Fragrant saffron and sweet onions make this Persian-style chicken and rice a feast for the senses

G Daniela Galarza

THE WASHINGTON POST – Many years ago, one of my uncles – known for his mischievous grin and active eyebrows – worked in St Petersburg for some time and came back with tales equal parts true and tall. I call this one The Saffron Dealer: At one point during his stay abroad, my uncle met a man who sold incredibly high-quality saffron at an unbeatable price.

My uncle said he would buy “big bags” of the delicate crimson threads – “As cheap as salt!” he’d shout as he told the story – and “throw handfuls” of them into everything he cooked: eggs, soup, souffles, ice cream.

He’d host parties late into the night with his friends and lay out a table full of saffron-spiked stews and rice dishes.

The whole room would practically glow golden, filled with the lightly floral, grassy perfume of saffron. And the night would end in boisterous laughter and squeals, my uncle said, “because eating lots of saffron makes you laugh”.

Memory is mutable, but that last line has lived in my mind for decades, supported, in part, by the gentle happiness I feel whenever I cook with saffron. I’ll never be able to “throw handfuls” of the precious, expensive spice into anything, but I do enjoy cooking with a pinch of it from time to time.

If you don’t have saffron, that’s all right, you can make this recipe for Persian-style chicken and rice without it. But if you do, use it. You deserve something special.

Adas Polo o Morgh (Persian-style lentil rice with chicken). PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

This recipe is based on an Iranian rice dish called adas polo, literally “lentil rice”: Basmati rice is steamed with lentils, scented with cumin, cinnamon and saffron and tossed with caramelised onions, golden raisins and sticky dates. The savoury and sweet dish is great on its own, but it is often served with chicken.

When I came across Samin Nosrat’s recipe for Adas Polo o Morgh in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, I was inspired to riff on her riff, and ended up with this: a one-pot chicken and rice dish, fragrant with saffron, caramelised onions and dried fruit, with tender boneless, skinless chicken thighs that plump up as they steam with the spiced rice and lentils. Although it’s a meal made in one pot, it makes use of three crucial techniques:

For tender rice: Rinse the rice and lentils, and then soak them in hot water. This jump-starts the cooking process and ensures the grains cook evenly.

A quicker way to caramelised onions: Over high heat, quickly brown and crisp thinly sliced onions in butter or ghee. This takes only 10 to 15 minutes, much less time than if you cook them low and slow.

For fluffy grains: Swaddle the pot lid with a kitchen towel, as described in the recipe below, for supremely fluffy, rather than soggy, rice.

ADAS POLO O MORGH (PERSIAN-STYLE LENTIL RICE WITH CHICKEN)

Adas polo, or lentil rice, is an Iranian rice dish that’s scented with cumin and saffron and tossed or topped with caramelised onions, plump raisins and sweet dates. It can be a meal in itself, no meat required, but it’s often served with chicken.

In this version, thinly sliced onions brown and crisp quickly in ghee or butter before raisins and dates are added. Then, you’ll brown tender boneless, skinless chicken thighs before steaming them with the lentils and rice.

Sprinkle lots of crispy onions and sweet raisins and dates on each serving. You can use any cut of chicken here, but other cuts may take longer to cook. The instructions below explain a technique common in Iranian cooking: Wrap the lid of the pot you use in a clean dish towel. It will absorb excess steam, ensuring supremely fluffy rice.

Make ahead: The onion, dates and raisins can be made up to two days in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container; warm in the microwave or in a small pan over low heat before serving.

INGREDIENTS

One cup basmati rice

Half cup brown lentils, rinsed

Four to six boneless, chicken thighs

Two teaspoons kosher salt, divided

Quarter teaspoon ground black pepper

Six tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter

One medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

Half cup raisins, preferably golden

Five dates, preferably Medjool, pitted and quartered (optional)

Three-and-one-third cups water

Half teaspoon ground cumin

Quarter teaspoon ground cinnamon

Two pinches saffron

DIRECTIONS

In a medium bowl, combine the rice and lentils. Using very hot tap water, rinse the grains three or four times, or until the water runs almost clear. Cover the rice and lentils with very hot water and set aside to soak.

Place the chicken thighs on a plate or tray and sprinkle one teaspoon of salt and the pepper evenly on both sides. Set aside, at room temperature, to allow the seasoning to permeate the meat.

In a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot with a lid over high heat, melt four tablespoons of the ghee or butter. Add the onion and cook, stirring often with a wooden spoon to prevent any spots from burning, until crisp and deep brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the raisins and dates, if using, allowing them to soften, about two minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer the onion and raisin mixture to a small bowl.

Return the pot to high heat. Add the chicken thighs, arranging them in a single layer across the bottom of the pot, and cook until browned, two to three minutes on each side. (The chicken will not be cooked through.) Lower the heat to medium. Using tongs, transfer the chicken to a plate.

Drain the rice and lentils and add them to the pot along with the water, the remaining two tablespoons of ghee or butter, one teaspoon of salt, the cumin, cinnamon, if using, and saffron. Increase the heat to high and, using a wooden spoon, gently stir to ensure the spices are well incorporated. Bring the rice mixture to a boil.

Meanwhile, wrap the lid of the pot in a clean dish towel, preferably one that’s waffle-knit or terry cloth, securing it to the handle with a knot or rubber band so the edge of it won’t be in danger of catching flame. This is essential: The towel will absorb steam as the rice cooks. Nestle the chicken thighs atop the rice and lentils. Tightly cover the pot with the swaddled lid and lower the heat to medium-low. Steam the rice, lentils and chicken until cooked, tender and all of the liquid has been absorbed, fluffing with a fork once or twice, 40 to 45 minutes.

Toss some of the onion and raisin mixture with the rice and chicken and serve hot, with the remaining onion and raisin mixture on the side.

Nutrition (based on six servings)

Calories: 577; Total Fat: 25g; Saturated Fat: 12g; Cholesterol: 27mg; Sodium: 725mg; Carbohydrates: 73g; Dietary Fibre: 9g; Sugars: 23g; Protein: 17g.