S, my husband has been coaxing me for a while to post this recipe — a simple pulao made with some rice, a handful of peas and a few chunks of paneer. With few spices at disposal and a solid Dutch oven or pressure cooker, it takes about 30 minutes to make this pulao. As soon as the rice settles in the pot, plates are served with heaps of sunflower yellow rice and crispy edged paneer, and green sweet peas shine amidst all the glory. A bowl of yogurt on the side is sufficient for S to be in la la land!
In my childhood, I grew up eating a slightly different version of this pulao, chhena palau, that my mother made. After paneer was generously used in sweet making and tossed over gravies, the remains were usually cooked with rice and whatever vegetables were lying partially-used in the refrigerator. But, in S's house, this pulao is specifically cooked as a special meal. It won't be a folly to say paneer is a celebratory ingredient in their cooking, especially for families who are based in Delhi than Uttarakhand.
So, when I cook it on a usual weekday, S's joys see no bound. On every phone call that he would make that day, whether it's his mom in India or brother in the US, he will not forget to declare, "Today is matar paneer pulao day!" I still can't fathom his craze for it, although I find these antics quite cute. :)
For me, this pulao is about Aunty P, our cook and house help when my in-laws lived in Delhi. Every time our flight landed in India from any corner of the world, I knew the next day's lunch menu beforehand. There would be chole, a seasonal vegetable cooked as bhuna, a chutney, raita or achar, many rounds of rotis, and a giant pot of matar paneer pulao. "Bacchon ko pasand hai na", "the children like it", Aunty P would say, releasing the valve of the pressure cooker to serve the pulao, making it clear that for the upcoming couple of weeks, food will be of utmost priority.
While S and his brother are prime devotees of paneer, Aunty P was quick to recognize I love the dals and vegetables equally. The first time I met her as a newly married bride, she had asked, "Didi, aapko kya pasand hai? Wo banayenge aaj", "What do you like? We will cook that today." I can't say S's home in India was totally unfamiliar to me but there were some intangible feelings of newness slowly moving within, like droplets trickling from railings after a downpour. Those feelings weren't necessarily uncomfortable rather just natural, like all feelings are, and there was something guileless about the way Aunty P asked that question which pulled me a step closer to where I had come to believe would be another home.
What followed was a dialogue of some personal exchanges on our foods and habits, and how my mother makes this pulao. Sipping the first cuppa of chai in the morning, I watched her chop and dice vegetables, wash and soak rice, sauté the masala, clean the utensils, boil the dal, and do hundreds of other chores in the kitchen before getting ready to sweep the house clean. "Then let's make the pulao like your mom", she smiled. "Nah, let's make it your way. I want to watch." Ever since, I make it the way Aunty P makes it, with a few additions like star anise and occasional onions.
Food is somehow always connected to memories for me, dishes jotted in my mind like Matryoshka dolls, spread in many layers. Matar paneer pulao is as much Aunty P's banter and her love for the children of the house she took care of deeply, as it is mother's flair to turn things around in a pot and churn something delicious with leftovers.
Mostly it's an undertone of the mundane beauty of marriage, partnership and togetherness for me, narrating how something that's trifling for years can become out-of-the-ordinary, things that may not matter start to make a difference. So, this dish may not be the cynosure of all eyes and perhaps appears on every other Google search result. But it matters here — in this space I call Roz ka Khana on my blog, a journal of trifling things in my kitchen, a little something that means the world to S.
This is Not a Biryani
I hold my biryanis very close to my heart, and I believe in the slow cooked process and stages involved in it. So, this is not a biryani. It's a pulao, and calling it biryani would be sacrilegious! Having said that, I love all sorts of pulao too, and in the context of everyday home cooking pulao is far more common than biryani. There are some elaborate ones, but this one specifically is quite easy to make and involves very few ingredients.
The most important difference between a biryani and pulao is that, biryani is usually cooked with the draining method and pulao is cooked using an absorption method of rice. So, for a biryani, soaking and draining the water is vital. In the pakki biryani method, as used in the dum pukht style from Lucknow, soaked and drained rice is half cooked and then drained again. This rice is further cooked with the meat or vegetables. In the kacchi biryani method, rice is soaked and drained, and then cooked with the meat or vegetables. Most recipes, especially those involving yakhni, will call for a flavoured stock.
Secondly, the aromatics and spices are relatively more than what's used in a pulao.
