I first tasted kalam polo in Shiraz, where I was told it is the specialty of the city. Normally, I am not a big fan of cooked cabbage, but here it is light, fragrant with turmeric, saffron, cumin and it blends perfectly with the rice and meat. The pilaf is refined and just delicious. I ordered it at an art café, and although the portions were enormous, I licked the plate clean. Their version had a garnish of pickled red cabbage which provided just the right acidic and crunchy contrast to the pilaf. To reproduce the recipe at home, I checked out my two Iranian cookbooks but was disappointed with the recipes. Najmieh’s recipe included lots of tomatoes (and I did not taste any tomatoes in the Shiraz one) and Margaret Shaida’s recipe was rather short and only had one teaspoon of dill in the entire pilaf. Here is my version, which is a combo of what I found out there online, and my recollection of the taste. In this dish, the cabbage gets cooked first separately (panfried) and in doing so, its volume shrinks by at least one half. So no need to skimp on cabbage!
Prep Time: 90 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Passive Time: 30 minutes
3 cups Basmati rice, soaked in water and one tablespoon salt for one hour or longer
3/4 pound of ground beef mixed with one small chopped onion and salt and pepper to taste
1 whole head of cabbage, sliced thin and cut into 1 1/2 inch slices, minus 3 large leaves (pick the ones on the outer edge); the leaves will be set aside to encase the polo.
OR 1 1/2 pound kohlrabi, peeled and sliced thin in 1 1/2 “ sticks
1 tablespoon turmeric, divided
3 cups of chopped herbs (such as dill, chopped green onions, parsley, etc)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons advieh for rice (see Note)
salt, black pepper
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup clarified butter
1/2 tsp saffron, ground-up in a mortar and soaked in 1/2 cup hot water
Note: Advieh for rice is made-up of equal parts cinnamon and cumin (say 2 Tbsp), 1 Tbsp cardamom and rose powder. Mix thoroughly and use as needed in the pilaf.
Even though kalam polo is made using cabbage as the main vegetable, I have seen it done in Shiraz with kohlrabi as well (which is a part of the cabbage family anyway). So either one would work just fine, or even both!
The rice comes out yellow due to the addition of turmeric. The pilaf is speckled with green due to the addition of fresh herbs and chopped scallions. The cabbage or kohlrabi are panfried and doused with spices such as cumin, which totally removes the heavy cabbage taste.
The idea to cover the bottom of the nonstick pot with a few large leaves of blanched cabbage was so that I could flip the pot and avoid the rice sticking to it. It turned out pretty and I will keep doing it!
This recipe consists of several steps:
- Shaping the meatballs: Using a small cookie scoop, shape the meatballs as small as possible (the size of large hazelnuts). Over medium heat, pour a tablespoon of oil in a large skillet and brown the meatballs for a few minutes. Remove them with a perforated spoon and set them aside.
- Add a couple more tablespoons of oil, and brown the onion and shredded cabbage, stirring them frequently to prevent them burning; you will find the cabbage shrinking in size by half, and taking on a nice caramelized taste and losing its strong cabbage odor. Sprinkle half the spices and stir to blend them well with the vegetables. Add the chopped herbs and stir for a couple of minutes. Transfer the meatballs back into the skillet and blend gently with the veggies.
- Now is the time to parboil the rice: Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil in a nonstick pot, add a tablespoon of salt, and 1 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric, and drop the drained rice gently; stir briefly and let the rice boil for about 4 minutes; remove one or two grains and feel them: the grains need to be soft on the outside but still not fully cooked. They will continue cooking slowly during the steaming process. Immediately drain the pot into a colander set over a large bowl. Rinse the rice with tap water to stop the cooking and cool it a bit.
- Recycle the rice cooking water by bringing it back to a boil, and blanching the large cabbage leaves for a few seconds until limp. Drain the pot and gently take out the cabbage leaves trying not to tear them if possible and flatten them on a cutting board.
- To assemble the polo: Pour 1/2 the saffron water and 1/2 the clarified butter into the pot and set over medium heat. Place the cabbage leaves to cover the bottom of the pot and start adding the rice and meatballs/cabbage alternating or mixing them up gently. Finish with the rice and poke holes into the rice with the handle of a wooden spoon, all the way to the bottom. Pour the remainder of the saffron water and clarified butter, and some extra water (about 1/2 cup- best to use the skillet bits left over mixed with tap water). Cook for 10 minutes or until steam starts escaping from the pot. Reduce the heat to very low and cover the pot with the lid covered with a towel to seal the steam inside. Steam the rice for about 40 minutes, checking halfway to see if it needs a bit more water or butter.
- Turn off the heat and let it rest a few minutes. Flip it over on a serving plate and serve immediately with yogurt sauce on the side or yogurt drink or pickled red cabbage or turnips.
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