If you grew up in the United States, chances are you've eaten those boxes of Rice-a-Roni with the combination of rice and noodles. It came with a mysterious sauce/flavor packet, was easy to make and totally irresistible. Although my mother wasn't a big fan of box mixes, she sometimes gave in to my childhood requests and served it as a side dish to her baked or broiled chicken. Well, this American classic is really a Middle Eastern standard. Typically referred to as Lebanese rice, it's probably the most common rice side dish throughout the Middle East.
The hallmark of the dish is the toasted broken bits of vermicelli pasta. Some use olive oil, others clarified butter (ghee) but, either way, it's very important to get the pasta crispy but not burned. It's a fine line and you need to watch your noodles carefully. But the deeper the color, the nuttier the flavor. And when the dish is done, some of the harder, more brown bits at the bottom of the pot are considered the cook's treat. I was once at a Yemenite family gathering where this dish was served and a little boy became upset that some of the very crispy noodles had ended up on his plate. He saw it as a bad thing while all the adults quickly came to his rescue and relieved him of the delicious brown bits.
The biggest question when it comes to this recipe is whether or not to soak the rice ahead of time. Purists will tell you it is a must and you also need to massage the grains of rice between your fingers to get some of the starch off and ensure a fluffier finished product. I'm...um...a little lazy...so I don't always bother. Don't tell anybody.
In any event, once done you have a perfect canvas to add some additional flavors. Herbs like chopped parsley add a nice freshness and toasted pine nuts bring a great crunch.
- 1 1/2 Cups medium grain (not quick cooking) rice
- 1/2 Cup vermicelli pasta, broken to small pieces
- 1/4 Cup butter
- 2 1/4 Cups water
- Salt and to taste
Add the butter and vermicelli to a large saute pan or pot that has a tight fitting lid. Brown the noodles, stirring often, and be careful not to burn them. Add the rice and water to the pot and bring to a boil. Cover, bring the heat down to low, and simmer for about 20 minutes or until the water is absorbed and the rice is tender.
Fluff with a fork and serve as a side dish to fish, chicken or beef.