Zafrani Kofta Pulao: Saffron and Caramelized Onion Pilaf with Meatballs

Zafrani Kofta Pualo

Laden with the perfume of the saffron and fresh mint, this indeed is a regal dish to savor.  If you are willing to deviate a little from the traditional meal planning for the holidays, this is for you. Fragrant Basmati rice is interlaced with the caramelized onions and the tender, subtly spiced koftas.

As we march forward towards the holidays, a lot of us must already have planned out the menu for the upcoming feasts, while some like me are still contemplating and building.

We do not celebrate Thanksgiving with the traditional American menu. Instead I incorporate the flavors of the season in the menu and cook some of  our favorites. This might as well become a part of the Thanksgiving meal; sure a non traditional one, but good and satiating.

Zafrani Kofta pulao/pilaf

Pulaos or spiced and flavored rice are few of the easiest things to do and depending on what spices and additional ingredients go in there, they can be a treat fit to serve the king. Pualo/Pilaf in India is usually treated as a main dish enjoyed with a fresh salad  and a side of raita/spiced yogurt condiment.

Zafrani Kofta Pulao/Pilaf

It can be a everyday meal cooked in a less complicated way with few vegetables or beans, or a lavish one like this one.

Yes I have jumped on to the holiday bandwagon. One cannot do otherwise with two bubbling kids at home, who are already planning the future; snow, Christmas gifts and Santa Claus.

And we have planned a big surprise for them during the Thanksgiving, but cannot write about it here yet! Besides someone is turning 6 soon, and cannot hold the excitement in. So we got really busy all of a sudden.

Don’t let the long list of ingredients and procedure intimidate you. This dish is really easy to make.It is almost like a one pot meal since the koftas can be made ahead of time or even the day before. The onions can be caramelized a day before too.

Zafrani Kofta Pulao /Pilaf

All you do to make the koftas are combine the ingredients and cook them. These koftas make fantastic appetizers, with some mint and coriander chutney, or may be part of the main meal as in this recipe today or just over rice with a side salad. They may be even wrapped in flatbreads. There are innumerable ways to have them.

I have written elaborate instructions to make the pulao as it is very important to have the grains stay separate for the right feel and look of the recipe. However, every different kind of rice (even if they are all Basmati) behaves differently. So pay close attention the first time and keep these instructions as a simple guideline only.

Zafrani Kofta Pulao

Zafrani Kofta Pulao:  Saffron and Caramelized Onion Pilaf with Meatballs

Ingredients: (serves 4 as an entree)

For the Kofta: (makes approx. 25-30, a little smaller than walnut size koftas)

  1. 1 lb minced meat, any meat you prefer * (see note below)
  2. 2 tablespoons grated onion
  3. 2 tablespoon finely chopped onion
  4. 1 – 2 tablespoons garlic paste or finely minced garlic (adjust to taste)
  5. 1 tablespoon ginger paste
  6. 6-8 hot green chili pepper (like Thai Bird), very thinly sliced
  7. 3 tablespoon sour cream or heavy cream or greek yogurt
  8. 2-3 teaspoons dried mint
  9. 3/4 tablespoon garam masala
  10. 1/2 teaspoon ajwain /carom seeds, crushed (optional)
  11. 3.5 tablespoon corn flour/corn starch (the powder form, not the syrup)
  12. about 15 turns of freshly ground black pepper
  13. 1 teaspoon red chili powder or paprika  or cayenne (or to taste)
  14. 25-30 Sultana/large golden raisins
  15. salt to taste
  16. 2 teaspoon oil + 2 tablespoon oil

*Note: I have used minced chicken here. You can use any minced meat. But do keep in mind that the cooking time will vary with different kind of meat and may not be exactly the same as mentioned in the recipe here. So please adjust.

For Caramelized Onions:

  1. 3-4 medium onions, or 5 cups sliced (very thinly sliced in half moons)
  2. 3.5 tablespoons ghee/or melted butter
  3. 1 teaspoon sugar
  4. salt to taste

*Note: Please do not allow the amount of onion intimidate you, for after they are cooked they will reduce to one fourth of the amount.

For the Pulao/Pilaf:

  1. 3 cups Basmati rice, uncooked
  2. 4 tablespoon ghee/melted butter
  3. 1″ stick cinnamon
  4. 4 small green cardamom
  5. 1 large black cardamom
  6. 4 cloves
  7. 2 teaspoon red chili powder/paprika/cayenne (or to taste)
  8. few green hot chili peppers, sliced  (to taste)
  9. 1/2 teaspoon very good quality saffron + 2 tablespoons warm milk
  10. salt to taste
  11. about 10 turns of freshly ground black pepper
  12. 1/2 cup shredded fresh mint leaves
  13. slivered almonds (optional)
  14. caramelized onions (recipe to follow)
  15. 5 cups + 3/4 cups water
  16. fresh lemon juice to drizzle before serving (optional)


Making the Koftas:

Combine all ingredients for the Kofta other than the 2 tablespoon of oil and the Sultanas/golden raisins. Use a wooden spoon or your hand to mix everything together. Divide the meat spiced meat into 25-30 portions. Take each portion, flatten it and place a Sultana/raisin in the center and roll it into a sphere. After all of them are rolled, heat the 2 tablespoon oil in a large skillet, big enough to hold the koftas in a single layer (if the skillet is smaller in size, cook them in batches).

