Each spice has a special day to it. For turmeric it is Sunday, when light drips fat and butter-colored into the bins to be soaked up glowing, when you pray to the nine planets for love and luck.
~Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
, The Mistress of Spices

Somehow, this became a three headed post.

Derived from the Persian word beryā(n) (بریان) which means “fried” or “roasted,” biryani is a rice dish crafted from a sensuously transcendent spice medley and basmati rice layered with curried meats (often lamb, mutton or chicken), fish, eggs or vegetables. Biryani was born in the kitchens of ancient Persia, and was later transported by merchants to the Indian subcontinent where the dish developed even further. Whether made in India, South Asia or the Middle East, regional variants are abundant and often without boundaries, such as hyderabadi biryani, ambur biryani, bhatkali biryani, kacchi biryani, awadhi biryani, mughlai biryani, berian biryani, sindhi biryani, khan biryani, memoni biryani, pakistani biryani, sri lankan biryani and the like. That is a short list.

Yes, I have admittedly been cheating on biryani. The farmers’ market spice merchant has been effusively loyal and ever helpful. Yet, I have been shamefully, almost covertly, buying his superb admix which is damned good. So, it only seemed fair to concoct my own biryani blend (with a little help from my friends). Much like curry or ras al hanout, dry roasting and then grinding your own spice brew at home tends to create a more spellbinding and blissful union.

BIRYANI SPICE BLEND

1 T cardamom seeds
1 T coriander seeds
2 t cumin seeds
1 medium cinnamon stick, cut into pieces
6 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
1/2 T black peppercorns
2 t fennel seeds
2 t caraway seeds
2 star anise
1/2 t grated nutmeg
1/2 t turmeric

Dry roast spices over moderate heat until fragrant. Discard bay leaves. Cool and reduce to a powder in a spice grinder by pulses or by using a mortar and pestle. Store in an air tight container in a cool, dark place.

Now, on to the main course. Guests will be grateful for the effusive, almost contemplative, scents…

LAMB BIRYANI

Dry roast and grind anise seeds, black peppercorns, cardamom pods, coriander seeds, and cumin seeds.

1 t anise seeds, toasted and ground
2 T black peppercorns, toasted and ground
3 T green cardamom pods, cracked, toasted and ground
2 T coriander seeds, toasted and ground
2 t cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 t freshly grated nutmeg
2 cinnamon sticks

3 T unsalted butter
1 T canola oil
3 medium yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced

3 T unsalted butter
1 T canola oil
2 T garam masala
1 t crushed red chile flakes
1⁄2 T turmeric
1 t paprika

6 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 medium tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
4 serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and minced
1 1 1⁄2″ piece ginger, peeled and minced

2 1/2 lbs trimmed boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1 1/2″ cubes
Sea salt
3/4 C plain yogurt

2 1⁄2 C basmati rice
3 T unsalted butter
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1⁄2 T cumin seeds, toasted and ground
4 whole cloves
2 dried bay leaves
Sea salt
2 C water
2 C chicken or vegetable broth

1 C whole milk
1 t saffron threads

Mint leaves, roughly chopped
Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Cashews, lightly sautéed in butter and chopped (optional)

Heat butter and canola oil in a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and then just turning golden. Transfer to a bowl and set aside for later use.

Heat butter and canola oil in a large heavy pot or Dutch oven over medium high heat until shimmering. Add garam masala, chile flakes, turmeric, paprika, anise, pepper, cardamom, coriander, nutmeg, and 1 cinnamon stick, then cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Then add garlic, tomatoes, chiles, and ginger and sauté, stirring, another 2–3 minutes more.

Add lamb, season with salt, and cook until lightly browned, turning, about 5 minutes. Add the cooked onions and yogurt, cover and reduce heat to medium and cook until lamb is tender, about 25 minutes. Place lamb in a glass bowl or dish, tent and set aside. Keep the empty Dutch oven available for the layering step below.

Meanwhile, melt butter over moderately high heat. Add the minced garlic cloves and sauté briefly but do not burn. Add the basmati rice, stirring well to coat. Add cinnamon stick, along with the cumin, cloves, and bay leaves, and season with salt. Add the water and stock and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low to medium low. Cover and cook until the rice is firm and the liquid reduced, about 10-12 minutes. Set aside off of the heat.

Warm the milk with the saffron threads in a small saucepan.

