Aren’t rice dishes amazing? I mean, almost every country has a signature rice dish: Spanish Paella, Persian Jewelled Rice, Chinese Fried Rice, Italian Risotto, Southern American Jambalaya, Jamaican Beans and Rice, Middle Eastern Mujadara and on and on… pilaf, pilau, plov… And I love them all. There is something so complex, magical, comforting about a one-pot rice and veggie and meat (optional) dish. It can be creamy or loose, spicy or tame, but they are the ultimate casserole.
And India and Pakistan cannot be left out. They have Biryani. I adore biryani! All the components are there: spice, warmth, freshness, tang, texture, and versatility. Our favourite Pakistani/North Indian restaurant here in Toronto makes the best biryanis: vegetable, chicken, lamb. I love seeing all the fresh spices, the cumin seeds, the cardamom pods, the broken cinnamon sticks stuck to bits of rice or vegetables. And the fresh cilantro strewn throughout for tang and contrast. And those chilli peppers sitting daringly on top: ‘go on, eat me if you’re brave enough’.
Growing up, there was a family from Pakistan that lived next door. I will admit, as a 10 year old living in a very German home, the aromas that drifted over from their kitchen were so foreign and somewhat disconcerting for me. My mother had never cooked with so many of those spices, let alone all at once so that they would create such a unique and yet pungent fragrance. It took moving to Toronto to become accustomed to the unique fragrances and ingredients of ethnic cuisines. Only then did I begin to appreciate not only the flavours, aromas and ingredients, but the cultures that created them. We became good friends with a family from Pakistan. I was enamoured with standing over Maureen’s shoulder as she cooked. She would put on such a feast for us when we came for dinner. And there was always one dish that had that plump red or green chilli sitting on top. The first time we ate at their home, Lionel, her husband, asked Jim, “Do you like spicy food?” “Oh yes!” So he pointed at the pepper, and said, “I will save the pepper for you then.” “Oh you eat the pepper?” “But of course.” To be hospitable, they bantered back and forth over who would get the pepper. Finally Lionel insisted that Jim take it. So he did. Only afterwards did we realize how intently the kids and Maureen were watching, let alone Lionel. as Jim bit into it. Poor dear… apparently Lionel had chosen a chilli pepper that even he would never have bitten into. On purpose. We all had a great laugh. Jim learned his lesson. Only if the host partakes of the chilli, must it be safe for the Canadian boy from Saskatchewan.
But I learned a lot from Maureen. The dals, and curries, the teas, and samosas, pakoras, bhaji and naan and roti. Mind you, as much as we loved the foods we were discovering and embracing, it was their sense of humour that truly won us over. We never laughed so much as when we were all together with their boisterous family. And she had so many pithy sayings she brought with her when they first moved to Canada. Good times, fondly remembered.
That restaurant I was telling you about earlier, Lahore Tikka House- well, we became quite friendly with the owner. He was a larger than life character who was so friendly and approachable and made time for all his customers. I remember when we first started going there, probably 16 years ago now, I mentioned to him that while I love his dishes so much, I do have to behave, what with all the fat that must be in them. He ran back into the kitchen and came back with a huge industrial sized jug of oil. “We only use canola oil” he told me proudly! Not sure if that suddenly cancelled out all of my concerns, but I couldn’t help smiling at his enthusiasm. When we were chatting one day (he would often pull up a chair and visit with us for a half hour or more at a time) and I said that I was going to try making Butter Chicken, chana masala, palak dal and aloo gobi at home, he went back into the kitchen and returned with a container of spices and one of red lentils. He told me that these come from Pakistan, that he only uses spices from back home for the restaurant, as he still hadn’t been able to source them to his liking here in Toronto. Very particular! And now he was sharing them with me 🙂 Through the years I gleaned a lot from him, as he was always happy to chat food and ingredients with me. Sadly, he passed away suddenly a couple of years back, and as much as we love the restaurant still, it isn’t quite the same. There’s a hole that will never be filled.
So, the dish I made this week pays tribute to both Maureen, and Alnoor from Lahore Tikka House. The spices and the flavours capture their influence completely. And the heat is there as well!! Lamb Biryani is that rice dish that is complex layers of spices, warmth, fluffiness and tender meat. But you could totally make this into a vegetarian version by replacing the lamb with brown lentils. I will give the instructions below.
So rice dishes… which ones make you all cozy inside?
