Stuck-Pot Rice with Potato Crust

MAKES: 4 to 6 servings

TIME: 11/2 hours, largely unattended

This is the first of these types of dishes I learned how to make (with thanks to the late great food writer Paula Peck). Potatoes provide the crust here, complemented by the bright flavors of fennel and saffron. If fennel isn’t available (or isn’t your thing), use celery or neither or try one of the variations.

Salt

11/2 cups white or brown basmati rice

Freshly ground black pepper

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter or 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Large pinch saffron threads (optional)

1 large or 2 small waxy potatoes, like Yukon Gold or other thin-skinned variety

1 medium fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil and salt it. Stir in the rice and return to a boil, then lower the heat so the water bubbles along nicely. Cook undisturbed white rice for about 5 minutes, brown rice for about 15 minutes. Drain and set aside. Taste (the rice will be only partially done), add salt if necessary, and sprinkle with pepper.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a small bowl or pot (or just put the oil in) and stir in the saffron if you’re using it. Peel the potatoes and cut crosswise into thin slices.

Put the remaining butter or oil in a large, heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat. Add the fennel, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 2 minutes. Remove and turn off the heat.

Add 1/4 cup water and the saffron mixture (or the plain melted butter or oil) to the pot. Carefully cover the bottom of the pan with a layer of potato slices. Add half the rice, then the fennel, and finally the other half of the rice. Wrap a clean kitchen towel around the lid of the pot so that the corners are on top and don’t fall anywhere near the stove and cover the pot. Turn the heat to medium-high. When you hear the water spattering about 5 minutes turn the heat down to very low. Cook, completely undisturbed, for about 45 minutes, or until the potatoes start to smell toasty you will know but not burned. Remove from the heat and let sit for another 5 minutes.

Carefully remove the lid and the cloth and turn the pot upside down over a large plate. If the potatoes come out in a single crust, terrific. If not, use a spatula to scrape the pieces out of the pan and put them on top of the rice. Serve immediately, sprinkled with a bit of salt and pepper if you like.

Variations

Stuck-Pot Rice with Lima Beans. Replace the saffron with 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill or 1 tablespoon dried. Instead of the fennel, use 11/2 cups lima beans (fresh or frozen). Everything else stays the same.

Stuck-Pot Rice with Lemon and Herbs. Brighter in flavor: Instead of saffron, use 1/2 cup minced mild fresh herbs—like parsley, mint, or a combination—or 1 teaspoon minced strong herb leaves, like tarragon, thyme, or rosemary, or a couple teaspoons of oregano or marjoram. Use 2 thinly sliced lemons (peels and all) instead of the fennel and proceed with the recipe from Step 3.

Stuck-Pot Red Rice with Aromatic Vegetables. Instead of brown rice, use red rice. Replace the fennel with 2 carrots and 1 stalk celery, all thinly sliced.

Stuck-Pot Rice with Almonds, Sesame Seeds, and Ginger. Omit the saffron. Instead of the fennel, cook a mixture of 1/2 cup sliced almonds, 2 tablespoons sesame seeds, and 2 tablespoons minced peeled fresh ginger. (It will take 3 or 4 minutes to soften and get fragrant.)