Transfer half the curried lamb back into the Dutch oven, then top with half the rice. Clothe with layers of the remaining lamb and then rice and finally add the warmed milk with saffron. (Lamb–>rice–>lamb–>rice–>saffron.) Cover and cook over low heat until the rice is tender, about 10 more minutes.

Plate and garnish with mint, cilantro and cashews. Consider serving biryani with coconut curry gravy, daal (lentils), regional vegetable dishes, and/or naan bread.

Pourboire: instead of sautéing in unsalted butter and canola, ghee or ghi–a traditional Indian clarified butter–is often used due to its high smoking point and toasted flavor. A recipe follows:

GHEE

1 lb unsalted butter, roughly cut into pieces

Place butter in medium saucepan over medium high heat and bring to a lively simmer or quiet boil, about 2-3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, and the butter will form a first foam which will disappear. Ghee is done when a second foam forms on top of butter, and the butter turns slightly golden, about 7 minutes. Brown milk solids will naturally fall to the bottom of the pan. Allow to cool for several minutes. Slowly pour into ovenproof container through a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth layers. If not using immediately, store in an airtight container and keep free from moisture.

Please Sir. I want some more.
~Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

Happy birthday, Mr. Dickens.

Today, Britain marked the birth bicentenary of Charles Dickens with a wreathlaying at his grave in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. The church congregation included what may have been the most prodigious gathering of the revered novelist’s descendants. Simultaneously, a street party and ceremonies were held in his native Portsmouth. Ralph Fiennes, who will star as Magwitch in the adaptation of Great Expectations, read a moving extract from another of Dickens’ most beloved novels, Bleak House. The venerated Victorian author was an almost incomparable inventor of character, both ordinary and grand. His prolific pen authored numerous novels and other writings, all resonating with humanity and compassion. A deft storyteller, Dickens skewered wretched and greedy affluence, depicted the misery of poverty, and explored such varied themes as needed educational reform, sordid workplaces, class diparity, dismal childhoods, and destructive guilt, loneliness and despair. No slight to Shakespeare, Chaucer and esteemed ilk, but this is Dickens’ day.

Most know that Dickens coined “scrooge” (miserliness) and “uriah heep” (insincerity), but he is also the creator of “pecksniffian” named after Seth Pecksniff, a character in the novel Martin Chuzzlewit. The definition: hypocritically affecting benevolence or high moral principles (e.g., pompous politicians).

Over six decades after the end of British colonial rule in India, the works of Charles Dickens continue to be studied and taught across the sub-continent. The issues he addressed in his works–caste inequity, social injustice and poverty–repercuss in the modern world.

India had long ago exported the flavors of chutney, mustard, pepper, and curry to loyal (and perceptive) followers in the isles. Since imperial times, Indian fare and British gastronomy have been inextricably intertwined. About the time of Dicken’s birth, the first Indian restaurant opened in London and by the time of his death, curry was well entrenched in the country’s cuisine. This is not to say Dickens had a penchant for curry even though food passages abound in his novels.

Indian restaurants began to really proliferate in London in the 1960’s — flock wallpaper and spicy hues, tablas, biryanis, naan, and vindaloos, with piped sitars and seductive curry aromas wafting throughout. Decades later, foreign minister Robin Cook even proclaimed chicken tikka masala, arguably the most favored curry there, “is now a true British national dish.” No, not Sunday roast or Yorkshire pudding or fish and chips, but CTM.

CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA

1 T cumin seeds
1 T coriander seeds
1 t mustard seeds

2 t dried chili flakes
1 T ground turmeric
2 t garam masala
6 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 2 1⁄2″ piece ginger, peeled and finely chopped
1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed and finely chopped
2 lbs boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into chenks
1 1/2 C Greek yogurt
Sea salt

3 T unsalted butter
2 small to medium yellow onions, peeled and finely chopped
1 T paprika
2 t coriander
1 t cumin
1 t mustard seeds
1 can whole peeled tomatoes, chopped
1 t garam masala
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 C heavy whipping cream
1/2 C plain yogurt

Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped
Basmati rice
Naan

Soak bamboo skewers in water.

