Chunks of oven-roasted vegetables stirred into fragrant rice.
The storm of the decade passed over Israel, covering Jerusalem and the north with snow. But in the central region where I live, all we got was rain. I’m not complaining. Although I lived in Michigan for years, I never re-adjusted to cold weather after living in tropical Rio de Janeiro.
The wind circles around outside and drives rain against my windows, but it’s cozy at home. This is the time for pottering around the kitchen, keeping warm and trying out recipes. Right now I’m most interested in ones that call for doing new things to winter vegetables like butternut squash and sweet potatoes.
Winter food isn’t all hearty soups and stews. In this recipe, culled from Al HaShulchan magazine (Hebrew), the familiar deep yellows and oranges of the vegetables harmonize with saffron long-grain rice. The vegetable are first slow-roasted to bring out their sweetness – a foil to the slightly bitter pungency of saffron and sharp herbs.
The rice finishes cooking covered with a kitchen towel. My kids call this “shmatta rice.” It’s an old Sephardic method of steaming it so that every grain cooks through, yet remains separate. Yes, it’s a recipe that calls for a number of steps. But they’re all easy steps, and I’ve made a plan that economizes your time, so go ahead and try this pungent, warming, spicy rice. It makes a satisfying side dish. If you add half more vegetables again, it’s an excellent vegan/vegetarian main dish.
Saffron Rice with Winter Vegetables
Serves 4. Easily doubled or halved.
For the vegetables:
1 cup peeled butternut squash, chopped into 2″ (3-4 cm.) cubes
1 cup scrubbed, not peeled sweet potato chopped into 2″ (3-4 cm.) cubes
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves or 3 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried sage leaves or 3 large fresh leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 garlic cloves, not peeled
For the Rice:
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/4 cup boiling water
1 cup Basmati or other long-grain rice
2 additional tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped
Additional 1 teaspoon salt
1 – 3/4 additional cups hot water
Turn the oven to 350°F, 180°C.
Put the saffron into a small glass or bowl and add 1/4 cup boiling water. Stir, cover, and set aside.
Pour 1/4 cup olive oil into a medium bowl. Add thyme, sage, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and black pepper. Stir.
Add the chopped vegetables and mix gently to cover them with the herbed oil. Remove the vegetables to a baking sheet, reserving any extra oil in the bowl.
Stir the garlic cloves into this extra oil and set the bowl aside.
Bake the squash and sweet potatoes for 15 minutes.
At 15 minutes baking time, turn the vegetables over and add the garlic cloves. Bake everything another 15 minutes.
While the vegetables finish baking, rinse and drain the rice.
While the rice drains, gently fry the chopped onion in 2 tablespoons olive oil until the onion wilts – 3-5 minutes.
Add the rice and salt, stirring gently until the rice glistens. Add the saffron water (don’t lose a single thread!) and the additional hot water. Stir and bring to a boil.
Lower the heat and cook, uncovered, over medium heat until holes appear on the surface of the rice and the water has evaporated. Now add half the roasted vegetables, stirring them in gently – and quickly, so as not to lose the steam. Turn the heat off.
Cover the pot with a clean kitchen towel and clamp its cover over it. Let the rice and vegetables sit and steam away for 20-30 minutes in a warm place.
To serve, heat the vegetables that remained. Pour the rice into a serving dish and scatter the reheated vegetables over it. Decorate with sprigs of dried or fresh herbs or pumpkin seeds. Enjoy!
Safety note: If you leave the pot on the stove while other things are cooking, wrap the towel’s loose ends up around the knob of the cover and secure them with a rubber band. Don’t want it to catch fire!