Spring Pilaf

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A long time ago, when I catered for an American Heart Association charity dinner, I made this pilaf. I don’t really remember what inspired me to make it, except that I know it was part of a spring menu featuring beef as the protein. Fortunately it went over very well.

As some of you might know, when you cook for the public, you have to be careful. You really can’t make anything too “crazy” or it will turn people off, no matter how gourmet or trendy the ingredients might be. But make everything too bland and blah, and no one will ever hire you for your catering services. So there exists a fine line.

Honestly, I discovered long ago when I cooked for various charities, that the less people knew, the better off they were. If I put out tent cards with a descriptive menu, I would hear lots of “EEEWWWWWWSSS,” or “I’m not eating thats” before anyone even saw their meal! So I learned to keep things to myself, and tentative diners ended up enjoying their food much more!

I’ve been wanting to repeat this pilaf for a long time now, because it was really good and unique as well. There are two main flavors in the pilaf – orange and leeks. For the orange, I used orange oil – that is, orange-infused oil.
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For the rice, I used long-grained brown in this recipe, which I don’t love, but I needed to use it up. Short-grained rice, which I prefer, hulled barley, or even kamut could be substituted, with some extra cooking time.

So here’s my recipe for my spring-inspired rice pilaf. It is good with just about any protein, from beef to scallops.

Spring Pilaf

1/4 cup orange-infused olive oil*
1 small onion, finely chopped
3 small leeks, cleaned, sliced crosswise
1 cup long-grained brown rice
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 cup frozen petite peas, slightly thawed

Place the oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and leeks.
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Sauté for a few minutes; a little caramelization is okay.

Pour in the rice and stir it into the onion-leek mixture until all the grains are coated with oil.
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Add the chicken broth, the salt, and the pepper.
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Bring the liquid to a boil, then cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid and turn the burner down to the lowest setting. Let the rice cook for 35 minutes. Then turn off the stove, but leave the lid on for about 15 minutes more.

Remove the lid, then stir in the peas. Gently mix everything together.
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Serve hot with your desired protein. I served this pilaf with an Asian-marinated venison short loin. Asian flavors and orange really compliment each other.
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If you love parsley, add some chopped parsley over the pilaf, or a few finely chopped chives.

If you want the pilaf even more citrusy, add some grated orange or lemon rind.

* I highly recommend using an orange-infused oil in this recipe, but if you can’t find it, try adding some orange zest to the pilaf right before serving. Or use a few drops of sweet orange oil.
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note: Depending on the rice or other grain you use, cooking times will differ, as well as the amount of liquid necessary in which to cook it. Read the package directions so you get the grain-to-liquid ratio correct.

Achiote Oil

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Achiote oil is a handy ingredient to have on hand. This is especially true if you cook Latin American and Mexican cuisines.

The oil is made from beautiful red annato seeds, which are about the same size as cardamom seeds. Why this oil is not called annato oil, I’ll never know. For some reason the seeds have their own name, and the oil, a different one.

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An 8 or 12 ounce jar of achiote oil is easy to prepare, and the oil will keep in the fridge for quite a while.

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To make the oil, crush the annato seeds slightly – I do this in my wonderful little Magic Bullet, but it could even be done with a knife. Be careful, though. The yellow-orange of these seeds will stain your fingers and everything else.

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The suggested ratio for the oil is 1/4 cup of annato seeds to 1/2 cup of vegetable or grapeseed oil. In the end you get a lovely colored oil, along with it the smoky annato flavor.

Bring the oil with the seeds in it to a light boil, then turn off the heat. Let the oil become infused with the flavor and color of the annato seeds, until the oil is cool enough to handle.

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Using a fine sieve, strain the crushed seeds from the oil. Store the oil in the refrigerator.

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This oil can be used in absolutely any dish, either as part of the oil for sautéeing aromatics, or as a little drizzle on top of a finished dish like a soup or stew.

Try it in a rice or risotto dish, in any stew, or rub it over a pork loin! Here I’ve used it in a cornbread.

note: Do not “cook” the annato seeds in the oil. Simply heat the oil to a light boil and then remove from the heat. If you prefer, just warm the oil, and then let it sit overnight or for a few hours. Once I accidentally boiled the annato seeds, and the oil came out very bitter and nasty. Don’t do that!