Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
~Søren Kierkegaard

Around 380 BCE, in a book of The Republic, Plato presciently wrote the myth of the Ring of Gyges, in which a noble shepherd pocketed a “magical” ring found on the hand of a corpse in an abandonned cave that rendered him invisible to suit his whims. Gyges (sometimes pronounced jahy-jeez and other times jee-jeez) used this newly found trinket to infiltrate the royal household, and was even invited by the King of Lydia to secretly view his queen in the buff. He then could not help but seduce her and abruptly assassinated the king, ultimately usurping the throne. The basic notion behind Plato’s fable is that anonymity and disinhibition can corrupt even the most virtuous folks. So, if social reputation and sanctions are removed (now e.g., cowering behind a screen) moral character with any sense of empathy or contrition simply disappears too.

The once ancient Gyges effect with its namelessness, facelessness and/or faux appellation worlds appertains today in the form of trolls, thoughtless naysayers, online ragers, discord sowers, cyber-harassers, ranting yelpers, yik yakkers, social media/app abusers, inflammatory commentators, aggressors, droners, truculent ones, hackers, cyberbullies, belligerents, hate mongers, disrupters, and keyboard antagonists (to name a few). They all tend to enter a universe without filters or open discourse, actually pretending that there is not a real human enduring their assaults. To them, these are merely raging words on a formerly blank screen where there is just a desire for impact, for contemptuousness or resentment without any shared humanity or sense of responsibility. Shameless, in so many ways. Whatever happened to compassion and empathy?

A kind suggestion. Instead of hiding behind a screen of whatever sorts, please look intently in a mirror — a cold, hard stare — and closely conceptualize your face before even thinking about ranting online or elsewhere. Then instead, perhaps gently make a bowl of rice or some dessert. Be cool, be calm and savor each scent, each bite. So, “feed” a troll contrary to common advice.

But then, ponder while munching — how do we see real faces again?

BASMATI RICE & CORN PILAF

2 C Basmati rice

4 T unsalted butter or ghee (divided)
2 t garlic, minced
1 T ginger, grated
1/2 t turmeric
Pinch saffron
1/2 t coriander seeds
1/2 t cumin seeds
8 whole cloves
1/2 t black peppercorns
2 cardamom pods

1 large yellow onion, peeled and diced
3 C corn kernels, freshly shaven off of ears

Sea salt
1 C golden raisins
2 C chicken or vegetable broth

2 T cilantro, chopped
2 T scallions, chopped
1/4 C roasted cashews

Put rice in a medium bowl and cover with cold water. Swish with fingers, then pour off water. Repeat 2-3 times, until water runs clear. Cover again with cold water and soak 20 minutes, then drain.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter or ghee in a heavy saucepan over medium high heat. Add garlic, ginger, turmeric, saffron, coriander, cumin, cloves, peppercorns and cardamom, and stir to coat. Let sizzle a bit, then add onion and cook, stirring, until softened and beginning to color, about 5 minutes. Add remaining 2 tablespoons butter or ghee, the rice and the corn, and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook for 1 minute. Add raisins and chicken or vegetable broth and bring to brisk simmer. Taste for salt and adjust if necessary.

Cover, reduce the heat to low and let cook 15 minutes. Let rest 10 to 15 minutes off heat. Fluff rice and transfer to serving bowl. Strew rice with cilantro, scallions and cashews. Consider serving with raita. (See the August 5, 2012, post for a raita recipe or just simply type raita into the search box on the right hand side of the screen).

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No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.
~Mahatma Gandhi

Unlike some other iconic Indian cuisine often tied to ancient origins, tandoori murghi has relatively recent roots. The tale nonetheless is steeped in intrigue, politics, religion and history.

For centuries, India labored under British dominion, a vestige of the British East Indies Company’s centuries long, relentless mercantile expansion and Parliament’s political acquiesence to the Raj‘s oppresive, sometimes brutal, colonial visit. Like guests who were really never invited and then became cruelly rude and refused to leave. After the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British East India Company was dissolved and rule was transferred to the empire under Queen Victoria who was even proclaimed Empress of India. A cultural conundrum on the best of days. I could go on, back and forth in history, but space does not permit.

In the 1920s, Mohammed Karamchand Gandhi, who was indelibly marked by Indian culture and trained as a barrister in London, emerged as a steady voice of Indian nationalism. Commonly known as Mahatma Gandhi, he espoused non-violent civil disobedience of oppressive British policies which he had earlier developed in South Africa. To name a few, he attempted to ease poverty, expand women’s rights, forge religious and ethnic harmony, enhance economic self sufficiency and exalt class equality. Political rivals dismissed him with Winston Churchill once ridiculing him as a “half naked fakir.” During this same time, a humble young man named Kundan Lal Gujral opened a restaurant called Moti Mahal in culturally vibrant Peshawer, a district of the northwest frontier of British India. He experimented with cooking young birds in tandoors, the clay ovens used by locals to cook bread. The earthenware kilns were/are bell shaped, set into the earth, and fired with wood or charcoal, reaching temperatures of about 900 F. The result of this simple trial and error? The inside was perfectly done and the outside crispy with spice galore.

