In 1977 I went to work as a nanny for an Iranian family living in Oxford. I arrived on a Sunday evening ready to start work on the Monday. It was a cold November night and I was welcomed with the most delicious Ghormeh Sabzi served with Persian steamed rice. I discovered on this first night that rice would endlessly be cooked and turned out of the pan to great ceremony,with both the children’s mother and their granny competitively trying to achieve the perfect and fluffiest finish. The Persian steamed rice was always fragrant with saffron and glistening with butter. A raw egg, presented in an egg cup alongside a side dish of somagh were often placed on the table, ready for us to add to our own serving of rice. I hated that raw egg, but eventually became quite adept at quickly mixing it into the hot, steaming rice so that it scrambled slightly, losing its raw snottiness. My favourite rice was always the one served with a thick, golden crunchy crust of TahDig, (bottom of the pot) which formed when slowly steaming the rice over a layer of butter, or sometimes yoghurt and saffron. I was taught to make this and eagerly watched whenever it was made to make sure I had the best chance of perfecting it myself.
Recently I was sent a pot of Sandlings Saffron to sample which is grown in Suffolk and when I opened the envelope containing the tin capsule the aroma hit me, instantly reminding me of those days working as a nanny. Persian rice therefore was my go-to recipe to test the pungency, colour and strength of this locally Orford grown saffron. Quantities were not important when I was taught to cook the rice, just the technique, which if followed should work for any amount that you decide to cook. It has for me over the years. The best rice to use is a bog-standard long grain Basmati rice. Usually the cheapest bag in the supermarket that’s not ‘easy cook’ or if you check the cooking time on the packet is not a 10/15 minute quick cook rice. Generally any ethnic supermarket will have a good unadulterated Basmati.
- Soak the rice in cold water overnight or for at least a few hours if overnight is not practical.
- Take a couple of pinches of saffron threads and pummel in a pestle and mortar, then steep in about half an egg cupful of boiling water until needed.
- Rinse the soaked rice under cold running water until the water runs clear.
- Heat a large pan of boiling, unsalted water and stir in the rinsed rice. Stir only once or twice to stop the rice sticking to the bottom of the pan. Allow the rice to reach a rolling boil (and you might notice some grains and foam starting to float to the top) and cook it for 5 minutes. The grains should be softening on the outside but hard in the middle.
- Drain and rinse the rice again under cold running water.
- Take a deep, heavy based pan, non-stick if you want to ensure the TahDig comes away in one piece. (It must be clean so don’t be tempted to use the pan that you’ve blanched the rice in unless it’s had a good wash.)
- Melt a couple of large knobs of butter in the bottom of the pan, enough that once melted it covers the bottom of the pan and is about 5mm deep. Add a splash of oil to the butter to prevent it from burning too quickly.
- Once the butter is sizzling take the blanched, drained but still wet rice and carefully spoon it over the butter layer. Sprinkle with a little salt.
- Make about four holes with the handle of a wooden spoon and divide the soaked saffron between the holes, cover up with a little loose rice, hiding the saffron and forming a small mound with the rice in the saucepan.
- Wrap the lid of the pan in a clean tea towel and place the pan over a very low heat for an hour. The heat must be no more than the equivalent of a slow trembling simmer. Do not remove the lid or peep at the rice during this time.
- After an hour turn off the heat and the rice is ready to serve.
- Turn out onto a large serving dish, admiring the crust (TahDig) that’s formed on the bottom and which was always the prized part of the rice. You may need to encourage the TahDig to come away from the bottom of the pan, but hopefully it should come away in one piece.
The Sandlings Saffron was excellent and robust enough to flavour the rice and provide the pungency required to provide that saffron waft when turning out the rice. I’ve always been lucky enough to be sent Iranian saffron which I think is the best, but Suffolk’s doing very well indeed and I’d have this one in my store cupboard any day.
- soak the rice overnight or for as long as possible
- bring to the boil in a large pan of water (5 mins only)
- melt butter and a splash of oil in a clean pan
- add the blanched and drained rice burying the steeped saffron and liquid
- steam for 1 hr using a cloth to cover the saucepan lid
- turn out onto a plate and if you are lucky the tahdig will be in one piece
- fluff up the remaining rice and add more butter if desired