Even as a boy growing up in the Midwest, I was interested in food and cooking. Supermarket expeditions to the local A&P were entertaining.
I had a working knowledge of our shopping list, and could be relied on to track down my family's pantry staples. Our meals were fairly predictable, and my mother's repertory was limited.
Rice came in an orange box that promised perfection every time. It could be served plain, but the rice itself had no particular flavor. We liked to turn it into pilaf, which required adding two foil packets of dehydrated soup: French onion and chicken noodle.
During summer months, we drove out to a farm stand for fresh-picked green beans, cabbage and fat ears of sweet corn. Corn on the cob was a seasonal treat; otherwise, our vegetables were canned or frozen for the most part.
Things changed considerably when I ventured out into the world and began to rub elbows with cooks operating on a different plane, folks who lived to eat and loved to prowl for provisions. In San Francisco, I met Niloufer Ichaporia King, who became a friend and mentor. She took me under her wing and shared an abundance of wisdom gleaned from kitchens in her native Bombay, today's Mumbai.
Rice, I discovered, could have real flavor, especially basmati rice, which had a sweet fragrance and delicate texture. We would traipse off to the Indian grocery to get the best aged basmati, then wash it carefully and let it soak for a half-hour before cooking. Corn, I learned, was as beloved in India as in North America, and it could come off the cob to go into a pilaf (or pulao, as she called it), enhanced with whole spices - clove, cardamom and cumin. Did I know about the many types of raita, a sauce made with yogurt, the perfect accompaniment for so many Indian dishes? I happily chopped by her side as she cooked dish after incredible dish from memory.
The other night, after the sun had set on a particularly sweltering day, I made a version of the corn pilaf. Though it might have been good with roast chicken or grilled chops, a lighter meatless meal seemed a better choice. So the rice was served with a vibrant green salad, a platter of sliced ripe tomatoes and a cooling bowl of that raita on the side.
SPICED BASMATI RICE AND SWEET CORN PILAF
Time: 1 hour; yield: 6 generous servings.
2 cups basmati rice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter or ghee
2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
8 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
2 cardamom pods
1 large onion, diced (about 2 cups)
3 cups fresh corn kernels (about 6 ears corn)
1 cup golden raisins
2 cups chicken broth or water
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped scallions
1/4 cup roasted cashews (optional)
Put rice in a medium bowl and cover with cold water. Swish with fingers, then pour off water. Repeat 2 or 3 times, until water runs clear. Cover again with cold water and soak 20 minutes, then drain.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter or ghee in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Add garlic, ginger, turmeric, saffron, coriander, cumin, cloves, peppercorns and cardamom, and stir to coat. Let sizzle a bit, then add onion and cook, stirring, until softened and beginning to color, about 5 minutes. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter or ghee, the rice and the corn, and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook for 1 minute.
Add raisins and 2 cups broth or water and bring to a brisk simmer. Taste cooking liquid for salt and adjust if necessary.
Cover with tightfitting lid, turn heat to low and let cook 15 minutes. Let rest 10 to 15 minutes off heat. Fluff rice and transfer to serving bowl. Sprinkle with cilantro, scallions and cashews, if desired.
Serve with yogurt raita (see attached box).