Okay, so you know that thing where you look for a recipe, and then it gives you a giant story about what this recipe means and everything, and you’re like, that’s great, but I really just wanted to know if this needs eggs, because I’m in the supermarket right now? I’m gonna try not to do that. I’m putting the recipe right at the top, and then all my notes after, along with tweaks I usually make. I’m including both the original recipe as well as what I actually do because I am a lazy person who doesn’t cook much. (0)

Recipe as Written (thanks, mom)

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 bunch of fresh spinach, washed with stems removed (just leaves), chopped – not too fine, just chopped a little
  • 6 green onions, chopped
  • 2 stalks of celery, diced
  • 2 clove of garlic, minced
  • 2 -4 grated carrots
  • 2 cups white rice, uncooked
  • 3 cans vegetable broth (approx 42 oz or ~1250ml)
  • some grated cheddar cheese
  • some parsley
  • salt and pepper

In a large pot, heat the oil, and then add spinach, onions, celery, garlic, and carrots. Cook over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring constantly.

Add rice.  Cook 5 minutes more.  Just as the rice begins to stick, add broth, and add salt and pepper to taste.

Cover and cook over low heat for 20+ minutes more, or until rice is done.  Add parsley.  Top with grated cheddar cheese.

(This is pretty much what she wrote, except I added in conversion for the vegetable broth, which, let me tell you, was fun to do the first time. “Okay, wait, we don’t have cans up in Canada! We have… boxes? And also small tins of powder? Okay, one can is 14 ounces, the Internet says that that’s around 400 millileters, so three cans would be 1200 ml, I just wanted to make dinner for my family, why do I have to do math?”

I also took out the part where she told me, over email, where my Oscar food processor was, because she was that sure I didn’t know where it would be. Oh, and also I added that you need salt and pepper, because the first time I made this, I got through making the pilaf to the step with the pepper, which hadn’t appeared in the list of ingredients, and freaked out because I didn’t have any pepper. And like on one hand, yes, it is probably a fair assumption that one’s home has pepper in it, on the other hand, I don’t use pepper normally, because I very rarely eat something and then go, “Gosh, I wish I could add something to this that tasted like tree bark that caught fire and was angry about it.”)

What I Actually Do

This is what I actually do, because a) it’s easier, and b) because there’s stuff that my kids do and don’t like to eat.

  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • get one of those boxes of spinach and grab, like, two big handfuls,
  • 6 green onions
  • A LOT of minced garlic — 4 or 5 big spoonfuls (or a full bulb of garlic, if that’s how you roll)
  • Either a couple handfuls of baby carrots or a big handful of shredded carrots
  • Half a bag of one of those pre-made slaws you get in a bag — kale slaw, broccoli slaw, something like that, ideally something kinda bitter
  • 2 cups rice of your choice (I do multi-grain or wild or some nice Uncle Ben’s bag)
  • A package of seitan (or some other protein)
  • 3 cans vegetable broth (approx 42 oz or ~1250ml)
  • Like half a bag of shredded cheddar cheese
  • Parsley if your mother is coming to visit, otherwise nah

Chop up basically everything that seems choppable.

Heat the oil in a big pot while you do this, so it’s ready when you’re done chopping stuff. Chop the spinach. You don’t have to do it a ton, because spinach shirinks down when you cook it, but chopping it up makes you feel less like you’re cheating by getting the spinach in a box instead of buying it fresh or pulling it from the ground yourself in your backyard. Chop up the green onions, too, and do the same with whatever kind of slaw you got, and the baby carrots, if you got them instead of getting the shredded carrots like someone as lazy as I am. Chop up the seitan or other protein if you got it, too.

Heat that stuff up.

Put all of that in the pot with the oil and cook it over low heat for 20 minutes, stirring continuously. (2)

Rice. More stirring.

Pour in the rice. Keep stirring for another five minutes, or until the rice starts to stick to the pot, whichever comes first. (3)

Broth, cover, and hope.

Pour in the broth. Stir it all together for a bit, add salt and pepper to taste, which for me means a few good shakes of the salt shaker and a tiny little sprinkle of pepper that I will deny putting it when my kids ask. Cover the pot and cook for about 20 minutes, or however long it takes you to cook that kind of rice normally. (4)

“Done” for the pilaf means that when you take the cover off, it steams satisfactorily, and the rice is still a little moist or whatever, but there’s no standing water left at the bottom of the pot. If there are burnt crispy bits on the bottom, you may be thinking, ‘Oh no, I have screwed it up!”, but actually you have been blessed by the Burnt Crispy Bits Fairy, because those are the best part.

  • Tired: Fighting over getting the most cheese on your pilaf.
  • Wired: Fighting over who gets the most burnt crispy bits on your pilaf.

Cheese, wait a couple minutes, eat it.

Put on enough cheese to cover the pilaf. Wait a couple of minutes for the cheese to melt. Then scoop that stuff onto a plate (or into a shallow bowl) and go wild.

(It’s probably gonna be hot, so try to eat it from the outside. Also may need more salt. I mean, probably will need more salt. But it’s pretty salty all on its own, and it’s easier for you to add a little yourself than for someone who thinks there’s too much salt to get the extra salt out.)


