Plov d’agneau

Lamb and rice, Central Asian style

This dish, known as plov, takes time but the results are worth it. Lamb is gently browned, then chopped onion and carrots are added, followed by spices — cumin seeds, paprika and turmeric or saffron. After the dish simmers for a while, the rice is added and gently steamed. The exotic aromas emanating from your kitchen may tempt you or others to take a peek, but beware — the pot must stay tightly covered during the final steaming.

For best results, use a heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid. As for the lamb, choose a cut with some fat and bone attached. Shoulder of lamb is often used, although in the version shown in the photo I used épigramme d’agneau, a cut from beneath the shoulder. You can use white or red onions, or both. And you can also innovate via additions to the basic onion-carrot mixture, for example chopped bits of quince or chick peas.

This recipe is adapted from Anya von Bremzen’s wonderful book of recipes from the Soviet republics, Please to the Table. The quantities below will serve 3 people.

1 pound (450-500 g) lamb, shoulder or another cut
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 onions

2 carrots
1 tsp. whole cumin seeds
1/2 tsp. turmeric or a tiny pinch of saffron
1/2 tsp. sweet or hot paprika
1 tsp. salt
1 cup (250 ml) water
1 cup (200 g) rice, basmati if possible
3-6 cloves of garlic, or an entire head

2 cups (500 ml) boiling water

Cut the bone or bones from the lamb and reserve. Chop the lamb into bite-sized pieces, taking care not to trim away all of the fat.

Heat the oil to sizzling in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add the lamb and the bone(s). Sauté over high heat, stirring often, until the lamb is browned on all sides, about 10 minutes.

While the lamb is browning, peel and chop the onions. Peel the carrots and chop into julienne sticks (matchsticks). Add to the browned lamb and sauté over high heat, stirring, for another 10 minutes. If using additional ingredients, add them now — see note below.

When the onions are wilted and starting to brown, add the cumin seeds, paprika and turmeric or saffron. Stir-fry briefly, then add the salt and 1 cup water. Using a wooden spatula, scrape the bottom of the pot to incorporate the browned bits into the water. Lower the heat to medium, cover the pot and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the lamb is tender.

While the dish is cooking: 1) Remove the outer peel of the garlic. 2) Measure out the rice, rinse through a sieve and drain. 3) Bring 2 cups of water to a boil.

When the lamb has simmered for 20 minutes, remove the bone(s). Turn down the heat to low. Press the lamb and veggies into an even layer. Spoon the rice on top evenly. Bury the garlic in the rice. Slowly pour on the boiling water, doing your best not to disturb the rice.

Cook over high heat until most of the water has evaporated, about 15 minutes. Then use the handle of a wooden spoon to poke several holes into the rice for steaming. Tightly cover the pot, turn down the heat to very low and allow to steam for 20 minutes.

Turn off the heat but do not uncover the pot. Allow to rest for 10 minutes, then serve immediately. Serves 3.

For extra flavor, add any of these ingredients while sautéing the onions and carrots:
1) One quince, peeled, seeded and chopped.
2) Half a cup of cooked chick peas.
3) A handful of raisins.
4) One pear, peeled, seeded and chopped.

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