Pilau talk

By Merry Post

Special to The Ellsworth American

The anonymous woman from Salem, Mass., who wrote “The American Matron, or Practical and Scientific Cookery,” addressed young housekeepers in her preface. Writing in 1851, she sought not just to ennoble the mission of housekeepers and cooks but also to caution the reader about the seriousness of her responsibilities.

“Good cookery is of inestimable importance to our comfort, happiness and health, and, indirectly, even to our intellectual and moral being.”

Our intellectual and moral being? Some ancient philosophers endorsed a simple diet for moral well-being. Fortunately, this cookbook was not spartan and included a lovely recipe reminiscent of Middle Eastern pilafs with the mixture of spices and the technique of sautéing rice first in butter.

Rice recipes appeared in New England cookbooks early in the 19th century, but these recipes often reflect the poor technique of overcooking rice to mush. Still, rice was a staple in the Northeast, and rice or hominy was part of the rations issued to Union troops during the Civil War.

Pilau was a meat or chicken and rice dish popular in South Carolina, where American rice agriculture started. Culinary historian Karen Hess traced the relationship of established rice farming in West Africa and the origins of rice plantations in South Carolina. Both regions featured low-lying, boggy soil that required different cultivation methods than higher, drier land.

Sadly, farmers kidnapped from West Africa were valued in American slave markets for their expertise in growing rice in lowland conditions. African-American cooks in South Carolina enriched American cuisine with their versions of jambalaya; shrimp and rice pie; and bread, cake and waffles made with rice.

Chicken Pilau
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Chicken Pilau
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  • 3 Tbsps. unsalted butter, divided
  • 1 1 large onion, chopped
  • ¼ tsp. cloves
  • ¼ tsp. mace
  • ½ tsp. cardamom
  • ½ tsp. allspice
  • ½ tsp. sea salt
  • 1 14-oz. can chopped tomatoes
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth for chicken
  • 1 whole chicken or chicken cut into parts
  • 1 cup cup long-grain white rice
  • 1/3 cup raisins
  • black pepper
  • Hard-boiled eggs for garnish (optional)
  1. Melt 1½ tablespoons of butter in a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot. Add the chopped onion and cook over medium heat about 5 minutes until it begins to look translucent, stirring frequently.
  2. Add the spices and salt and cook 1 minute, stirring. Stir in the tomatoes and broth, then add the chicken. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Simmer for 1 to 1½ hours, turning the chicken after half an hour. Check the leg or thigh meat for doneness; there should be no pink meat.
  3. Meanwhile, melt the remaining 1½ tablespoons of butter in a frying pan. Stir in the rice and cook for 10 minutes, stirring often. After the chicken has cooked for 1 hour, add the rice and raisins to the chicken pot and return to a simmer. Cook at least 15 minutes, until the thigh meat is done and the rice is soft. Taste for seasoning and add salt or black pepper if needed.
  4. Serve the chicken on a platter surrounded by the rice.
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Merry Post

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