This delicious lamb pilaf, based on the traditional Afghan/Uzbek dish, is an easy, one pot meal that's packed with flavor. Even better, it's a great way to use up leftover roast lamb.
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I know I have been reminiscing about my time in Spain a bit recently, between the fantastic romesco sauce for the calçotada and tapas like Spanish chickpeas and spinach, but this recipe instead brings back memories of Russia.
To be honest, I don't have that many good food memories of Russia.
In fairness, I think it was partly due to timing. When I lived there as a student more years ago than I'd like to think, food was incredibly seasonal and local. Arriving in January, that meant little more than potatoes, carrots and cabbage for quite some time.
I remember speaking with my mum a week or two after I arrived and asking her for ideas with those three ingredients. Bless her, she searched out recipes and sent me a couple herbs and spices to try to make things a bit more interesting.
The other thing influencing what was available was where we were. I was living in a relatively small, fairly rural town with few restaurants to choose from and not a whole lot in the way of interesting dishes on offer.
However come spring, we had a trip down to the Black Sea and were grateful for the different food influences in the area. One of the dishes I really remember enjoying there was lamb pilaf, or plov.
What is a pilaf?
Pilaf (also known as plov or pilau, depending where you are from) is a dish typical to Afghanistan and Uzbekistan in particular, but with variations across the region. You'll find similar dishes in Persian and Indian cuisine, for example.
You'll find it made with various meats, as well as vegetarian, but a classic version is made with lamb. The slight fattiness and flavor of this meat works particularly well at infusing the whole dish with a wonderful flavor.
It is a pretty simple dish, being only lamb, rice, onions and carrots, and sometimes with raisins or barberries (which I use in kuku sabzi, Persian herb fritatta). However the way of cooking and gentle aromatic seasoning makes for a fantastically delicious dish.
A great way with leftovers
I love lamb any time, but when we make roast lamb, I always end up with some leftover. This is such a great way to use it up. If you are using leftovers, or even if you are trimming down a fresh piece of meat, make sure you don't throw out the lamb fat you trim off as you can use it at the start of this dish.
I know it might seem like a fair amount of fat/oil but the rendered lamb fat in particular adds to the overall flavor and really makes a difference in the end dish. That said, if you have leaner lamb without extra fat, it will still taste great.
How to make lamb pilaf
In general, I have kept pretty close to the traditional Afghan/Uzbek ingredients and cooking method. You start by softening the vegetables, which brings out their sweetness, then add in the browned lamb. Place the rice in a layer over the top, add water, cover and let it steam.
The one main change is I put the garlic in earlier in the cooking rather than as in many traditional recipes where you chop the top off a whole head of garlic and is put in to the steaming rice. My main rationale was it seemed a bit fiddly after and a bit much, and this way still has plenty flavor.
See how it all comes together in the short video!
If you don't have ground cardamon then you can use around four whole green cardamon, crush them gently to remove the outer shells then crush the inside black seeds with a pestle and mortar. Try to avoid skipping it as it's a great aromatic spice that really adds to the overall flavor.
Tips for perfect pilaf
The dish is, as I have said, pretty easy to make but a couple tips:
- Make sure you rinse the rice before cooking to remove some starch - this helps avoid clumping, making it fluffier.
- Don't stir the rice once you add it, just leave it to steam.
- Remember to make slight holes in the rice (as in photo above/video) to allow it to steam evenly.
- Only stir once the rice is cooked and you are ready to dig in.
The fantastic flavor aside, this is a great dish for so many reasons. It's a one pot dish, it makes a little meat go a long way and it works really well with leftovers. Not that you'll need reasons to make it after you try, though. Believe me, you'll be surprised by how much wonderful flavor the whole dish has.
Try these other tasty leftovers recipes:
- Leftover steak and quinoa bowl
- Thai red curry (great for leftovers)
- Pastilla (Moroccan savory meat pie)
- Plus try more main course recipes from the archives.
- 1 cup basmati rice soaked and rinsed at least 3 times, ideally over a couple hours
- 7 oz lamb shoulder meat leftover or fresh (trimmed weight) - leg also fine
- 1 onion med-large (1 onion giving approx 2 cups once chopped)
- 1 carrot large (1 carrot giving approx 1 cup grated)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil plus some pieces of lamb fat to render, if possible, or around ½ tablespoon more oil
- 1 clove garlic crushed or finely chopped
- ½ tablespoon ground cumin
- ½ tablespoon ground coriander
- ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves or allspice
- 2 cups water hot
- ¼ teaspoon salt approx
- ¼ cup raisins
- As above, do soak and rinse the rice a number of times before starting the dish - this helps to stop the rice clumping in the finished dish.
- Dice the lamb small, approx ⅓in/1cm cubes, peel and slice the onion and peel and coarsely grate the carrot.
- Heat the oil in a pan over a medium heat and add the lamb fat to render the fat - basically cook it and press it gently to release liquid fat. Remove the leftover pieces of fat.
- Add the chunks of lamb if not already cooked or if pink and brown all over - will only take a minute - then remove and set aside.
- Next, add the onion and soften, stirring regularly, around 5 minutes.
- Add the carrot and garlic, mix and cook for another minute then add the spices and lamb and mix well.
- Layer the drained rice over the top of the lamb mixture and flatten then carefully pour over the water and sprinkle the salt on top.
- Reduce the heat slightly and cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid and allow the rice to steam.
- Once the water is no longer over the top of the rice, after around 10 minutes, use the handle of a wooden spoon to gently poke a few holes in the rice to help it steam evenly. Cover again and steam for another 10-15 minutes until the rice on the top when you test it is just cooked.
- Add the raisins, mix everything together and serve.
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