underlying nutty flavor.
- Covering the pot with a clean dish towel once the rice has absorbed the liquid helps to even out its texture, leaving it moist and fluffy, but not wet.
Rice pilaf—long grain rice and a handful of thready, busted-up pasta, toasted in butter, cooked with chicken stock—is absolutely fundamental to diasporic Armenian cuisine. “Diasporic” is an important qualifier, since, as with most things having to do with Armenian culture and history, it's complicated. Rice wasn't commonly eaten in Eastern Armenia, the country now known as the Armenian Republic. But for people like me, whose ancestors emigrated from Western Armenia, here's what I mean when I say rice pilaf is fundamental: At my family’s gatherings, no matter what's on the menu—a Thanksgiving meal, for example—and no matter how much food has already been prepared—a 22-pound roast turkey and mounds of butter-laden mashed potatoes, say—my mother will ask, “Should I make pilaf?” Sometimes we can talk her out of adding pilaf to the already full table, sometimes not, but we all understand the impulse: To many Armenians, a meal of any kind just doesn’t seem complete without it.
Most non-Armenian Americans are now familiar with this style of rice pilaf thanks to Rice-a-Roni, the “San Francisco Treat,” that boxed side dish that introduced rice eating to the States in the 1950’s. (The story behind how an Italian-American pasta company began selling a packaged version of an Armenian dish thanks to the efforts of a Canadian immigrant was told by NPR’s The Kitchen Sisters a while back, and is well worth a listen.) While I love that Rice-a-Roni brought a small part of Armenian cuisine into American culinary history, and appreciate the value of convenience foods like it, here’s the thing: Homemade rice pilaf is far superior to anything you can find in a box and it's almost as easy and quick to make!
Here’s how it's done: After rinsing the rice of excess starch, you melt a generous chunk of butter in a saucepan over medium heat, then add a handful of pasta. (Most Armenians use vermicelli “nests,” crushed gently into 1- to 2-inch long threads, but you can also use busted-up straight vermicelli, angel hair, or short, non-tubular pasta like orzo.) You keep a watchful eye on the noodles and stir occasionally to prevent them from burning, until they toast to a deep golden brown. (In the process, the butter solids also brown, lending the dish its essential nutty, toasty flavor.) Once the pasta is toasted, you add the rice, cook it briefly in the butter to help keep the grains separate, add salt, pepper, and chicken stock, and then increase the heat to high. Once the pot comes to a boil, you turn the heat all the way down and let the liquid simmer gently under a lid for 10 minutes or so, until all of it has been absorbed. After that, you move the pot off the heat, place a folded towel under the lid, and let the rice and noodles steam for another 10 minutes (the towel sucks up excess steam, allowing the rice to finish cooking through while the grains remain fluffy and separate).
The whole thing takes barely more than 30 minutes, most of it—aside from the careful pasta-watching phase—hands-off. And that little bit of extra time and effort yields a delicious, aromatic, and sumptuous side dish that's far more than the sum of its simple parts.
My recipe for rice pilaf is pretty standard, aside from a few minor refinements. Other recipes vary, but I use an even 2:1 ratio (by volume) of stock to rice, which is both easy to remember and yields what I think of as just the right final consistency. And I like to soak my rice in hot tap water for 10 minutes before cooking it, which helps to remove any last traces of surface starch, while also pre-softening the rice just enough that it cooks through evenly. (Some recipes for pilaf have you soak the rice for hours or even overnight in cold water for the same reason.)
What about pre-toasting the pasta?
Many rice pilaf recipes suggest pre-toasting the pasta dry, in bulk, to save time and perhaps avoid the risk of burning it on the stovetop. While that’s something many people do, I don’t personally think it saves much time in the long run (especially since you still need to brown the butter), so I don’t bother. But you can if you like: Just place the pasta on a rimmed baking sheet in a single later and cook it on the middle rack of a 325˚F oven until deep golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Once cool, you can store it in a jar—broken up or whole—until needed.
What about bulgur pilaf?
Armenians also love to make this dish using bulgur in place of the rice, and the good news is that it can be made with an even swap of one grain for the other, by volume. Unlike rice pilaf, it’s not necessary to pre-soak the bulgur; all it needs is a quick rinse. Bulgur pilaf can be made using any grade of bulgur, though it works best with medium or coarse bulgur (which are conveniently easier to find in supermarkets than fine bulgur).