Yield
6 to 8 servings
Time
45 minutes prep, 1 1/2 hours on stove; 1 hour in the oven cooking, 3 hours and 15 minutes total
Episode
Asian Tofu

Do the lamb a day before baking with the rice and serving.

An opulent celebration dish brought to India by the Moghuls, biriyanis are fragrant mosaics of rice, curried meat or vegetables, nuts and dried fruit, layered and baked until the flavors and textures marry.

There’s nothing particularly tricky about making a biriyani, it’s just a number of different components. If you pace yourself, tackling them over two or three days, you’ll find the dish practically assembles itself, and even leaves you enough time to enjoy a pre-dinner drink with your guests.

One lesson we found with biriyani is the big payback you get from not rushing. The slow sautéing as you add one ingredient after another keeps building flavor upon flavor, which is what makes Indian food so glorious.

Serve the biriyani with Yogurt Raita.

Cook to Cook: Carefully frying down that ginger and garlic puree as instructed in step 1 is very important to the balance of this dish. The paste, when treated this way becomes thoroughly caramelized and ultra-concentrated - both of which mean bigger, bolder flavor.

Making the lamb ahead of time brings not only convenience but also increased flavor, the way a beef stew always tastes better on the second day.

Feel free to put your imagination to work on this biriyani. Substitute vegetables or poultry for the lamb, and use whatever spices, nuts and fruits tickle your fancy. Using the techniques outlined here will ensure you have flavor by the truckload.

Ingredients

Ginger-Garlic-Nut Puree:
  • 1/2 medium onion, cut into chunks
  • 6 large garlic cloves
  • 2-1/2 inch chunk of fresh ginger, peeled and cut into pieces
  • 1/3 cup salted broken cashews
  • 1 fresh whole serrano chile, or more to taste
  • 1/3 cup water

Lamb and Onion Sauté:

  • Canola oil
  • 3 to 4 medium to large onions, thin sliced
  • Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
  • 3 to 3-1/2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, trimmed of excess fat and cut into 1-inch cubes (leg of lamb could be used as well, but it’s not as flavorful)

Spice Blend (stir together in a cup):

  • 7 whole cloves
  • 8 whole green cardamom pods (lightly crushed)
  • 4-inch cinnamon stick, broken
  • 1 generous tablespoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground mace, or 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg

Braising:

  • 1-1/2 cups plain low fat yogurt (not non-fat)
  • 2 cups whole canned tomatoes with their liquid, crushed
  • Water

Rice:

  • 4 cups Basmati rice (long grain rice could be used if Basmati isn’t to be had)
  • Water
  • Salt

Garnishes:

  • Generous of pinch saffron threads or yellow food coloring
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 4 tablespoons canola oil
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium to large onion, thin sliced
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 3/4 cup roasted cashews or almonds
  • salt to taste

Instructions

1. Start the lamb biriyani by making the Ginger-Garlic-Nut Paste. Combine all the ingredients in a food processor and puree. Generously film the bottom of a 12-inch straight-sided sauté pan with the canola oil.
 
Heat pan over medium heat, stir in the ginger-garlic paste and sauté, stirring and scraping up any brown bits sticking to the pan. There will be sticking so watch carefully that the paste doesn’t burn.
 
You want it to become dark golden brown and have a rich, spicy aroma. Adjust heat as needed, and stir often. Scrape the paste from the pan, adding a little water to collect all the glaze and brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Set the paste aside.

2. Wash out the sauté pan, and set back on the stove over medium high, and add the 3 to 4 sliced onions, with generous sprinkling of salt. Sauté over medium-high to high until they’re golden with lots of dark, crisp edges about 6 minutes. Push the onions to the edge of the pan and spread the lamb out in the pan, turning heat down to medium. Sear it on all sides. It will throw off some liquid let it cook away. Adjust the heat so the onions don’t burn.

3. Once the meat is seared, stir in the spice blend and cook until aromatic about 3 minutes.

4. Add the yogurt half cup at a time, simmering each addition until it disappears into the sauté - about 2 minutes.

5. Blend in tomatoes, the sauteed ginger paste, and enough water to just cover the meat. Adjust heat so sauce simmers very slowly and cook, uncovered, 1 to 1-1/2 hours or until meat is tender and sauce is reduced and rich tasting. There will be a generous amount of it. Take care during the last 30 minutes of cooking, watching closely for scorching at the bottom of the pan. Stir often and keep heat low. At this point lamb can be cooled and refrigerated overnight.

6. The day the biriyani is served, rinse rice in several changes of water, until water is clear. Then soak it in water to cover (with 1 tablespoon salt added) for 30 minutes to 6 hours. Drain.

7. Fill a 6-quart pot 2/3 full of water. Add 3 tablespoons salt, 6 whole cloves, 6 cardamom pods and a cinnamon stick. Boil. Drop in rice and cook like pasta 5 minutes. Taste. It should still have a slight firmness. Drain immediately and spread out on a towel or cookie sheet to cool off quickly. Reserve the whole spices.

8. Lightly toast the saffron in a saucepan for a moment and add the milk. Pull from the heat and set aside for a minimum of 20 minutes.

9. To assemble, warm the lamb in its sauce. Preheat oven to 325°F. Butter the inside of a 21/2-quart baking dish. Spread a 1/2 inch layer of rice over the bottom and sides of the dish. Pour in the lamb and sauce and cover completely with the remaining rice, patting with the back of a spatula to mound into a smooth dome. Drizzle with the saffron milk.

10. Seal the baking dish by tenting foil over it so that it does not touch the rice. Bake the biriyani for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until hot at its center.

11. While it bakes, prepare the garnishes. Have several layers of paper towel on a baking sheet next to the stove. Heat the canola oil and butter in a 10-inch skillet and fry the onion until crisp. Lift it out with a slotted spoon, spread on the paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Fry the raisins until they puff, and scoop them out onto the towels. Finally, briefly fry the nuts to golden and cool them on the towel. Believe it or not, you are done.

To serve the biriyani, remove it from the oven, remove the foil, and scatter the garnishes over the top. Serve hot, making sure each helping has some of the garnishes.

From The Splendid Table®'s How to Eat Weekends by Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift (Clarkson Potter, 2011), © copyright 2011 American Public Media.