My youngest stepchild graduated with her Bachelor of Science in Psychology recently. It was so anti-climatic for her … no cap and gown, no walk across a stage … a letdown for a young lady who studied without a single break, not even summers off. I wanted to do something special to recognize her achievement.
A dinner party with her closest loved ones— appropriate to these times, it had to be a small gathering—seemed just right. When I asked what she would like to eat, she almost apologetically asked for a biryani—a colorful, flavorful dish that to her understanding was a very complex undertaking. I’m a fan of Indian food, but I could not recall having experienced biryani before.
In keeping with my fearless theme for this year, I didn’t let that hold me back. I wanted her to have a memorable event to commemorate this important milestone. My secret weapon was to research and over plan. And it paid off.
Biryani became the heart of an Indian feast for five. Some purists may claim that this is not biryani, because it’s made with only vegetables, and I’m not going to argue the point. This is what she wanted, and I found a recipe from James Beard winner Raghavan Iyer and mostly followed it.
My menu included a variety of vegetarian dishes, like red lentil dal, curried spinach, and coriander and mint raitas. I added a curried rice pilaf in case someone hated the biryani (or I totally messed it up). I had seasoned a spatchcocked chicken with sweet smoked paprika and cooked it earlier in the week for hubs and me. But on Thursday it was still intact, so I decided to marinate and twice-cook it in a tandoori sauce. I also made my almost authentic naan.
For dessert, my husband requested an old favorite of his: Chawal Ki Kheer, a tasty rice pudding. He was so motivated to have the version of his memories that he trekked to Spice World International Market to pick up rose water for it. We’d shopped our hearts out earlier that week at Spice World and my other favorite, Asian Market, where I finally landed some kombu for vegetable stock.
For a special event like this, giving time to prepare the meal is important to me. I not only think through menu selection but take time with ingredients that go into the meal. We shopped for—and found—authentic ingredients. (I was way too excited about scoring a ginger root, something I’d been unable to find at my grocery.) I hand-ground the garam masala. I certainly don’t advocate hand grinding Garam Masala for everyone—it was a LOT of work—but I feel it adds a little extra to the meal, even if no one else knows what went into it. It seems there are a million different varieties, so if you don’t make your own, make sure you get a Punjabi style Garam Masala with rich, earthy aromas.
The scariest part for me was partially cooking the rice. Like playing the oboe, rice ends up a delight or a disaster. Who wants crunchy or gummy rice for graduation dinner? I followed Chef Iyer’s instructions closely. The rice was lovely.
TIP: The second time I made biryani (because I had just the right amount of leftover ingredients), I toasted the rice before soaking it, and the rice turned out even better, with long, gloriously separated strands of rice in every bite. The seasoning added to the rice seemed more intense, too.
Early May she was to have walked to get her diploma among a throng of peers. Instead, the week following dear sweet husband and I hosted an intimate gathering in her honor. We dressed up the inside for fancy serving and dressed down the outside for casual dining.
Planning ahead made for a relaxing evening as the sun began to drop. Being fearless made the day, because the biryani and everything else turned out quite lovely and delicious.
Beautiful Biryani is a vegetarian dish. Little salt is added. You can substitute ghee with vegetable oil and substitute cream with water to release the saffron to make it vegan.
“Saddling another person with a book he did not ask for has always seemed to me like a huge psychological imposition, like forcing someone to eat a chicken biryani without so much as inquiring whether they like cilantro.”—Joe Queenan
For vegetable curry:
2 TBSP ghee or canola oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp black cumin seeds
6 cardamom pods (green)
6 whole cloves
2 or 3 fresh or dried bay leaves
2 3-in. Cinnamon sticks
1/2 med red onion, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
1 scallion finely chopped
6 med cloves garlic, thinly slivered
1 C cauliflower florets (size about 1/2 in)
1 C cut green beans (size about 1-in)
2 small to medium carrots, peeled, trimmed, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/2 in cubes
2 tsp Garam Masala
1 tsp fresh ground ginger
1 tsp kosher or sea salt
3/4 C green peas
1 C basmati rice
1 tsp salt
Rice bottom layer:
1 tsp ground Kashmiri chilies (if needed, sub with 1/4 cayenne and 3/4 tsp sweet paprika) (add more to taste)
Rice top layer:
1/4 tsp saffron threads
3 – 4 TBSP 1/2 & 1/2, warmed
About 1/4 C raisins (I use a blend of gold and green raisins)
About 1/4 C cashews, whole
TIP: Soak raisins in warm water until they plump up.
Prep time: about 2 hours
Yields: about 5 cups
Heat ghee to medium high. Add cumin seeds and cardamon pods, cloves, bay leaves, and cinnamon sticks. Cook (they will sizzle and perfume). About 30 to 45 seconds. Add onion and garlic and saute until gently browned. (About 5 minutes)
Add all vegetables except the peas. Cook, stirring often. Coat vegetables completely with mix.
Add garam masala and salt. Add water to release browned bits into the mix.
Bring to a boil and immediately reduce to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender to fork but still a little crunchy, about 10 minutes.
Stir in peas, cover pan with lid and remove from heat.
Place rice in strainer, clean and rinse until water runs clear.
OPTIONAL: Toast rice in ghee or grapeseed oil.
Place rice in bowl and fill with water (water should reach top of rice) and soak about 30 minutes. Drain and set aside.
TIP: this is a good time to prep the saffron.
Fill medium saucepan about 3/4 full. Heat medium-high and bring water to boil.
Add salt and drained rice. Stir to separate grains. Return pot to boil then reduce heat and simmer uncovered abut 3 to 5 minutes, infrequently stirring until rice is partially cooked.
Drain rice and divide it in half, placing each half in a small bowl.
Bottom rice layer:
Using one half of the reserved rice, add Kashmiri powder and stir, creating an even, deep red color.
Top rice layer:
While rice is soaking, stir saffron into warmed 1/2 & 1/2 and steep for about 5 minutes. The cream will become tinted.
Using one half of the reserved rice, pour the saffron-infused cream into bowl and stir well to completely coat rice with mixture.
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. (Ensure rack is centered in the oven.)
Lightly coat a medium casserole dish with cooking oil or cooking spray.
Spread the bottom layer (red colored rice) in the dish.
Layer the red rice with the vegetable curry, carefully covering the red rice completely.
Layer the saffron rice over the curry.
Cover with lid or with foil (seal tightly).
Bake 45 minutes to an hour—until rice is perfectly cooked and vegetables are tender.
Remove the dish and uncover.
If possible, remove whole seasonings or advise to remove from food.
Top with cashews and raisins.
TIP: be sure to serve every layer of the casserole.
Serve with raitas, chutneys, naan and other dishes or alone.