I’m not quite obsessed with one-pot rice dishes, but I’m pretty close to it. Every country and culture seems to have one, all based around cooking rice in flavoured stock, usually with some combination of meat and vegetables. Typically they betray something of their creators’ national character – the indulgent, slightly finicky cheese-and-wine laden risotto; the communal, best-eaten-outdoors paella; the spicy hodge-podge of flavours that is a jambalaya; the delicately-flavoured, familial and celebratory biryani; the slightly stodgy, school-dinner-memory of rice pudding – I’ve cooked them all, most of them many, many times, in many variations; once you know the basic principles, it’s pretty easy to experiment. Personal favourites include a simple leek risotto and a big, yellow paella mixta with chicken, sausage, prawns, mussels, and a squeeze of lemon juice at the end to bring everything together. (And maybe a hideously indulgent chocolate-and-mascarpone rice pudding with Arborio rice.)
One variation that I’ve been fancying trying my hand at is kabsa, a Saudi / Gulf states variation. Typically it’s a similar base – fried onions, rice, stock, meat – that could become any of the dishes I’ve mentioned (except, obviously, rice pudding!), but a different flavour set provided by particular spices – black pepper, cloves, cardamom, saffron, cinnamon, black lime, bay, and nutmeg – makes it quite a different experience. I made one last night, and it was stunning. Here’s how to do it.
• 1 onion
• 4 chicken thighs (skin-on, bone-in)
• 1 cup of rice (I used basmati, but just use your favourite)
• 1 litre of stock (I used one chicken stock pot and 2 teaspoons of Marigold Bouillon vegetable stock powder)
• 2 tomatoes (I used about half a dozen cherry tomatoes)
• 4 cloves of garlic
• 2 green chillies
• salt and black pepper
• a handful of sultanas or raisins
• juice of ½ a lemon and 1 lime
• good squeeze of tomato puree and 1 teaspoon of sundried tomato paste
• 1 can of chickpeas, drained
• 3 cloves
• 8 cardamom pods (split and emptied, with the outer husks thrown away)
• 2 bay leaves
• I kaffir lime leaf
• 6 or so strands of saffron
• 1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
• ½ a teaspoon of ground nutmeg
I sliced the onion (some tiny diced bits, some larger top-to-bottom strips) and fried it in a large pan with a glug of olive oil, over a low heat until it softened and started to brown; I put the pan lid on for a few minutes every so often. While I was doing this, I soaked the basmati rice, changing the water every five minutes or so.
(Properly browning onions almost always takes longer than it says in cookery books – it can take half an hour or more, but is worth doing, because they become incredibly sweet.)
Then I added the garlic and chillies, both diced (if I’d had a stick of celery, I would’ve diced that and added it too), and turned the heat up, whilst keeping stirring constantly.
After a couple of minutes I added all the spices (having ground the cloves and cardamom seeds to powder in a pestle and mortar) and the bay and kaffir lime leaves, and kept stirring. I then added the chicken thighs, skin-side down initially to get them to brown a little against the base of the pan. After a couple minutes I turned the thighs over, squeezed over the lemon and lime juice, chopped the tomatoes and added them, and threw in the sultanas too.
I put the pan lid on, turned the heat down, and left the thighs skin-side down again to brown some more. The onions, garlic, etc almost got close to burning after a few minutes, but, as long as it doesn’t turn to charcoal and make everything bitter and harsh, this is OK – a bit of brown means things have caramelised and released sugars, making everything tastier.
When the chicken thighs were the colour I wanted (golden-brown skin, dark underside), I turned the heat up, added the hot stock and tomato puree and paste, and gave it all a good stir. I put the lid on, and let it simmer away furiously for a few minutes so the stock reduced a bit. I then added the drained rice and the chickpeas too, removed the chicken thighs, put the lid back on, and turned to a medium heat.
Once the rice is in and the lid is on, it should take between 10 and 20 minutes to cook. You’ll need to keep an eye on it, and maybe add more (boiling) water if there isn’t enough for the rice to go soft and fluffy before it goes dry. Alternatively, if it’s too wet, take the lid off and turn the heat right up and boil the excess liquid off.
While the rice was cooking, I stripped the meat off the chicken bones, cheekily ate the skin (Emma doesn’t like it), shredded the meat, and threw it back in the pot for the last 5 minutes or so.
Once the rice is done and there’s no excess liquid, it’s ready to eat. The whole process will probably take about 90 minutes, from starting to chop the onions to dishing-up. If I’d had any pine nuts or cashew nuts, I would’ve lightly toasted these and sprinkled them on top of the dished-up kabsa at the end.
I’ll definitely be making a kabsa again; despite being amazingly similar to a jambalaya in terms of method and bulk ingredients, it’s a completely different flavour set from the spices involved.