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Pyramid Scheme

Afghani spiced meat and rice



Wouldn't it be wonderful if there was an Afghani restaurant in town? My father has some good stories from his 1966 visit to Afghanistan, mostly about food. Despite, or because of, the very high temperatures, the streets of Kabul were lined with tea vendors selling little cups of very hot sweet tea. I fantasize about what was apparently a popular dish: a bowl of fresh thick cream with equally fresh naan to dip in it. There is no way that's not good.

Another dish, which I fondly refer to as "meat pyramid" turns out to be the national dish of Afghanistan. My father used to make it on occasion and it is one of my favorites. It has a real name, which is less fun but more beautiful: qabili pilau. We always used to feel virtuous after having it, because it's 90 percent rice to 10 percent meat, so you feel like you're eating the way the rest of the world does. Of course, white rice is theoretically bad for you now — somehow 1.35 billion Chinese have it wrong — so I make it with brown basmati rice, which is just as delicious. My father always made it with basic steamed rice, but upon investigation I discovered that traditionally the rice is often cooked with extra delicious things like meat stock and sugar to make it a pilau. I'm positive it's even more fantastically delicious, but my Californian sensibilities balk at quite so much indulgence. After all, the meat is already very rich, and the carrots and raisins are sweet enough. But by all means, investigate the multitude of richer, sweeter varieties. My dad also recalls the meat being spicy and adds extra pepper flakes.

The genius of this dish is making much with little. By using a fatty meat — lamb — and cooking it with lots of spices, you have a result that is hyper-flavorful. It's served on a rice mountain (we make a pyramid), and sprinkled with fresh and sweet tasting carrots and raisins. The intense piquancy of the meat is muddled with the vegetable and then dispersed with lots of rice, so a tiny bit of meat goes a long way. It's a very thrifty dish, which is partly why it appeals to my abstemious sensibilities. It's also visually appealing. Most importantly, it's delicious. The flavors are not entirely un-relatable — the spices are familiar — but the combination is unique with the carrots and raisins. Savory City. This dish really is one of my favorites.

Qabili Pilau

Serves 4

Ingredients and method:

2 cups brown basmati rice, Afghani rice, or other variety

2/3 pound lamb, finely chopped by hand

2 small yellow onions, finely chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup vegetable oil (olive is good)

2 teaspoons salt

3 carrots, grated

½ cup raisins

1 tablespoon oil, for the carrots

2 teaspoons cumin

1 teaspoon cardamon

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

½ teaspoon turmeric

½ teaspoon hot pepper flakes

optional: 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar, 1 teaspoon vegetable oil

Prepare the rice according to instructions and set it aside.

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Sauté the onion and garlic for 2 minutes. Salt and brown the lamb in the saucepan, turning the heat up to medium-high. Add the spices and cook for 1 minute. Add about a ½ cup of water, cover the pot and reduce the heat to medium, cooking for 15 minutes. Check occasionally and add a little water as needed to keep it from burning. It is not a soup, so don't add much, but just enough to keep from sticking.

Heat your oven to 500 F.

Meanwhile, in another pan, heat the tablespoon of oil and lightly fry the carrots for 5-7 minutes. Move them to the edges of the pan and do the same for the raisins until they begin to plump. Remove the pan from heat, drain and set aside. Sprinkle the mixture with a pinch of the cardamom. (My father never fried the carrots and raisins, and instead only softened the raisins in hot water for 5 minutes. Both methods are good — raw is fresher and crunchier, cooked is mellower/richer.)

Drain the meat, being sure to save the liquid to add it to the rice. (Again, my father served the rice plain, but the following, with its extra steps, is the more traditional and luxurious method.) Taste the meat to see if needs salt or more spice.

Mix the juices from the meat into the rice. In a roasting pan or casserole, use a spoon back or your hands to shape the rice into a pyramid or a mountain. Bake it for 12-15 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and pile on the meat, then the carrots and raisins. Serve and enjoy.


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