Say what I may, everyone is entitled to their opinion. So, if this works as a biryani for someone, I wouldn't take offence. :)
Pulao and Absorption Method of Cooking Rice
Pulao on the other hand is cooked with the absorption technique of cooking rice. Rice is washed and cleaned, but not soaked and drained or half cooked and then added. Some recipes of pulao may call for soaking of rice, but half cooking rice and draining the water to cook it again with meat or vegetables is not done in a pulao.
Carry-over cooking is extremely relevant in an absorption method of cooking rice. About 10% of the cooking including absorption of the water takes place once the heat is turned off. So, once the rice is cooked, it must be allowed to cool in the same pot with its lid on to allow the remnant cooking to happen in the residual steam and create uniformly cooked rice grains that hold their shape and are not mushy. This cool-off time is important in a biryani too.
Many people don't wash the rice while making a pulao. I do that if I'm fully aware of the source of rice. Living in cities, it's not always possible to know where the grains are sourced from. So, I prefer to wash the rice well before cooking.
Since, we directly cook rice with the meat or vegetables, chopping the vegetables uniform in size is important for even cooking. For this specific recipe, there aren't any vegetables. I only use green peas (frozen or fresh depending on the season) and paneer. I shallow fry the paneer before hand so that it holds its shape while it sits in the pot of cooking rice.
The ratio of water is important in a pulao because too much water will result in a mushy mish-mash of rice and less water will leave the rice slightly hard and uncooked. I typically use long grain white Basmati for this recipe, which needs about 2.25 cups of water for every 1 cup of rice, and cooks in about 15-17 minutes. Once I cover the lid and leave it to cook on low flame, I set a timer for 15 mins and then switch off the heat and let the rice cool off with the lid on for next 2-3 mins to ensure remnant cooking in the residual steam.
My golden ratios for rice to water that work for me when cooking by the pulao method:
Long grain white rice: 1:2.25 to 1:2.5
Short grain white rice: 1:2 to 1:1:25
Brown rice or any kind of unpolished rice like red rice: 1:3 to 1:3.5
Note: When cooking rice with vegetables or meat, I add slightly more water, and hence the measurement ratios are a range and not just one.
1/2 cup long grained rice like Basmati (or any other tice of your choice - see pro tip above for rice type and water ratios), washed and kept aside
150-200 gm paneer sliced into cubes
1/4 to 1/2 cup peas (depending on how much peas you like or if you're using some other vegetable in combination)
1 tsp ghee plus 1/2 tsp oil (and extra if needed)
Whole spices for fragrance: 1/4 tsp caraway seeds (optional), 1-2 bay leaves, 2-3 cloves, 1 star anise, 1-inch cinnamon, 2-3 green cardamoms
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp ginger-garlic paste (optional)
1 green chili, slit slightly (optional, avoid if you don't want a spicy note)
1 small onion or a quarter of a large onion, chopped finely (optional)
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 tsp red chili powder
1/4 tsp coriander powder
1/4 tsp garam masala
2 tsp salt, or to taste
fresh cilantro leaves to garnish
In a tall pot or Dutch oven or kadhai (should have a tight fitting lid), heat ghee and oil on medium to low flame. Once hot, add the paneer cubes and lightly toss them on two sides until golden. This will take about 3-4 minutes. Remove the golden cubes and keep aside
In the same pot or kadhai, add a tsp more oil if needed, and then add all the whole spices. Toss them around till fragrant (less than a minute), and then add cumin and green chili (if using). Reduce the heat to avoid burning, and immediately add ginger garlic paste if using. Cook till their raw smell disappears — this will take about a minute. Next add onions if using.
Once onions turn pinkish to golden in colour, add the rice and toss along with the onions. Sauté for 1-2 minutes and add the peas. Continue sautéing and add turmeric, red chili and coriander powder. Sauté till the masalas are cooked — about 3-4 minutes.
Add 1.25 cups (1 cup + 1/4 cup) of water, salt and give a good mix. Add the shallow fried pieces of paneer, cover and cook on low heat for 13-15 minutes. You can open the lid once in a while to check on the rice. Once done, switch off the stove and take the vessel/pot off it. With the lid still on, let the rice cool don for 2-3 minutes.
Open and garnish with fresh cilantro.
Note: If using a pressure cooker, cook on medium to high heat for 1 whistle, and then on medium to low heat for another whistle. Take the cooker off the heat, and let the steam release naturally.
Serve hot with a bowl of yogurt whisked with grated cucumber and salt or roasted and pounded cumin and salt and a drizzle of fresh herbs. You can also some pomegranate jewels or boondi.