Sure, the grocery store had some veggie burgers and fake chicken nuggets, the occasional container of soy milk, containers of tofu, and a mediocre selection of all natural canned and boxed items (Annie's mac & cheese, Thai Kitchen noodle meals, etc), but the options were really limited and it was a generally bleak environment. So, my supportive parents and I bought cookbooks - my first one was Molly Katzen's classic Moosewood Cookbook. Like all fledgling vegetarians, I learned how to use tofu (tofu 'egg' salad!), cook with more beans (homemade felafel!), and tried out all sorts of interesting vegetarian recipes (mock duck curry!). And of course, I tried out every meat substitute and soy protein bar on the market (some of those were AWFUL!). These days, the climate in Oshkosh, Wisconsin is much improved, and the local grocery stores have definitely broadened their selection. Heck, you can get stuff in bulk, they have goat yogurt, and there are whole sections dedicated to gluten-free foods. Visiting home has become a much more enjoyable culinary experience in the last few years, especially after I started eating meat.
But back in the day, a highlight of my hometown grocery store's selection was these awesome frozen, bagged ethnic rice and vegetable dishes. I remember them being so delicious, and they were my standby meal solution after long. My favorite one was a pullao with lentils, currants, rice, onions, carrots, and loads of spices. There was also a tasty curry version with other veggies. I would add more vegetables or throw in chunks of tofu or veggie burgers, and eat up. I adored the spicy, exotic flavors, and since I had a serious fascination with all things from the Middle East and India (I thought myself quite worldly), eating food inspired by those ethnic cuisines only fueled my adolescent curiousity for all things exotic. Additionally, and most importantly, they provided good vegetarian nourishment - those thing got me through a substantial part of high school, and I actually missed them when I left for college. I tried recreating such dishes in the woks in my college cafeteria, and with my rice cooker or hot pot in my dorm room. Sadly, dorm fridges don't allow the freezer space necessary for frozen bagged meals.
Thankfully, the days of makeshift dorm room cooking are over, and I have a real kitchen all to myself that I can cook in. And I've seen similar looking frozen rice & veg meals at Trader Joe's, but I've never tried them. Why? Because now I know that it is totally simple to make your own pullao, much cheaper, and more friendly for those of us with dietary restrictions. I can't use a lot of the spices traditionally used in different pullaos and biryanis, like cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, cloves, or ginger. Because I have a edited assortment of spices that work for me, I come up with my own combinations and modify other recipes. This pullao is a mixture of cumin, fennel, cardamom, peppercorn, saffron, and star anise. Yum.
Either way, the finished dish will be beautiful - the vegetables and whole spices look like jewels peeking out between the grains of rice. Serve this pullao as a simple meal on its own, with a salad, along side a protein dish, or with stewed, sauteed greens. Nicely spiced, full of veggies, and with a hint of sweet from the dried fruit, and a nutty flavor from the toasted seeds, this recipe is a winner. I can't wait to eat leftovers tomorrow for lunch - I plan to garnish it with cashews and dried apricots, and eat with a side of collards. Yum.
If you like Indian food, check out this link. It has tons of great Indian rice, bean, and vegetable dishes, as well as sweet treats. Some don't work with a lot of restrictions, but many do, so check it out! http://www.nandyala.org/mahanandi/
Rinse and soak rice for 6-8 hours. After soaking, rinse well and drain.
In a large saucepan, heat up oil. Add spices, and saute for a 2-3 minutes over medium heat. Add chopped onion and garlic, stir to coat with oil, and saute for 2-3 more minutes. Add drained rice and chopped vegetables and peas, stir, and saute for about 5 minutes.
Put saffron in 1 1/2 c water and let soak while the veggies are sauteeing. Transfer the rice/veg mixture to the rice cooker and add the saffron water. Deglaze the saucepan by adding the remaining 1/2 c water to the saucepan and bringing it to a boil, scraping off any pieces of onion or spices that may have stuck to the pan, then pour it into the rice cooker with the rest of the ingredients.
Place cover on rice cooker, and set to cook following rice cooker instructions. Sit back and relax while your kitchen fills with the perfume of fragrant spices. After rice has finished cooking, leave cover on, and let it steam undisturbed for about 20 minutes.
Lightly saute chopped nuts and fruit in little oil/butter for a few minutes, then remove from heat. Fluff steamed pullao, and transfer it to large serving dish or make individual servings. Garnish pullao with nuts and fruit, then serve!