Random Pilaf Facts

Apparently it’s from South Asia, according to Wikipedia? I was today years old when I learned this. This is not in any way a bad thing. I just honestly grew up in white-bread America and assumed everything we ate that wasn’t labeled “(Culture) Food” was either Basic-American or Irish-American. I will have to ask my mom where she got the recipe — it might be a little fringe benefit of the San Francisco Bay Area being diverse, or maybe it just came from a cookbook. (I should probably also ask about the Potatoes Romanoff, too, because Romanoff doesn’t sound like an Irish name.)

I made the recipe by rote the first few times I did it, and then gradually realized that this meal was less an untouchable work of art meant to be performed like a kata than it was “the vegetables we had left over from other meals we made earlier in the week, chopped up and thrown in with some rice and broth.” I am, again, not someone who really cooks, so I am not going to wax rhapsodical about the spiritual power of making food and how it ties us together and all that, because that’s for people who cook. But: when I was a kid, this was the meal that made the whole house warm and left me feeling full, and when I realized that it was throwing the old vegetables into a pot and not fine cuisine, it was a revelation, like hey, I am actually making food for the family, and my family doesn’t eat much celery, but we eat a lot of broccoli, so what if I throw that in instead? It was the moment that I understood the rule well enough to know how to break it. I knew how to feed my family! I was carrying on tradition in the real way, rather by rote! I looked into the clouds and saw my grandmother smiling down at me like Kate Beckinsale at the end of Van Helsing, or, you know, Mufasa, if that’s where you were going! Anyway, it makes me proud whenever I make it.

When I was a kid, there was no protein in the pilaf, and we’d have it with chicken. (And the broth was chicken, not vegetable. My mother first tried to convince me to eat it anyway after I went vegetarian, and then she switched to vegetable broth and worried that it wouldn’t taste the same, in case you were wondering where I got my “carefully follows instructions” bits from. But she also changed it so that her grown-up kid could have their favorite childhood meal.) If you’re not vegetarian, mix it up as you like. I like throwing the protein in rather than having it on the side, though, because again, I cannot stress this enough, I am very lazy, and if you do it this way, you’re making everything in one pot.

0: Let me just get out ahead of this. Some of you may be reading this and getting ready to dunk on me for not being able to cook. Joke’s on you, I am fully aware that I can’t cook and get confused easily about what specifically “Low Heat” means and don’t always know whether to use the wooden spoon or the metal spoon, but I can make this, and it’s good!

1: I’m not sure why the vegetables need to be bitter, but I tried it without bitter vegetables, and it tasted not-great. Maybe because the dish is really really salty, and the bitterness cuts that back a little bit? Listen, if you wanted actual cooking theory, you would be reading someone else’s website. I don’t cook. I basically just follow directions, except for how I’ve tweaked things because I am, again, very tired a lot of the time and pretty lazy even at the times I’m not tired, and like, yes, I could chop all those vegetables in the Oscar food processor that you think is in the cabinet near the sink, Mom, but we actually gave the Oscar to Goodwill years ago because we are so, so, so tired, we’re not “regularly make complex meals” people, and look, we got the kids to eat broccoli, okay? Broccoli. It’s healthy. The kids are okay with it. That’s a win. We’re doing what we can, Mom.

2: Okay, holy crap, twenty minutes is a long-ass time to stir something continuously. I thought stirring continuously was, like, metaphorical, and it really meant “stir it, then go check Twitter, then come back and stir it again a little, then sit on the couch for a few, you know — you’re feedng your family, so practice self care!” But no. You’re apparently supposed to stir that stuff the whole damn time, which is an astonishingly good workout for your forearms. Back when she was cooking dinner every night for the family, Mom could probably have snapped a grown man’s neck with her bare hands.

3: I added “whatever comes first,” which I hope is right. My mom’s instructions just said “or until,” and I’m like, wait, is this a Boolean AND or a Boolean OR? What happens if it’s not sticky at five minutes? Why is this recipe not written in javascript? I need structure. All those people who are like, “I bought Legos from the big bin at the back of the store, and then I took them home and just built something from my imagination,” and stuff? I am not like that. If I want chaos and uncertainty, I have literally the entire rest of my life for that. When I build stuff with Legos or try to cook, I want to know that if I follow the instructions and remember my safeword, I will be rewarded for my good behavior.

4: One time either before Karin and I were married or shortly after, we were visiting her parents for Thanksgiving, and everyone was doing something for the meal, and I offered to make apple pie, because it’s one of like three things I know how to bake, and it’s my mom’s apple pie, which means it is the best apple pie in the world. They were delighted, and I got to work, and then Karin’s dad saw me following the instructions and delicately asked if I wanted to add more water to the recipe, and I was like, “The INSTRUCTIONS say to use this much,” (see (3)), and hey, it turns out that pastry comes together differently in the high-altitude dry air of the mountains east of Albuquerque, New Mexico than it does in the sea-level humidity of San Francisco, California, which is the only place I had ever made the apple pie before, and this isn’t one of those open-faced deals, you have to get the top crust on there right, and it fell apart badly, and Karin kept wanting to help, and her dad just took her shoulder and said, “No, they need to do this,” and long story short, we had apple crumble for Thanksgiving, and it was fine, and I learned a valuable lesson about adjusting cooking times and temperature for where you live.