Anna Jones A Biryani and pilaf of dreams
The masterful preparation of basmati rice has eluded our columnist, until now. Here, the side dish she has so often overlooked becomes the star of the show in a saffron infused biryani and a speedy, but satisfying, lemon pilaf
There seems to be a rice dish to suit every mood and soothe any ill. Rice has a mothering quality, from the stodgy reassurance of a Thai sticky sidekick to a calming bowl of risotto. As starches go, however, rice has always lagged behind bread, potatoes, pasta and even noodles in my kitchen.
Recently, though, there has been a rice renaissance in our house thanks to my brother-in-law, Phil. He makes the kind of fluffy basmati rice that has always eluded me: tender within, but with a light bite on the outside; fluffy, but with a toothsome stickiness. I’ve spent the past year trying to perfect it and I think I might finally be there.
This buttered lemon basmati pilaf is my new comfort food. It’s the kind of rice you can put beside anything
– a curry, a winter stew – although sometimes I need nothing more than a bowl on its own. Gentle and simple.
The other reason for my rediscovery of rice was my yearning for warming spices as autumn kicks in; rice is quite the vehicle for the likes of cinnamon, saffron and clove. Last week, I cooked this biryani – one of the most stratified dishes I can remember eating. The rice is only partially cooked before it’s layered with vegetables, herbs and fried onions in a pot, then covered and baked in the oven until just the right side of crunchy. A biryani feels celebratory, I always think.
These dishes were the yin and yang of my kitchen this week – and both from the same little grain I’ve been all but ignoring.
Biryani with saffron and golden veg
This may seem like a long ingredient list and a lot of stages, but it actually comes together quickly. The spices are needed to layer the flavours in a subtle yet generous way. The next day, you can saute its leftovers and eat them with a fried egg. I have kept the rose water optional as it splits opinion.
8 cardamom pods
A small stick of cinnamon
A few gratings of nutmeg
1 tsp fennel seeds
3 bay leaves
A large pinch of saffron
1-2 tsp rose water (optional)
4 tbsp ghee or butter
3 medium onions, peeled and thinly sliced
A small thumb of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 tsp ground turmeric
½ tsp garam masala
500g root vegetables, such as carrots, butternut squash and potato, grated Salt and black pepper
300g basmati rice
A small bunch of mint leaves
A small bunch of coriander
A small handful of flaked almonds
1 Set the oven to 220C/425F/gas 7. Put 4 cardamom pods, the cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, fennel seeds and bay into a pan with 500ml water. Bring to the boil, turn off the heat, then cover.
2 Crush the other cardamom pods, remove the seeds and finely grind, discarding the pods. Mix the powder with 4 tbsp warm water, the saffron and rosewater, if using.
3 Fry the onions in 1 tbsp of ghee until light brown and beginning to crisp. Set aside half. Add the ginger and garlic to the pan and fry the rest for 2 minutes.
4 Add the ground spices and grated veg. Fry for 3 minutes and season well.
5 Heat the remaining ghee in another
pan and fry the rice over a high heat for a few minutes, until shiny. Strain half the spice-and-bay liquid into the pan. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and cook for about 6 minutes, or until the liquid has evaporated.
6 Now, assemble your biryani. Put a layer of rice in an ovenproof dish. Sprinkle over the remaining strained spice-and-bay liquid and some of the saffron-rosewater liquid. Add a layer of the grated vegetable mix. Sprinkle over some of the fried onions, mint leaves and coriander. Repeat with another layer of rice and pour over the remaining saffron liquid. Dot the almonds on top. Cover the dish tightly with tin foil. Put in the oven for 40 minutes, reducing the heat to 190C/375F/gas 5 after 20 minutes. Fluff and mix with a fork before serving and top with extra fried onions and herbs.
Everyday buttered lemon pilaf
I use cup ratios here as I find it much easier when cooking rice to measure volume. If you don’t have a cup measure, a standard mug two-thirds full will be about the same. If you have time, soak the rice in cold water first, for up to an hour – this will knock two minutes off the cooking time. You’ll need a clean tea towel.
2 cups basmati rice
25g butter, ghee or coconut oil 1 tsp salt
1 Put the rice in a sieve, then run it under cold water for 30 seconds – until the water coming from the bottom of the sieve to look clear.
2 Fill and boil the kettle. Get a medium saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Put it on a medium heat, add the butter or oil and allow to melt and warm up a little. Add the rice. Cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring all the time, until it looks shiny.
3 Next, add 2 cups of boiling water, the salt and the juice of 1 lemon. Bring to the boil and simmer for 4 minutes with the lid off.
4 For best results, wrap your lid with a tea towel to absorb extra moisture. (Be very careful to tie it tightly over the lid as you don’t want it to fall off and catch fire.) I do this by tying opposite corners in a tight knot around the handle then repeating with the other two.
5 Once the rice has had 4 minutes, put the covered lid on top and leave the rice to cook on the very lowest heat for a further 8 minutes. Then turn it off and leave for at least 5 minutes, avoiding the temptation to peek. When you do take your lid off, you should see little puckered air holes in the rice and should be light and fluffy with no liquid at the bottom.
Last week I cooked this biryani - one of the most stratified dishes I can remember eating ...
Cook’s tip A note on rosewater. Rosewater varies in strength wildly, so always start by using a small amount, adding as you go.