With the exception of ooey-gooey potato concoctions, side dishes rarely get any respect. Most of us devote our love and attention to the protein in the center of the plate and then throw together some kind of vegetable and/or starch as an after-thought. Here, however, is a pilaf fully capable of stealing the limelight from the usual star of the show.
It’s basmati rice that makes this recipe so special. An especially aromatic grain used for centuries in India and Pakistan, basmati doesn’t usually show up in a Greek-styled pilaf. But I prefer its naturally nutty taste to the blandness of the usual varieties of long-grain rice. (There’s a reason that Basmati means fragrant in Hindi.) The seasonings, of course, are also key: sautéed spinach spiked with red pepper flakes, feta cheese, olives, and dill.
To make sure the cooked grains ended up separate and fluffy — and to wash away excess starch — I took a tip from my Asian friends and started by rinsing the rice. This requires covering the rice in several inches of cold water, stirring it in a circular motion several times, dumping off the water, and starting again with fresh water. Repeat this process as often as it takes for the water to become almost clear.
Cooking rice also requires some care. It needs to be tightly sealed and to cook at a bare simmer to achieve the right texture. Placing a wet paper towel under the lid ensures that no liquid can escape. And waiting ten minutes after it’s cooked before fluffing it up allows all the moisture to be absorbed.
If you’re no fan of feta (some folks find it a little barnyard-y), just swap in ricotta salata, a kind of aged ricotta, instead. You’re also welcome to lose the dill in favor of oregano, basil, or mint. And if you’re don’t like olives, just leave them out. Finally, if you’d prefer a vegetarian version of this dish, reach for vegetable broth instead of chicken broth.
Born as a side-dish, this recipe easily converts to main dish status. Just top it off with a little sautéed shrimp or chicken and call it a meal.
Start to finish: 1 hour (30 active)
½ cup finely chopped onion
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup basmati rice, rinsed until the water runs clear and drained
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 2/3 cup low sodium chicken broth
8 ounces baby spinach
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 ounces finely crumbled feta cheese (about ½ cup)
1 ounce chopped Mediterranean olives (heaping ¼ cup)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
In a medium saucepan cook the onion in 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat, stirring occasionally until it is golden, about 8 minutes. Add the rice and garlic and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the lemon zest and chicken broth and bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to medium low, adjusting the temperature to make sure that the broth maintains a bare simmer, cover the top of the pot with a wet paper towel and a tight fitting lid and cook, without stirring, for 17 minutes. Remove from the heat and let stand for 10 minutes.
While the rice is simmering, cook the spinach. In a large skillet heat 1 tablespoon of the remaining oil over high heat, add half the spinach and cook, stirring until it is wilted, add half the pepper flakes, stir and transfer the spinach to a bowl. Repeat the procedure with the remaining oil, spinach and pepper flakes and set aside.
When the rice is done and has rested for 10 minutes, add the spinach, feta, olives and dill and, using a fork, fluff the rice to separate the grains. Serve right away.