Monday, June 06, 2011

Tomato Biryani

There's an old piece of advice regarding good hostessing and housewifery: never try out a new recipe with company. I'm not fully on board -- sometimes produce-driven inspiration strikes, or you find the perfect recipe right before a party (or you just want something special and new to excite you). But I understand the reason for the rule. As someone who cooks a lot, I've had my share of culinary flops. And I wouldn't want to subject my guests to these sorts of sunken cakes, crumbly breads, and underwhelming entrees. So for the most part, when others are involved, I stick to known commodities.

But sometimes I just don't take my own good advice. A few years ago, I took a bad idea even further: instead of cooking a strange recipe for a dinner guest, I brought it along for a bulk cooking project with a friend. The plan was to bust out her shiny new food-storage machine (the kind that seals food in plastic and sucks the air out), and make 10x a few recipes, and thus be set with insta-meals for months to come. We made my beloved spanikopita, a tomato-chickpea curry I'd tried before, and then, against better judgment, a new recipe for biryani. I knew it was dicey to end up with pounds upon pounds of an untested recipe, but c'mon, it's biryani! Just Indian seasoned rice and vegetables! How could it be bad?

As you may have figured from my dramatic lead up, it was bad. Really bad. So-bad-even-thrifty-me-threw-it-out bad. The seasonings were wrong, the vegetables didn't work together, and the rice was mushy. I tried to choke down a bit of the awful mixture, but ended up moving the contents of those neatly-sealed bags from the freezer to the compost. Thus scarred, I avoided both bulk cooking and biryani for several years. But now, biryani has been redeemed.

When I first saw this recipe, I thought it was almost boring. Just tomatoes? No saffron or other such excitement? But it works, and it's perfect. Warm spices like cinnamon and cardamom combine with savory garlic, onion and tomatoes, creating the complex spicy interplay of flavors common to dishes from India's Moghul tradition. It's a simple thrifty pantry meal, easily dressed up if you want (I freestyled a spinach raita, which made a lovely complement). I prepared this for a potluck, where it stood out alongside grilled asparagus and a Greek egg-lemon soup, and was promptly devoured.

And if you're interested in exploring bulk cooking (with a well-tested recipe), I direct you towards this recent article on making your own freezer burritos (I've tasted the results of this recipe, and can vouch for its deliciousness). And, while I'm sending the links, I'll direct you to an NPR story I produced about a new type of training program at the local women's prison. Here's to delicious success, in the kitchen and in life.

Tomato Biryani

adapted from Pauljoseph via Food52
serves ~3

1 cup basmati rice
2 Tbsp butter, ghee, coconut oil, or canola oil
1/4 tsp whole cloves (don't overdo this one - cloves are potent)
6 cardamom pods
2 cinnamon sticks (~3 inches each)
2 blades mace (if you don't have this, no worries)
1 small red onion, cut in half and sliced thinly into half-moons
1 tsp julienned fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 hot red or green chiles, cut into thin strips or slices
into thin strips (seeds included -- I used two frozen red Thai chiles, and they provided a good amount of heat)
1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes
1 tsp coarse salt
1/4 tsp turmeric
1/4 cup minced cilantro

Place the rice in a bowl, and cover with water. Swish around, then drain, and repeat until the water no longer turns cloudy. Cover the rice with fresh water, then let sit for 20-30 minutes until the grains soften.

Heat the butter or oil in a pot over a medium-high heat. Add the cloves, cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks and mace (if using). Let sizzle until fragrant, ~15-30 seconds. Add the onion, and saute until brown around the edges, 5-7 minutes.

When the onion slices have browned, add the ginger, garlic and chiles. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute
(the garlic won't be fully cooked, but that's fine), then add the tomatoes, salt and turmeric. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are softened, ~5-7 minutes.

When the tomatoes are soft, drain the rice and add to the pot, stirring well. Add 1 1/2 cups water, and cook, uncovered, over the same medium-high heat, until the water cooks down to the surface level of the rice, and craters are beginning to appear in its surface. At this point you can give it a stir to mix, then reduce heat to its lowest possible setting and cover the pot. Cook, undisturbed, for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and allow to sit for another 10 minutes.

When the rice has cooked and rested, remove the lid, and fluff with a fork. Remove the aromatics if you like (trying not to mush the rice overmuch), or just make sure to warn diners about them. Sprinkle with cilantro and serve.


  1. I've never heard of the term "blades of mace". I know the mace (covering the nutmeg) looks lacy, like a net... could it be that it breaks off in blade-like shards?

    I'm totally the opposite, and usually cook stuff I've never made when I have new tastebuds to play with. Probably, because I can't serve certain things to my husband and garner enjoyment myself at the same time! But, those freezer burritos... I'll have to check that out - that is right up his alley!

  2. The 'blades' of mace are the little individual fingers of it that cover the nutmeg (and, truth be told, I omitted them and it was still delicious, though the recipe author says mace really defines South Indian cooking).

    Let me know if you end up doing a burrito-rolling session!