What do you eat when you’re celebrating? Soup dumplings? Prime rib? A tower of cream puffs festooned with spun sugar? In Uzbekistan, the answer is rice pilaf, no question.
Known as plov (or osh), Uzbekistan’s fragrant combination of savory spiced rice, tender meat, and velvety carrots studded with tangy, garnet-colored dried barberries is piled high on a platter and garnished with a head of spreadably soft garlic. The ultimate expression of generosity, community, and national identity, plov is prepared at every feast by a master of the art, known as an oshpaz, who cooks in a huge wok-shaped cauldron called a kazan and may serve hundreds of guests from a single batch.
Uzbekistani home cooks make plov, too, but on a smaller scale. The process starts with sautéing loads of onions and carrots in a large pot. Then some spices (cumin, coriander, and black pepper), salt, and barberries are tossed in. Chunks of beef or lamb are added and cooked for a bit before water is added to almost cover the meat. A head of garlic is plunked in the center, the pot is covered, and everything is cooked over moderate heat until the meat is almost tender. Then comes the rice.
Typically, cooks smooth the rice (a long-grain variety) into an even layer over the stew and then crank up the heat. The goal is to bring the flavorful liquid to a hard boil so that it is forced through the rice to flavor it without disturbing the dish’s distinct layers. Cooks then lower the heat, cover the pot, and let the rice finish cooking.
And therein lies the challenge of plov: The meat must turn tender at the exact time the rice is cooked and the moisture has evaporated or been absorbed, leaving the pot neither scorched nor flooded.
Multiple tries left me with over- or undercooked beef (I used boneless short ribs), sodden or crunchy rice, and a crusted pot—not to mention mushy carrots and dull flavor. I’d have to find my own way.
My first changes were simple, starting with searing the beef. This created a rich fond that would flavor the rice, making the dish beefy from top to bottom. I did the searing in a saucepan, not a Dutch oven, knowing that the Dutch oven’s broad surface would cause swifter evaporation, making it more difficult to cook the rice later. Then I transferred the meat to a plate and added the onions to the saucepan; their moisture handily loosened the fond from the bottom.
I followed with the carrots, but instead of cutting them into chunks and adding them all at once—which guarantees they’ll turn pulpy—I grated the largest one and added it to the saucepan with minced garlic, cumin, and coriander. The grated carrot would meld into the dish over the course of cooking, distributing its sweetness throughout. I cut the remainder into batons that I would add later, so they’d retain their shape.
I stirred in half the barberries with the aromatics and spices and reserved the rest for scattering over the finished dish. Then I returned the seared beef to the saucepan along with enough water to submerge it halfway, placed a head of garlic in the center (see “Garlic Makes It Plov”), covered the saucepan, and let everything simmer on the stovetop. A little over an hour later, I fished out the meat (to prevent it from overcooking) and the head of garlic, setting them aside while I added the carrot batons and rice, which I spread evenly over the top.
Per tradition, I turned up the heat to infuse the rice with meaty, savory goodness and then turned it down and covered the saucepan. While the rice cooked, I cut the short ribs into cubes and then folded them back into the mixture when the rice was about half cooked.
My plov was a success: The grated carrot had flavored the dish and then melded into the mixture, while the chunkier pieces were tender but intact. The minced garlic and barberries had depth and zing, and the meat and rice were perfectly cooked.
But here’s a nugget of test kitchen insight: A recipe that works once doesn’t necessarily work consistently. I couldn’t reliably repeat my success. Sometimes the moisture evaporated too soon, leaving the rice hard and the saucepan scorched, and adding more water often made the pilaf soggy.
The funny thing about rice is that though it has a reputation for being finicky, it’s actually predictable in that it always absorbs water in a 1:1 ratio by volume. What is finicky is how much water evaporates during cooking, since that can vary depending on the heat level, the diameter of your saucepan, and how tightly its lid fits. It seemed to me that the key to solving the plov challenge was controlling evaporation.
So I made three more changes. First, instead of cranking the heat to push the flavorful liquid up through the rice, I stirred the rice and carrots into the stew and gently simmered the rice so that it would cook more slowly and evenly. Second, I crimped a piece of foil over the saucepan before adding the lid to ensure a tight seal. Last, I moved the braising step to the oven; its steady, even heat would be the best defense against erratic evaporation (and the fact that the plov could cook unattended was a happy bonus).
These changes enabled me to turn out batch after batch of perfect plov. I piled the last batch on a platter, sprinkled it with the reserved barberries, and finished it with sliced scallions. Finally, I added the garlic head that marked it as Uzbekistan’s favorite feast food. I was in the mood to celebrate.