Crispy Saffron Rice with Chicken and Lemon Zest
The gift that keeps on giving! Amazingly, I still have some saffron my friend, Joanne, brought from the Spice Souk in Dubai. The saffron is a deep, rich scarlet color and so fragrant, it should be an air freshener!
When the most recent issue of Milk Street arrived, I tagged several recipes, but one had me reaching for the saffron as soon as I read the head-line, “Saffron-Spiked Crispy Rice.” Crispy, crunchy basmati rice infused with the delicate flavors of saffron and the citrusy notes of lemon, studded with currants (or in my case orange cranberries) and tender, succulent pieces of chicken. I’m swooning … it is really that good.
One of the things I love about Milk Street are the accompanying articles with the historical background on the food and how they developed with the recipe. This recipe is for Tahdig, which is Persian for bottom of the pot. From the Milk Street article, “Tahdig is defined by its signature crisp, golden-brown bottom crust. To serve, the pan is inverted, exposing that crunchy layer, under which should be light and fluffy basmati.” That crispy, crunchy underside is definitely the star of the dish.
While tahdig is traditionally made on the stove top, this recipe is baked in the oven in a 9-inch deep dish glass pie plate which “not only conducts heat well so the rice forms a nice bottom crust, it also allows you to monitor browning.” According to the test kitchen, the rice will not brown in a metal pan or ceramic pie plate, so don’t even think about it!
A couple of other tips from the Milk Street test kitchen: (1) be sure the oven rack is in the lowest position nearer the heating element to assist with browning; and (2) soak and parboil the rice in SALTY water using kosher salt (Diamond Crystal if you have it) — don’t skimp and don’t worry as the rice is only in for five minutes and rinsed before baking.
Now on to the Tracy change. I only had one, which is that I used Trader Joe’s Orange Cranberries (they are Tom’s favorite) in place of the dried currants. Next time I’m going to toss in some of the Trader Joe’s dried Bing cherries too. I think almost any dried fruit would work … apricots anyone?
Saffron is expensive but try and use the best quality saffron you can afford and definitely don’t use that old jar that has been sitting in the cupboard since who knows when and no longer has any flavor.
This recipe took longer to achieve the golden crunchy crust in my oven but that glass pie plate certainly helps with gauging the doneness. Judging by the photo, I probably could have left it in for another 5 minutes or so for a deeper golden brown.
One last tidbit, this recipe is not a quick meal so plan ahead. The rice needs at least 30 minutes to soak and the dish takes an hour to bake and then 10 to 20 minutes more to achieve the crust plus 5 minutes of standing before inverting the dish onto a plate. Start to finish just under 2 hours depending on soaking time and your oven.
We thought this dish was amazingly delicious and really easy but, as with all recipes, read and follow the directions carefully for best results. Enjoy!
1 ½ cups basmati rice
¼ teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
2 tablespoons boiling water
12 ounces boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tablespoons good quality olive oil, divided
3 lemons (Meyer if you can find them)
2 medium garlic cloves, grated
Kosher salt (Diamond Crystal)
Fresh ground black pepper
1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
¼ cup dried currants or other dried fruit of choice
2 tablespoons salted butter, melted
chopped fresh big leaf parsley and roasted pistachios, chopped
At least 30 minutes and up to 12 hours in advance: In a medium bowl, combine the rice with enough water to cover by one-inch. Set aside at room temperature for at least 30 minutes. Drain the rice in a fine-mesh sieve, then rinse under cold water and drain again. Repeat until the water runs mostly clear.
In a very small bowl, stir the saffron and boiling water together.Position the oven rack in the lowest position and preheat the oven to 400F. Brush the bottom and sides of a 9-inch deep dish glass pie plate with 2 tablespoons of olive oil. You may need to re-brush the sides of the pie plate if the olive oil has settled onto the bottom once you are ready to fill it.
In a medium bowl, combine 1 tablespoon of olive oil, the zest from one lemon (zest the lemon over the bowl so the oils go into the dish), garlic, ½ teaspoon each of salt and pepper and 1 tablespoon of the saffron water. Add the chicken and combine until the chicken is fully coated.
In a large bowl, whisk the yogurt, egg yolk and remaining saffron water together. Zest the remaining two lemons over the bowl and stir to combine.
In a large saucepan, bring 2 quarts (8 cups) of water to a boil. Once boiling, stir in 2 tablespoons of Kosher salt followed carefully by the rice. Return to a boil and cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally. It will not be fully cooked. Drain the rice in a fine-mesh sieve or fine-holed colander and rinse with cold water to stop the rice from continuing to cook. Shake well to remove excess water so the rice won’t be soggy.
Add the rice to the yogurt mixture and stir until thoroughly combined. Add 1 ½ to 2 cups of the rice mixture to the prepared pie plate, gently pressing it into an even layer on the bottom and halfway up the sides.
Stir the chicken mixture and the dried fruit into the remaining rice mixture until thoroughly combined. Spoon carefully into the pie plate in an even layer. Do not compact the rice. Drizzle with the melted butter. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 1 hour.After an hour, carefully remove the foil and continue to cook until the bottom is golden brown. This should take about 10 minutes but it took 20 in my oven. Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes.
Run a silicone spatula around the edge to loosen the rice from the pie plate.
Invert a round serving platter over the pie plate and carefully (hold tight) turn the plates over. Garnish with parsley and pistachios and serve immediately.
4 – 6 servings.
I have included a link to the Milk Street website but you do have to pay to subscribe so they can continue with all the delicious recipes and stories.