Place the koftas in the pan, reduce heat to medium, cover the pan and cook for about 7 minutes, until the underside of the koftas are golden. Keep in mind that the cooking time will differ with meat. I have used minced chicken and it does not take long to cook. In any case, make sure that the koftas are not running any juice and are cook through. I like to cover and cook as it cooks faster in the steam and also the steam keeps the koftas from drying out. Turn the koftas around and cook until all sides are golden. Uncover the pan while browning the koftas. Do not allow them to turn dark brown; the outside with harden and get stiff.

To bake the koftas in the oven:

Drizzle oil over the koftas carefully so that they are coated with oil. On a foil or on a greased baking tray, place all the koftas in a single layer and cook in a pre heated oven (375 F) for about 12 minutes. Cover it loosely with a foil for the first 12 minutes. This will make the koftas stay moist. Uncover turn them around a few times and cook for about 5-10 minutes until they are cooked through and golden brown on all sides. (Again, adjust cooking time with a the kind of meat you use).

Caramelizing the Onions:

Slice the onions into half, and then each half should be sliced into very thin half moons. Heat ghee in a pan and add the sliced and separated onions. Cook/fry over medium heat for a couple of minutes while tossing so the ghee coats the slices well. Add sugar and salt and keep stirring  occasionally (too much stirring will not brown the onions) and cooking at low to medium heat, until the onions wilt, reduces and turns brown. This might take anything from 25 – 40 minutes. Do not increase the heat as the onions will burn and become bitter. Once they are brown and reduced to less than half the amount remove from the pan and set aside. Part of this will be used to cook the pulao and the rest will be used for garnish.

Cooking the Pulao and putting it all together:

Wash the rice with several changes of water until water runs clear. Drain and spread the rice on a layer of paper towel and air dry for about 45 minutes to an air.

Warm 2 tablespoon of milk and dissolve the lightly crushed saffron in the milk; let it sit and soak.

In a heavy bottomed pot, add ghee/melted butter, cinnamon, clove, cardamom and allow it to heat up (in medium heat), until the spices start to sizzle and they are fragrant. It should not take more than a couple of minutes.

During this time, divide the caramelized onions in 2 parts.

Add one part of the fried onions to the pot, add the dried rice and gently (so as not to break the grains of rice) toss for them to combine. Cook while occasionally stirring for the ghee/butter, onions and the spices to coat the rice. Pre cooking the rice before boiling it also ensures that the grains stay separate. Add salt, chili powder, fresh green chili peppers and freshly ground black pepper and cook for 4-6 minutes, in low heat, until the grains of rice glisten and the onions are evenly distributed.

Add water, give a light stir and increase the heat to almost high. Let the rice cook and DO NOT stir the rice at this time, even if you are tempted. After 6-8 minutes (time might vary a little), you will see that most of the water from the top has evaporated and the half cooked grains of rice are clearly visible. Reduce the heat to medium at this point. Cook for another 2-4 minutes. You will see that most of the water from the pot would have evaporated.

Reduce the heat of the stove to the lowest point. Very gently toss the rice, so the rice a the bottom of the pan is lifted to the top and vice versa. This will make it cook the grains evenly as the grains on the top are less cooked at the bottom.

Drizzle the milk with saffron on the top of the rice grains. Switch off the heat and immediately cover the pot with a tight fitting lid. The steam will cook the rice to perfection. Let it sit this way for about 10 minutes.

Uncover, add the koftas and the chopped fresh mint, and the lightly toasted nuts if you are using ; fluff the rice carefully and toss for everything to combine. Cover again and let it sit for another 8 minutes.

Uncover, fluff again and let it remain uncovered for the rest of the moisture to escape. The rice should be fully cooked at this point and the grains should stay separate. Leaving it uncovered at this point ensures any further cooking of the rice and prevents it for mushing it.

When slightly cooled, after about 15 – 20 minutes, you can cover it back again until ready to serve.

When ready to serve, the rice can be warmed in covered tray in the microwave or a traditional oven. Before warming/serving, garnish with the rest of the caramelized onions, and more fresh mint and a drizzle of fresh lemon if you wish.

I would suggest that you allow the rice to sit for at least a couple of hours before you serve. The aroma of the spices infuse better and the rice cooks well.

Preparation Time: 20-30 minutes

Cooking Time: 1 hour 30 minutes approx.

Zafrani Kofta Pulao/Pilaf

Related Posts:

Chicken Biryani

Chicken Pilaf

Rice and Lentil Pilaf

Vegetable Pulao/Pilaf

Spicy Tomato Mushroom Rice with Fresh Mint

Cumin Flavored Peanut and Tomato Rice

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