If you know me, or if you read my writing, you’ll know that I have a bad case of the “I’ll have what they’re having” syndrome. It goes like this: I am in a restaurant that serves food from faraway lands. I order my food, sometimes going outside of my comfort zone, sometimes not. Then a waiter whisks by with a steaming platter of a whole fish, bowl of mysterious soup, or tantalizing plate of something I’ve never seen before. And it goes to a table of folks who obviously are from a faraway land. And they are obviously enjoying a secret item that is not on the menu. And suddenly the thing I have on my plate doesn’t look so good.
We’ve all had that happen, right? A few years ago I had that experience in an Indian restaurant in S.F. I was tucking into a spicy vindaloo and sweating just a little bit, as it should be. And then a huge steaming platter of brilliantly hued yellow rice with all sorts of bits of goat went sailing by to a table in the back where the cooks and waiters of the establishment sat enjoying a mid-shift meal. “What is THAT?” I asked. The waiter smiled a knowing smile and said, “biryani.” As if I knew what that was.
Years passed, and only after Leena Ezekiel, a caterer from Assam, India, befriended me and patiently answered all of my many questions about Indian cooking, did I learn what this magical dish really is. Many might look at the ingredients list here and say “oh, it’s just pilaf”. And they would be wrong. This is one of those magic recipes where simple ingredients like basmati rice, vegetables, meat and whole spices are made into something much much more regal than a sum of their parts.
Though the dish is usually made by layering rice with spiced meat, I make it with roasted vegetables, in the interest of making Mr. Tofu happy. For the carnivore in me, I whip up some chicken skewers and have it with that. Both recipes follow. Heh foodies? If you read this, will you please post a comment? It gets lonely in blogland…
Saffron and Vegetable Biryani with Ginger Chicken Skewers
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1 cup basmati rice
2 large carrots cut into 2-inch long by 1/2-inch thick sticks
1 1/2 cups cauliflower florets (1/2 inch florets)
1 small red pepper, cut into 2-inch long strips
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 teaspoon salt, divided
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh garam masala or curry powder
1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion
4 whole green cardamom seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 cups boiling water
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup toasted cashews
1/4 cup raisins
Place a heavy rimmed baking sheet in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 º F. In a small measuring cup, combine 1 tablespoon of very hot tap water with the saffron, set aside. Put the rice in a large bowl and add enough cool water to cover by 2 inches. Swirl with your hand and drain. Repeat with 2 more changes of water to rinse away excess starch, the water will no longer be cloudy. Drain rice and add enough cool water to cover the rice by a few inches. Allow rice to soak for 30 minutes.
While the rice is soaking, roast the vegetables. Toss the carrots, peppers, cauliflower, 1 tablespoon of the oil, 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, and the garam masala together in a large bowl. Carefully spread vegetables evenly on the preheated baking sheet. Roast until vegetables are tender and browned, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.
Drain the rice in a fine-mesh sieve. Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté, stirring frequently, until brown, about 10 minutes. Add the cloves, cardamom, and cumin and cook, stirring constantly, until the spices smell toasty, 1 minute. Add the drained rice and stir to coat with onion and spices. Stir in the saffron and its soaking liquid, boiling water, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a simmer, lower heat to medium low, and cook uncovered, until the rice is tender and the liquid has been absorbed, about 15 minutes.
While the rice is cooking, heat the butter in a small skillet over medium high heat. Add the raisins and cashews and sauté until nuts are fragrant, 1 minute. Remove from heat.
Gently fold the roasted vegetables into the rice. Sprinkle nuts and raisins over top of dish and serve with following recipe for chicken.
Ginger Chicken Skewers
Serves 3 carnivores
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon New Mexican chili powder (not seasoning for chili con carne)
1 pinch salt
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Bamboo skewers, soaked in cold water for several hours
Pound the ginger, garlic, chili pepper, and salt in a small mortar and pestle to a fine paste, or vigorously chop the ingredients, smashing them against a cutting board with the side of a chef’s knife. Cut the chicken into thin 3-inch strips and combine with the ginger paste in a sealable plastic bag. Marinate at least 1 hour but preferably overnight.
Preheat a grill or broiler over high heat. Spray a rimmed baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Thread the chicken onto skewers without overcrowding and allow them stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Broil or grill the skewers until cooked through, about 4 minutes per side. Serve immediately with biryani.