By the end of World War II, Britain capitulated and finally in 1947 India attained independence. The Punjab province was partitioned with the eastern sector joining Pakistan and western India. So, Peshawer, with a predominately Muslim population, became part of Pakistan which revived a long standing dispute of whether India would be an united Hindu dominated state or would have a separate Muslim state to the north. Rebellion and carnage ensued between Muslims on one hand and Hindus and Sikhs on the other. Gujral was one of many Sikh and Hindu refugees who had to flee the upheaval by heading toward India. He relocated his restaurant to Daryaganj, Delhi, a move that as chance would have it brought fame.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, happened upon Moti Mahal and was so impressed by his tandoori murghi dish that he began reserving state banquets there. Foreign dignitaries began pouring in — Presidents John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, Soviet leaders Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev, the King of Nepal, the Shah of Iran, et al. The close relationship between the restaurant and India’s preeminent leaders endured for several generations, even making sumptuous Tandoori Murghi standard fare on Indian menus throughout the world.

At first blush, this receipe looks a tad daunting.  But, a careful read shows that once the tandoori masala is made and the lemon curd purchased (both well in advance), the prep and roast or grill are a snap.  Weekday grub.  Should you opt for the sauté and roast route and time is a factor, the ghee is not essential.

TANDOORI CHICKEN

4 lb whole chicken

1/2 C tandoori masala (see below)
2 C plain Greek yogurt
2 T fresh ginger root, peeled and minced
4 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

3 T ghee (see below) or unsalted butter
1 T grapeseed oil

1/2 C lemon curd, prepared or homemade

Remove the neck and giblets from the chicken. Trim excess fat (usually found in the cavity) and then rinse the chicken with cold water and pat dry thoroughly. Using a pair of kitchen shears, cut all the way down one side of the backbone, just cutting through the small rib bones close to the backbone, but not through the center of the backbone itself. Next, cut all the way down the other side of the backbone, removing it entirely. Reserve the neck and backbone for stock.

Flatten by firmly pressing the heel of your hand down over the breastbone. This will open the carcass and break the breastbone so as to flatten out the chicken. With a sharp knife, score the chicken flesh rather deeply at diagonals about 1 1/2″ apart on the meaty side.

Whisk together 1/3 cup of the tandoori masala, yogurt, ginger and garlic in a medium bowl. Place the chicken in a large glass baking dish or large ziploc freezer bag and coat thoroughly with the marinade.  Massage the marinade thoroughly inside and outside the chicken, including all gashes, crevasses and valleys. Turning occasionally, allow to marinate in the refrigerator overnight, but preferably 18-24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 450 F

Remove the chicken from the refrigerator and allow it to reach room temperature. Then, sprinkle the chicken with some tandoori masala on both sides. Heat a large, heavy ovenproof skillet over high heat, and add the ghee and oil. Once hot, sear the chicken skin side down first until browned, about 5 minutes on each side. Then place in the oven until a fork inserted in the meaty part of a thigh exudes pale yellow juices, about 20 minutes. Throughout the roasting process, baste regularly with lemon curd. The goal is crispy yet tender. Remove to a cutting board or platter and loosely tent the chicken with foil. Allow to rest about 5-8 minutes or so before serving.

Serve with sides to your liking, such as thinly sliced fresh onion rings, cucumber salad, lemon wedges, spiced basmati rice, naan, and mint or mango chutney.

Tandoori Masala
1/3 C coriander seeds
1/3 C cumin seeds
2 T green cardamom pods
1 T whole cloves
1 T whole black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2″ piece cinnamon stick, broken into pieces

2 tablespoons pimentón agridulce or paprika
1 T sea salt
2 T turmeric
1 t cayenne pepper
Pinch ground mace
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Heat the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cardamom pods, cloves, peppercorns, bay leaves and cinnamon in a large heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring often, until the cumin becomes aromatic and just lightly browned, about 2-3 minutes. Allow to cool some, then grind the spices in a spice grinder or coffee mill until fine, and then transfer to a bowl with the pimentón or paprika, salt, turmeric, cayenne pepper, mace and nutmeg. Mix thoroughly and store in an airtight container in a dark place.

Ghee
1 lb unsalted butter, roughly cut into pieces

Place butter in medium heavy 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 and/or cheesecloth layers. If not using immediately, store in an airtight container and keep free from moisture.

Pourboire: alternatively, grill the chicken. Preheat a grill to between medium high and medium. Build a gentle, yet hot fire. Make sure that you have a fire that is substantial enough to maintain a consistent temperature for up to 30-45 minutes. When ready to cook, brush and oil the grill grate to reduce sticking issues.

Then, remove the chicken from the marinade, allow to reach room temperature and sprinkle with some tandoori masala. Place the bird on the hot grate and grill, starting with skin side down, turning occasionally (but not obsessively) to prevent over charring, until cooked through, some 25-30 minutes total. Baste wth lemon curd on the tail end of the grilling process, particularly focused on the skin side. The bird is done when the thickest part of the thigh reaches 160 F by a meat thermometer which is not touching the bone. Again loosely tent and allow to rest before carving.

Also, in lieu of lemon curd, you may add fresh lemon juice to the yogurt-tandori masala marinade.

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.