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Sometimes it’s nice to make a super-simple entree and focus on making your side dishes special instead. This exotic rice pilaf, modestly adapted from chef Ris Lacoste’s recipe in Fine Cooking, is a delicious way to jazz up basic pan-seared salmon or roast chicken. It’s easy to make; just be sure to allow time to caramelize the onions. The key is to cook them low and slow so that they turn a rich caramel color without a touch of burning.
To begin, slice two of the onions into half-moons, and dice the remaining onion.
Set a liquid measuring cup with about 1/2 cup of water next to the stove. In a 12-inch skillet (preferably not nonstick), melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium heat. Add the sliced onions, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are meltingly tender and a rich, deep caramel color, 20 to 25 minutes.
To help the caramelization process along and prevent the onions from burning, deglaze the pan every so often with a few tablespoons of the water—but wait to do this until you see a brown film forming on the bottom of the pan. I usually use about 1/2 cup of water total, but you may need a bit more or less.
Add the cumin and cinnamon and stir well. Reduce the heat to low and cook one minute more, stirring occasionally, to allow the onion to absorb the flavors of the spices and caramelize a bit more. Season with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Set aside.
Zest and juice the orange.
Pour the orange juice over the cherries in a small bowl to hydrate them, if necessary adding enough water to cover completely. Set aside.
In a heavy 3-qt. saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat. Add the diced onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft but not browned, about 5 minutes.
Add the rice and the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, reduce the heat to low, and stir well to coat each grain with butter. Toast for a full 5 minutes, stirring regularly to keep the grains separated and to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Add 2-1/2 cups water, stir once, and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 18 minutes.
Remove from the heat, and let the pilaf sit, still covered, for 5 minutes.
Once the pilaf has rested, remove the lid and fluff the rice with a fork.
Strain the cherries and discard the orange juice. Using the fork, gently fold in the cherries, caramelized onions, pistachios, and 1/4 teaspoon packed orange zest.
Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt, pepper and orange zest, if desired. (Note: Orange zest is very strong and somewhat bitter in flavor so be sure to add it little by little.)