I think pilaf – or a concept of a pilaf – is something I cook at home as often as I would a bowl of pasta. It can be as quick and simple or as complex, layered and arduous as you wish. This version is a happy medium.
Pilaf originated in Persia. I’ve always considered it to be defined by the fact the rice is cooked with stock or broth. It enriches the grain before the addition of nuts or meat to elevate the dish. Unlike with a paella, this dish uses long-grain basmati rice, which keeps a lightness through cooking and carries flavours well.
Often, I will roast a chicken and make a pilaf on the side with chicken stock and lots of lemon and butter, instead of potatoes. One of my all-time favourites is a simple pilaf with chicken stock and three aromatics: cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. To that I would add cooked onion and some curry leaves, although this is not essential. It’s a magic combination. The flavours lean Indian and work well with curries and grilled meats.
This recipe for smoky pilaf is cooked in a paella pan on a barbecue, in this case a Weber that has had a raging wood fire in it, the smoke from which cooks into the rice and prawns, all held in the smoky, moist chamber of the Weber. If you don’t have a barbecue with a lid, you can cook it in a pan with a lid on the stovetop and then finish it in a conventional oven.
Timing is key with this dish. Taking the butterflied prawns and adding them to the pan halfway through the cooking process is what makes it work. Don’t get too clever with it: I set a timer for seven minutes. Push the prawns into the rice as quickly as you can so you don’t lose the smoke or temperature. The heat generated in the chamber cooks the prawns evenly and they take on the smoke but also impart their flavour into the rice.
The unconventional addition of crunchy cucumber is optional but I think it creates a lovely textural element. Tips when buying prawns: buy Australian.
Time: 30 minutes preparation + 20 minutes cooking
- 4 extra-large whole prawns
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 golden shallots, diced
- 1 stick of celery, diced
- 1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
- 1 cup long-grain basmati rice
- 1¾ cups chicken or vegetable stock
- pinch allspice
- ½ tsp smoked paprika
- ½ bunch dill, picked and roughly chopped
- 1 small cucumber, sliced
- 2 spring onions, thinly sliced
- ½ lemon
- freshly ground black pepper
- To prepare the prawns, take a pair of kitchen scissors and remove the legs. Now lay the prawns on a cutting board and slice lengthwise along the head and belly to butterfly the prawns so they are splayed apart. Remove the poo chute and return the prawns to the fridge until they are ready to cook.
- To cook the rice, place a medium-sized paella pan or heavy-based baking dish on your barbecue (or if cooking in the oven, do this on the stovetop on a medium heat and preheat your oven to 180ºC) to warm up. Heat the olive oil and butter in the pan, add the shallots, celery and carrot and cook for a few minutes to soften the vegetables. Add the rice and continue to sauté over a moderate heat for a few minutes.
- In a separate saucepan bring the stock to a simmer over a high heat on the stovetop, add the stock to the rice and bring to the boil along with the allspice, smoked paprika – and a good pinch of salt. Continue to cook the rice at a gentle simmer, uncovered, for about five minutes.
- Now season the prawns with salt and add to the pan, laying them shell-side down on the top of the rice. Push the prawns gently into the rice. Cover the barbecue with the lid (if using an oven, now is the time to place the covered pot in the oven) and continue to cook the rice and prawns for seven more minutes or until the rice is ready (it should be just al dente).
- Remove from the barbecue or oven and sprinkle with the dill, cucumber and spring onions and squeeze the lemon over the prawns. Finish with a good dusting of black pepper and serve from the pan at the table.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 4, 2023 as "Playing it pilafs".
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