- 1.5 tsp whole black peppercorns
- 1.5 tsp cumin seeds
- 1 tsp cardamom seeds , removed from the pods
- 1.5 tsp coriander seeds
- 1-2 " cinnamon stick , broken up
- 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
- 7 whole cloves
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp saffron threads
- 2 tbsp boiling water
- 3 tbsp canola or olive oil
- 4 large onions , thinly slices (slice from the north to the south poles!)
- 1 tbsp fresh ginger , chopped
- 1 tsp fresh turmeric , grated or finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic , minced
- 2 lb lamb (chops or relatively lean cut) cut into 1" cubes
- 1.5 cups of greek yogurt
- 2 cups basmati rice
- 3 tbsp sliced or slivered almonds
- 2 tbsp currants , plumped up in boiling water and then drained
- 2 fresh serrano peppers , sliced, or 1 tbsp pickled jalapeños
- 2 fresh red chilli peppers
- 3 tbsp fresh cilantro , loosely chopped
Combine the peppercorns through cloves in a small bowl. Heat a heavy skillet over medium high heat. Once hot, add all the spices. Cook for about 60 seconds, till fragrant, shaking pan to move the spices around. But don't burn. Remove from pan into a spice or coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. Let cool. Then grind as fine as you can get (the cinnamon will be the most challenging) Add the cayenne and salt.
In a small bowl add the saffron and crush with the back of a spoon to make the fronds smaller. Add the boiling water. Stir and set aside for the rice.
TO MAKE THE LAMB
Heat the oil in a large pot (must be ovenproof) or dutch oven over medium high heat. Add the onion slices. Cook until well browned. This could take 10-15 minutes. Once all browned, removed 2/3 of the onions for later.
Add the chopped ginger, garlic and turmeric. Saute with the onions for a 3 minutes. Don't let the garlic burn- reduce heat if necessary.
Bring the heat back up the medium high. Push the onion garlic mixture to the edges and add the lamb cubes. Add a bit of oil if necessary. Brown well on the first side (don't move the lamb pieces around). Add the spice blend you made earlier and stir in well. Add the greek yogurt. Stir once, the yogurt should be just starting to bubble away. Cover and reduce heat to low and cook till the lamb is tender, about 45 minutes to an hour. Check at 45 minutes though.
While the lamb is cooking, prepare the rice: Place the rice in a strainer over a bowl. Run cold water over the rice, stirring it with your hands in the strainer, and then draining the water. Keep doing this until the water in the bowl is clear. Then leave the rice in the strainer in the bowl with clear water to sit for about 30 minutes.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drain the rice well and add to the pot. After the water returns to the boil, cook for 5 minutes. Drain it and return to an empty bowl. Drizzle the saffron water over the rice.
Preheat oven to 350F.
Take a large lidded casserole dish or braising pan that will hold all the rice and lamb and spray or butter it lightly.
Take the rice and spread 1/3 of it in the dish. Spread half of the lamb mixture evenly over the rice. Repeat with another 1/3 of the rice, and then the other half of the lamb. Top with the remaining rice. Add the red chilli peppers to the top.
Cover with tin foil. Then place the lid on top of the foil to create a tight seal
Bake for 40 minutes. When you remove from the oven, be careful when you remove the foil- there will be steam.
At this point you will be removing the top layer of rice, and setting aside temporarily.
Combine the remaining lamb and rice in the casserole dish. Taste and adjust any seasonings. Add 2 tbsp of the fresh cilantro to the mixture. Pile this up on a serving platter or bowl. Cover with the remaining rice.
Strew the remaining onions you sautéed earlier over the entire dish. Garnish with the almonds, currants and sliced serrano peppers. Top with the red chili peppers and see if anyone will grab one!
LENTIL (VEGETARIAN) VERSION: TO BE PREPARED BEFORE YOU BEGIN SAUTÉING THE ONIONS
1 1/4 cups of dry, clean brown or green lentils
2 1/2 cups of vegetable stock Rinse the lentils in a strainer using cold water.
Transfer the lentils to a medium saucepan. Add the stock. Bring to a rapid simmer over medium high heat and then reduce to a gentle simmer. Cook uncovered for 15-20 minutes. They should be just shy of tender. Drain. Once you have reached the point where you have sauteed the ginger and garlic, you can then add the lentils, spice blend and the yogurt. Stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cover. Reduce the heat to low and let simmer until the lentils are tender, about 10 more minutes. (check to see if there is enough liquid- if not, add a bit of water to get the lentils cooked to tender)
At this point you can layer with the rice and continue with the recipe.