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Regal Rice

A new, rather surprising pilaf is taking hold in kitchens across the country. It comes in a box with a packet of seasoning tucked inside. As with other convenience foods, what you gain in speed, you lose in flavor and texture. Packaged pilaf is enough to send a Persian cook scurrying from the kitchen, clutching her prized rice and saffron.

For it is Persian cooks who set the pilaf standard. In their kitchens, the rice dishes are so revered (and expensive) that they're paraded out, golden with saffron, on all important occasions. The dish goes by many names -- polo, pulao, pulov -- throughout the region that extends from Iran across Central Asia, write Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid in their cookbook Seductions of Rice. Rice came from India, they explain, though ``the pilaf traditions of Central Asia probably all come originally from the Persians, who had an ancient and sophisticated rice cuisine.''

A pilaf is different from an ordinary steamed or boiled rice dish in that the pilaf's rice is cooked in oil or butter first, which makes the grains start to swell. The liquid added isn't just water, but something flavorful, like chicken stock and seasonings, which infuse the rice with their richness. Saffron is nice, but only a start. Peppers, tomatoes, onions, scallions, fava beans, and lentils can also go into the rice pot, depending upon the season and the occasion.

American pilafs originated in the South, where the name is pilau and the pronunciation is ``perloe,'' writes John Martin Taylor in The New Southern Cook. The accent is on the first or second syllable, depending on where you're from. Southern pilaf, he says, is so dry that an old cook told him the grains ``should fall out of the pot like popcorn.'' Cooks in Turkey and Greece agree, writes Paula Wolfert in Mediterranean Grains and Greens. They also make lapa, a porridgelike risotto that can soothe the ill. But that leaves the cook wide open to catty remarks, writes Wolfert: ``A Turk might say derisively of a soupy and thus failed rice pilaf, `Oh, dear! Her pilaf didn't turn out very well, so she turned it into a lapa.' ''

By Sheryl Julian and Julie Riven from The Boston Globe
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