I’ll never forget the first time I saw ‘How to be a Domestic Goddess’ in the bookstore. It was 1998.
I was totally taken in with the title! I had never heard of Nigella Lawson. But that would soon change. The Food Network started carrying her wildly successful UK shows, and we all fell in love with someone who has an unbridled exuberance for food and feeding loved ones. We all wanted to be Nigella when it came to the ease with which she created so many memorable dishes.
Fast forward a couple of years, and I was now going through ‘Forever Summer’, possibly my favourite Nigella book. The series on tv was a joy to watch: Nigella showed how we could have the flavours and sensations of summertime cooking and dishes, even in the dead of winter. Everything I made from this book became an instant winner. I love how she tapped into her ethnic cuisine, as well as the ones of neighbouring lands. It was from this book that I first learned about za’atar, nigella seeds, fattoush, and that iconic salad combo: watermelon, feta and black olives. To this day, I get so excited to make this salad!
So yes, today’s dish started out as one directly from ‘Forever Summer’. It is a saffron scented chicken pilaf. I love a good pilaf, and she has all the spices you would expect to find in a good middle eastern pilaf. The rice grains cook up in chicken stock that has saffron threads soaking in it. There are cardamom pods, lemon juice and cinnamon hanging out in this dish.
The chicken breasts are cut into cubes and marinated in yogurt, lemon juice and cinnamon. And they are sautéed separately from the rice, in order to give them some colour, as opposed to basically stewing in the stock with the rice, which would render them rather pale. Make sure that you remove any excess yogurt when transferring the pieces to a hot skillet. If not, the yogurt will turn into something of a sauce, and the meat will cook in that instead of getting that lovely golden colour that you would like. The cooked chicken will get spooned and folded into the cooked, fluffed rice, and then everything will be tossed with toasted almonds, cashews and pine nuts. As a final garnish, chopped parsley and pistachio nuts are sprinkled on top. A fabulous meal, to be sure.
But you guys know me by now! I couldn’t leave well enough alone. I don’t think Nigella would mind with what I’ve done to the recipe.
First of all, I wanted a bit more veg, somehow. So I decided that I would caramelize some onions before adding the rice to the pot. I didn’t take the 40 minutes needed for true burnished onions, rather, a quick caramelizing over medium to medium high heat until browned, some edges just turning mahogany! Then I added the rice and stirred to coat each grain with some of that oniony butter and oil. Afterwards when the saffrons stock was poured over it all, I added some whole cloves to the simmering stock, along with the cardamom pods. Once the rice has come to a boil, get a lid on straight away and then reduce the temperature to very low. Simmer till cooked. Then once the rice is cooked through, I do what I learned from Yotam Ottolenghi, I take a towel and drape it over the pot and put the lid back on. This will catch any extra steam so that the rice doesn’t get soggy. The grains will stay separate.
Along with the nuts that will be sprinkled on top, I add two more ingredients: green raisins and dried cherries. See if you can find green raisins- they are wonderfully sweet, and match perfectly in this dish! For contrast of flavour and colour, as well as some texture I add chopped dried cherries. You could substitute dried cranberries with no problem. These are to mimic dried barberries. Of course, if you have dried barberries, go ahead and soak them in a touch of boiling water, and add at the end. Or you could add them to the rice when you add the stock, so that they can all cook together.
I also add chopped mint to go with the chopped parsley at the end. And don’t hold back, use more than a token tablespoon’s worth. Not only is it green, it adds another layer of freshness, and healthiness!
Sometimes I will make this dish, and add boiled eggs. Sometimes I will serve it over a bed of baby arugula or kale. It works amazing at room temperature. Extra can easily be stored and snacked on for a couple of days. I have made this knowing that I would be living off of it for a few days in a row, in the summer, treating it like a salad. And it never fails to make my tastebuds happy!
And if you want, you can totally skip the chicken portion of the recipe. It would make a great rice dish. Or how about adding some grilled shrimp? Or even baked cod? Lamb kofta? See where I’m going with this? Totally make this one your own.
So, if you don’t think Nigella would approve, just keep this between us, okay?!
Saffron Scented Chicken Pilaf
Chicken is marinated in yogurt, lemon and cinnamon and then grilled or pan seared. Onions are sautéed and then rice is added as well as stock, saffron, cardamom pods and cloves. They all get combined with toasted nuts, green raisins and dried cherries. Add a good handful of parsley and mint, and you have a meal fit for royalty!
- 20 oz chicken breast cut into 1 inch cubes (approximate)
- 3/4 cup whole Greek yogurt
- juice of half a lemon
- 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp saffron threads
- 2 cups chicken stock you can use my Faux Chicken Bouillon Powder here!
- 1 medium yellow onion sliced thinly from top to tail
- 1 tbsp butter
- 2-3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup plus 2 tbsp basmati rice rinsed
- 4 cardamom pods bruised
- 4 whole cloves
- 1 lemon zested and juiced
- 3 tbsp cashew nuts
- 3 tbsp slivered almonds
- 2 tbsp pine nuts
- 3 tbsp slivered or crushed pistachio nuts
- 3 tbsp green raisins
- 3 tbsp chopped dried cherries or cranberries
- large handful of parsley chopped
- large handful of mint chopped
Marinate the chicken pieces in the yogurt, lemon juice and cinnamon for at least 1 hour.
Soak the saffron threads in the chicken stock.
Over medium heat warm the butter in a medium stock pot. Add the onion slices and sauté until golden brown, about 10 minutes.
Add 1 tbsp of the olive oil. Add the rice and stir to coat until the grains are glossy.
Pour in the stock and saffron, the cardamom pods and cloves, lemon juice and zest.
Bring to a boil and then immediately clamp a lid onto the pot. Reduce the heat to as low as it will go.
Cook like this for about 10-15 minutes. The rice should have absorbed all the liquid, and be cooked through. Remove the lid, place a towel over the pot and return the lid back over the towel. The towel will absorb any extra steam etc. Remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, take a large sauté pan and heat the remaining oil over medium high heat.
Remove all the excess yogurt from each piece of chicken. Cook the chicken in batches till golden brown.
When the rice is cooked, fluff with a fork, and then add the chicken pieces to the pot. Fold the chicken into the rice gently.
In a clean cast iron or heavy bottom pan, toast the cashews, almonds and pine nuts over medium heat, till fragrant and starting to colour. Add these to the pilaf.
Add half of the raisins, cherries, parsley and mint and toss gently.
Plate the pilaf and then sprinkle with the remaining raisins, cherries, parsley and mint.
Try adding hard boiled eggs at the end, it works! You can also replace the chicken with grilled shrimp or lamb. This can be served at room temperature as a great main salad. In fact serve it over baby arugula or kale for a substantial, healthy salad!