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Ham Pilau*

2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
1 cup onion, chopped
1 cup celery, chopped
2 medium bell peppers, chopped (I use red and green, but any color will do)
2 cups cooked ham, cubed
1/2 tablespoon powdered allspice
6 whole cloves
3 bay leaves
1 1/2 cups long-grain rice
1 small can tomatoes in juice (410g/14.5oz)
salt and pepper to taste (I use about 1/4 teaspoon of salt)
liberal dash of Worcestershire sauce

Heat the oil in a heavy pot (ideally, a casserole or Dutch oven) over medium heat. Add the onions, celery and peppers and sauté about 10 minutes, until the vegetables have started to soften. Add the cubed ham and sauté another 2-3 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir everything together. Cover the pot and bring the ingredients to a boil rapidly over high heat, then turn the heat to low and cook covered until the rice is tender (about 30 minutes). That’s it!

The ham adds a nice smoky flavor to the pilau, but you could also make the dish with shrimp, chicken, or just vegetables. If you leave out the ham, you’ll probably need to add a bit more salt to taste. Pilau holds very well, which makes it a party/picnic/potluck favorite. You can make it ahead of time, freeze it if you need to, and reheat it in the oven or a microwave.

Pilau is very easy to make, but I do have a few tips for sure-fire success. First of all, whatever you do, don’t stir the rice as it’s cooking. You can fluff it with a fork, but if you stir it, it will turn mushy—and you want separate, firm grains of rice, not risotto. Ideally, you shouldn’t even take the lid off to take a peek until at least 20 minutes have gone by. There is very little liquid in this recipe, so the rice essentially steams in the pot. But the rice will only cook if the lid is on and the steam has built up inside the pot. So sit back and relax, have a nice glass of wine, and resist the urge to poke at the rice.

You should also resist the urge to add more liquid. You will look at the single small can of tomatoes and you will look at all the rice and you will think that there’s no way on earth the rice will ever cook (I’ve made this recipe a lot, and I still have trouble believing it). But it does cook—it really, really does. If you start adding more liquid, you won’t get the firm, dry texture you’re looking for. Have faith in the steam!

If, at the end of 30 minutes or so, you find your rice is still very hard, then you can add a few tablespoons of water and cover the pot again to create more steam. But you’ll get better results if you stick to the single can of tomatoes and keep the pot covered for as long as it takes the rice to cook. If you feel you actually have too much liquid, you can dry out the pilau by keeping the pot over a low heat and cracking the lid to let the steam escape. And if you really want a moister dish, then add more liquid when you add the tomatoes—but then you won’t have any excuse to smother your pilau in yummy mango chutney.

And finally, some rice will stick to the bottom of the pot. It’s inevitable. If you’ve cooked the pilau over a very low heat, you may wind up with golden crusty bits that you can eat. Unfortunately, I usually wind up with carbonized black bits that don’t taste very nice at all. This is no big deal; just avoid scraping the very bottom of the pot when you serve the pilau—which may be hard, since it tastes so good you’ll want to eat every last bit!