In a dry heavy bottomed skillet, heat the cumin, coriander and mustard seeds over medium low heat for a couple of minutes. Grind the cumin and coriander seeds and set aside for the sauce later. Grind the mustard seeds for the chicken marinade with red pepper flakes in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle. In a food processor or blender, purée turmeric, cumin, coriander, mustard, garam masala, garlic, ginger, jalapeños, and slowly add water until a loose paste forms. In a bowl, stir together half of the paste, yogurt, and salt thoroughly. Rub into the chicken and marinate, covered, in the refrigerator overnight. Reserve the remaining paste for later.

Remove chicken from the refrigerator so it reaches close to room temperature. Prepare charcoal grill to medium heat. Thread the chicken pieces through skewers. Grill chicken until just done, about 2 minutes per side, then arrange on platter and tent with foil. Do not worry if the chicken is slightly undercooked, as it will cook more in the sauce.

Meanwhile, heat butter in a heavy saucepan over medium high. Add onions, paprika, and reserved coriander and cumin. Cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 6–8 minutes. Add remaining paste, tomatoes, garam masala, and cinnamon and cook another another 10 minutes. Stir in cream and yogurt, and chicken bring to a slight boil and reduce to a gentle simmer until thickened, about 8-10 minutes. Season with salt to your liking.

Serve with basmati rice and naan.

Pourboire: should a charcoal grill not be an option, simply broil, sauté or roast the chicken during that step and then continue with the remainder of the recipe.

Chicken Curry

June 1, 2009

I’m not confused, I’m just well mixed.
~Robert Frost

Curry — a pervasive word with disputed origins. Members of the East India Company which expanded to become the British Empire in India may have adopted, then transformed the word “curry” from the Portuguese who had adopted the term from Tamil term, karil or kaari. Others posit that the word may have originated from karahi, a wok style metal vessel in which some Indian dishes are prepared. Another theory is that curry evolved from kadhi or khari which is a northern Indian yogurt based dish. To further confuse matters, some linguists suggest that the word has English origins in the first place. During Richard II’s reign, the first English cook book was authored by a consortium of staff cooks and even philosophers whose work was entitled The Forme of Cury (ca 1390). Cury was the Old English word for cooking derived from the French verb cuire — to cook.

Curry is meant to appeal to the senses, and these bowls will not disappoint.

CHICKEN CURRY

6 shallots, peeled and thinly sliced (or sweet yellow onions)
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 – 2″ piece fresh ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
3 serrano chiles, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
2 T water

3 lbs chicken leg-thigh quarters
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Curry powder*
2 T unsalted butter
1 T canola or vegetable oil

2 T curry powder
1+ T green, red or yellow curry paste
1/2 T biryani masala powder
1 t coriander, roasted and ground
1 t cumin, roasted and ground
1+ 14 oz can unsweetened coconut milk, stirred
2 C fresh chicken broth
1 jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded and sliced (optional)
1 cinnamon stick
4 whole cloves
4 star anise
3/4 C black currants, plumped in hot tap water

Unsalted roasted cashews, chopped (for garnish)
Fresh cilantro, chopped (for garnish)

In a food processor chop fine shallots, garlic, ginger root, and chiles. Add water and purée to a paste.

Pat chicken dry thoroughly with paper towels and season with salt, pepper and curry powder. In a large, heavy casserole heat butter and oil over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking and brown chicken in 2 batches, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer to a platter and loosely tent with foil.

Over medium high heat add shallot paste and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add curry powder, curry paste, biryani masala, coriander and cumin and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Add chicken with any accumulated juices and coconut milk, broth, chiles, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and black currants, then cover and adjust heat to a simmer. Turn chicken once, and braise until cooked through, about 20-25 minutes.

Transfer chicken to plate with tongs and boil sauce gently, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Discard cinnamon stick, cloves, and star anise and season sauce with salt. Serve chicken over jasmine or basmati rice in shallow soup bowls, topped by the sauce along with naan.

*Curry Powder:

2 dried red chili peppers
2 T coriander seeds
1 T cumin seeds
1/2 t mustard seeds
1/2 T black peppercorns
1 t ground ginger
1 t ground turmeric
1/2 t ground red pepper

In a small heavy skillet, combine the chile peppers, coriander, cumin, mustard seeds and peppercorns. Toast over medium heat, shaking the pan until slightly browned but not burned, 2-3 minutes. Cool and then ad to a spice grinder or coffee mill and grind to a fine powder. Stir in the ground ginger, turmeric and red pepper until well mixed.