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.
Lamb and Onion Sauté:
Spice Blend (stir together in a cup):
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.
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From The Splendid Table®'s How to Eat Weekends by Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift (Clarkson Potter, 2011), © copyright 2011 American Public Media.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.
Sally Swift is the managing producer and co-creator of The Splendid Table. Before developing the show, she worked in film, video and television, including stints at Twin Cities Public Television, Paisley Park, and Comic Relief with Billy Crystal. She also survived a stint as segment producer on The Jenny Jones Show.