I know how excited everyone gets about a good one-pan dish. This family-friendly, easy pilaf has minimal hands-on time and dish washing but maximum flavour. Purists will note that this isn’t an authentic recipe, but the results are delicious so that’s good enough for me. This is a great lesson in balancing flavour, texture and temperature so that every mouthful makes you smile. I taught this on my last California teaching tour and so many of my students send pictures each week of their families eating it.
Once you have the technique down you’ll be able to make it Paella-style, Middle Eastern, Indian or Italian. You can play around with the protein and veg too. Scroll down to the bottom of the recipe for all sorts of different versions. I love how a recipe like this stretches a small amount of meat a long way. I have made this with 4 small chicken thighs for 6 people without any raised eyebrows.
If you want to get more veg into your diet, use half rice and half cauliflower rice. No one will notice. Scroll down to the bottom of the recipe to find out how I make cauli rice.
Prep ahead and leftovers
You can make the pilaf up until stage 5 of the recipe a few hours before you want to eat. Or do what I do and just cook it for longer at stage 11. Just drop the heat to the lowest setting and cook for 40 minutes instead of 20. If you get to the start of stage 11 before your guests arrive, it will be ready to eat an hour after they arrive.
Leftovers can be stored in the fridge for 3 days and reheated in the oven, pan or microwave until piping hot. Or they can be eaten at room temperature without being re-heated.
Why ready cooked brown rice is a life-saver
It is rare I recommend ready cooked ingredients as I’m always dubious about what has been added to keep them fresh. Frozen brown rice is an exception. I keep a zip top freezer bag in my freezer with cooked brown rice in. Then I can just grab a handful every time I need a fast dinner, which is most days! In the US, Trader Joe’s sell organic cooked brown rice in the freezer if you’re in a rush.
How to cook and freeze brown rice
1 cup uncooked brown rice = 4 cups cooked rice
When cooking brown rice, remember the ratio 1 cup (240ml) of rice to 2 cups (280ml) of water (or fill 1 coffee mug with rice then use 2 of the same coffee mugs of water). And use a small pan with a lid. The bigger the pan, the quicker the water will evaporate and the rice won’t cook as evenly.
- When the water starts to boil (listen rather than lifting the lid which slows it down) transfer the pan to your lowest heat ring, on the lowest flame (the smallest one on your hob).
- With the heat on the lowest setting, leave the rice to barely simmer for between 20-40 minutes. The cooking time will depend on which type of rice you are using.
- Don’t take the lid off for the first 20 minutes as you want the rice to steam – you lose steam each time the lid comes off. Don’t stir it as you’ll make it mushy.
- After 20 minutes, take a quick look and taste one of the grains of rice from the top of the pot. You should see little holes in the rice where the steam has forced its way out. This will show that most of the water has been absorbed by the rice. If it’s cooked, turn the heat off, if not, pop the lid back on and continue cooking. The cooked rice will happily sit off the heat with the lid on for half an hour before serving. Or spread it on a plate and leave it to cool before freezing it – put it in a bag in a thin layer so that it is easy to snap off a chunk.
Easy pilaf ingredients
Serves 4. Hands-on cooking time 20 minutes. Total cooking time 30-40 minutes.
130g box un-smoked pancetta cubes
2 small or 1 big red onion
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
4-8 boneless skinless free range chicken thighs
1 large cinnamon stick
3 cardamom pods
1 jar of roasted red peppers (175g drained weight)
3 cups (350g) cooked brown rice – see note above
a pinch of saffron strands soaked in a cup with 2 tablespoons hot water (if you don’t have these you can leave them out)
around 300g green beans, stalks removed and cut in half
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
juice and zest of 1-2 lemons
around 100g watercress or flatleaf parsley
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
4 tablespoons flaked almonds or pistachios, toasted in a dry pan
To make easy pilaf
- Put the pancetta cubes in a large frying pan without any oil, on a high heat. Once the pancetta starts to sizzle, drop the heat to medium high.
- While the pancetta cooks, chop the onion into a small dice. Add the onion to the pancetta and cook for 5 minutes.
- Peel and slice the garlic and set aside.
- Use scissors to snip the chicken straight into the pan. I cut mine in thumb-sized pieces. Stir and cook for a minute.
- Use the flat of your knife to squash the cardamom pods. Add them, whole to the pan along with the whole cinnamon stick and the sliced garlic. Stir and cook for a minute.
- Use scissors to snip the drained peppers into the pan.
- Add the cooked rice to the pan and stir well so that it gets coated in the flavoured oil. If it is frozen, stir and cook until it is almost defrosted.
- Drizzle the 2 tablespoons of saffron water and stems into the pan. Stir and then make 4 holes in the rice with your spatula to allow the steam to escape.
- Put a clean tea towel over the pan. Put a lid on the pan, on top of the towel, and tuck the ends of the towel on top of the lid to avoid them catching on the flame. Turn the heat to low and cook for 15-20 minutes. I’ve left this cooking for 40 minutes before with no issue – in fact it gets a lovely crust on the bottom if you leave it longer, making it perfect for entertaining as you can get everything done before your guests arrive.
- Scatter the chopped beans on top of the rice and put the lid back on, without the towel. Leave to cook for a further 5-10 minutes.
- Add the juice and zest of a lemon, stir and taste. Adjust the salt and pepper and lemon as needed. Stir in chopped watercress or parsley and serve. Drizzle with pomegranate molasses and sprinkle with toasted nuts.
Now you know the method, switch up the ingredients for dinner another night…
To make an Italian version of easy pilaf
Follow the method above but switch the chicken to good quality herby sausage, cut into 1 inch chunks. Add a chopped bulb of fennel along with the onion. Use a teaspoon each of fennel seeds and dried oregano in place of the cinnamon and cardamom. Switch the parsley or watercress to basil. Serve with grated Parmesan. Add chopped fresh tomatoes at the end, when they are in season.
To make an Indian version of easy pilaf
Follow the method above but add a tablespoon of garam masala as well as the cinnamon and cardamom. Switch the parsley or watercress to coriander and the lemon to lime. Serve with poppadoms, plain yoghurt and mango chutney.
To make a paella-style Spanish version of easy pilaf
Follow the method above but switch the pancetta for cubed cooking chorizo. Use a tablespoon of smoked paprika in place of the cinnamon and cardamom. Add raw prawns and a couple of handfuls of frozen peas along with the green beans for the last 10 minutes of cooking.
To make a grain-free version of easy pilaf
Follow the method above but replace the rice with cauliflower rice (cauliflower that has been thinly sliced and then broken into rice-sized pieces in a food processor). Watch how here.
To make a salmon version of easy pilaf
Instead of adding the chicken at stage 6, carry on with the recipe and add the salmon on top of the rice for the last 8-10 minutes of cooking. Keep the lid on. If you prefer crispy salmon, pan fry the salmon separately and flake it into the finished dish.
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