10 September 2010

Learn how to make Biryani!

Our friends moved across the country recently and left us with many of their prized refrigerated possessions, including a bevy of specialty Asian products I have never used. I had heard of these sauces and exotic ingredients before, but I was always too cheap to buy them, and so I avoided recipes that called for them unless I felt relatively safe making a more pedestrian substitution.

So, now I am setting out to learn about each fancy ingredient I cannot pronounce which is currently occupying space next to the beer in my fridge. Join me.


Ghee is clarified butter, and you can either do it yourself (recipe follows) or buy it in a jar, like our friend Tamarri did. You can basically use it in place of butter or oil whenever you are frying or sautéing anything for a dish, and it lends a nutty, almost cheesy flavor which is very mild when mixed with other things. My test drive of the ghee was Biryani, the first Indian dish I ever ate as a college student, which I have made before with butter and canola oil. I can’t say I could tell immediately that I was using Ghee instead of oil, but it was a pretty tasty dish.

Biryani (a northern Indian layered rice and vegetable dish)

Strange that this was originally meant for special guests and occasions, because it’s about the mildest dish I’ve ever encountered in Indian cuisine. Think of it as the Chinese version of fried rice—comforting and edible for even your most closed-minded ethnic food eaters.

Serves 6

1 cup basmati rice

3 cups water

1 tsp. ground turmeric

½ teaspoon salt

1/8 tsp. ground cloves

1 tsp. ground cardamom

1 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger

1 ¼ cups roughly chopped onion

10 fresh mint leaves

2 Tbsp. ghee

1 Tbsp. raisins or chopped dried apricots

2 Tbsp. slivered pistachios or almonds

3 cups fresh or frozen chopped vegetables (cauliflower, green beans, red bell pepper, peas, carrots, etc.)

1 cup chopped tomato

Rinse rice and place in medium saucepan with 3 cups water and ½ tsp. salt. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce heat to medium until rice is cooked, about 12 minutes. OR, cook in rice cooker following manufacturer’s directions. When rice is cooked, drain and stir in 1 tsp. turmeric, coating all rice evenly. Set aside. (This is my substitute for saffron, which I am again too cheap to purchase.)

Meanwhile, combine cloves, cardamom, ginger, onion, mint, and 2 tablespoons water in a blender or food processor. Process until smooth and set aside.

Heat the ghee in a large frying pan or sauté pan over medium heat. Add the dried fruit and nuts and cook until nuts are lightly browned (stir constantly). Remove fruit and nuts from the hot ghee with a slotted spoon and set aside. Place the onion puree in the frying pan and sauté in the ghee for about four minutes, stirring constantly. Add the vegetables, cover, and cook until crisp-tender, about 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Grease a casserole pan with ghee or non-stick spray. Spread a layer of the rice in the bottom of the dish, then a layer of the vegetable mixture, etc., ending with a layer of rice on top. Cover dish in foil and bake for 20 minutes.

Remove casserole from oven and let stand covered for 5 minutes. To serve, sprinkle the top of the biryani with the fruit and nut mixture.

This can be made ahead and refrigerated for several days, then rewarmed in the oven. If doing this, wait to fry the fruit and nut mixture until just before you serve it.

I like to serve this with a modified cucumber raita: in food processor, puree 1 garlic clove, one small peeled, seeded, cucumber, 1 seeded jalapeno, and 1 tsp. salt. Stir in one cup plain yogurt (or more for a thicker sauce) and add more salt to taste if desired. I pour it all over my biryani, though that might not be culturally appropriate.

Can’t find ghee in the store? Neither can I; make your own with my hero, Alton Brown.