Goodness, what a beautiful rice dish. Ottolenghi again creates magic with this Iranian recipe that he credits Claudia Roden’s classic A Book Of Middle Eastern Food. He believes that Irani people cook the best rice, and I have to say he might be right.
This recipe takes a bit more effort than banging some rice into the rice cooker, but for special occasions, and for weekends, it is definitely worth it. The rice grains are beautifully separated and soft. The dish has a sweet overtone from the dates, and conjures up beautiful Middle Eastern feasts on low tables in tents with thick rugs covering your legs.
This dish is cooked like a biryani, in layers. It needs a very low heat – raise the pot above your heat source a little if you can (eg place a roasting rack or heat diffuser over the heat source). It could also be cooked in a very low oven, but you’ll miss the crunchy rice that forms at the bottom.
Recently I needed to replace my saffron, so I ordered some from Saffron Only. It is the most beautiful saffron! Far better that what I had been using. If you love saffron, check her out on Instagram. (I only recommend products when they are excellent, and am not recompensed for my recommendations.)
Saffron, Date and Almond Rice
Don’t worry if some rice catches on the bottom, and the dates will caramelise a little – but it’s all lovely and crunchy.
400g basmati rice
Salt and white pepper
110g unsalted butter
100g whole almonds, skin on, roughly chopped
80g medjool dates, roughly chopped
¼ tsp saffron threads soaked in 2 Tblspn hot water
Rinse the rice well under running cold water, then put it in a large bowl, cover with lukewarm water and stir through two Tblspn of salt. Leave it to sit for one to two hours, then drain and wash again, this time with lukewarm water.
Bring a medium pot of water to a boil, add two more Tblspn of salt, then add the rice and boil gently for three to four minutes, until almost cooked. Check by trying a grain – it should still have a bit of bite to it. Drain, rinse under lukewarm water and set aside to drain.
In the same pan, melt 80g of the butter and sauté the almonds for four minutes, until slightly golden. Add the dates, cook for a couple of minutes more, then stir through half a teaspoon of white pepper, a quarter-teaspoon of salt and half the rice. Gently flatten this down, then spoon the remaining rice on top. Melt the remaining butter and pour over the top, along with three tablespoons of water.
Cover the pan with a tight lid and cook on the lowest possible heat for 30 minutes (a heat diffuser would be very handy here). Turn off the heat, spoon over the saffron and its water, cover with a tea towel, put the lid back on and set aside for 10 minutes.
Serve hot, using a large spoon so that you have portions in which the two layers are distinct and separate.
recipe notes and alternatives
If you can find some green sultanas in your local Afghan or Middle Eastern grocery, add a few to the dish with the dates.