For those of you who have ever eaten from a "halal cart," the title of this rice recipe probably seems like a bold statement. If the reference means nothing to you, don't worry — before moving to New York, I wouldn't have had a clue either.
A halal cart is a street vendor that, at a minimum, sells two things, and two things very well: chicken over rice and lamb (or gyro) over rice. Most offer the option to wrap up the same fixings — meat, lettuce, generally out-of-season tomatoes, white sauce, and a bit of smoky paprika-based hot sauce — in a pita as well, minus the rice. It sounds simple, but done right, it's absolutely delicious, addictive, and satisfying. The best part? You walk away full after spending just $5.
Some also sell knishes (another mysterious New York thing), kebabs, and falafel. Others even offer pretzels, hot dogs, chestnuts, and Philly cheesesteaks. In other words, if you can walk away with it, they probably have it. (I have yet, however, to see one that sells pizza.)
The rice, in theory, is basmati. Some vendors offer just white rice, others will offer "yellow rice," while some offer a mix of the two. It sometimes has a few peas in it and perhaps some cooked tomato. Some of them cheap out on the rice, though, and offer something that tastes suspiciously like Uncle Ben's. The mystifying thing is: What exactly makes the yellow rice yellow? Is it turmeric? Is it saffron? (Probably not.) A friend recently pointed out that it might be food coloring.
We decided to take the guesswork out of the equation and make a new and improved version of halal-cart rice that you won't get on the street. This version is flavored with saffron, freshly shucked peas, and ripe tomato — the perfect base for grilled chicken, fish, or lamb. Whoever says rice is bland is about to have their world rocked.
Heat the olive oil, saffron, and bay leaf in a 3-quart saucepan over low heat until fragrant, about 5 minutes.
Increase the heat to high and add the water, rice, tomato, peas, and salt. Bring to a boil.
Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the liquid is absorbed, about 12 minutes. Remove the lid, stir, and replace the lid. Wait 10 minutes before serving.