Biryani is comfort food. On cool evenings, its sweet aroma mills through the house promising a warm hearty dinner. But I don’t know what biryani is. Many have prepared it for me; restaurants, foodies, Indians, and Bangladeshis. Rice cooked with herbs and masala spices seems to be the baseline of the dish. From there, diversity abounds.
Many argue that to cook the rice with the rest of your ingredients isn’t a biryani at all, but a pilaf. Yet others argue that cooking the rice in the meat gravy is an essential part of a biryani. I firmly fall in the latter camp. Even par-cooking the rice prior to adding the meat and sauce, while reducing the cooking time, will rob the final dish of a profound depth of flavor.
The following is my variation on chicken biryani. I make no claim that it is traditional or conventional as I borrow many techniques used in European style stewing. It is, however, wonderful.
Chicken thighs are the perfect cut for this biryani. The twice-cooking technique handles the connective tissue beautifully, creating a tender meat and rich base. Using breast meat will produce tough dry nuggets.
Biryani recipes usually call for mint, however I do not care to use it in my preparation. The relatively long cooking time can cause the already strong mint flavor to overdevelop, giving the final dish a hint of candy-cane. Instead, I prefer to use mint in the raita I serve with the biryani. This still gives the mint flavor, a brightness from which the otherwise heavy dish benefits, while giving you far greater control over its strength.
Several traditional ingredients to the dish are omitted here, notably saffron and yogurt. Saffron, in my experience, is difficult to use properly here. It has a strong and wonderful taste, but I have not been able to harmoniously integrate it with the other flavors. That is, diners always remark, “Wow! This is great. I really taste the saffron.”
Omitting the yogurt from the dish removes an important tanginess, that I replace with red wine. The wine also imparts a slight astringency to the final product that I rather like. Also cooked yogurt curdles, delivering a mealiness to the finished biryani. The wine does not completely compensate however, so plenty of raita made with strained yogurt is called for when served.
Lastly, many will note the absence of potatoes in my recipe. I find the doubling up on starches unpleasant. Also the final texture of the potatoes is difficult to get right. Most restaurants using potato in biryani are just doing it for filler anyway.
6 chicken thighs
2 tbl ghee or vegetable oil
1 large onion
3 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 tbl. finely chopped ginger
3 tbl tomato paste
1 tbl garam masala*
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 c. red wine
1 c. chopped cilantro
1-3 green chilies, seeded and chopped (optional)
1/4 c. almond slivers or cashews
1 vine ripened tomato, skinned, seeded, and diced (optional)
1 quart chicken stock
2 c. basmati rice
pepper to taste
Bone the chicken thighs and cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes. Thinly slice the onions radially into half moons.
Place the rice in a bowl, and rinse with no less than four changes of water. When the bowl is full of water, be sure to abrade the grains with your hands vigorously to scrub off the starch. When doing this correctly, the water will become quite cloudy. When finished, the water should remain relatively clear. Pour out the remaining water, then fill with bowl with rice back up with cold water. Set aside to soak.
Heat a cast iron dutch oven, preferably enameled, over medium high heat. Liberally salt the meat. Add half of the ghee or oil to the dutch oven (it should instantly start to smoke), then add a handful of the meat. Spread around the pan giving each piece plenty of room. If you add too much or over crowd the pan, the meat will not brown. Brown the meat well on all sides, remove, and set aside. Add another handful of meat following the same procedure. If the bottom of the pan looks too dry, you may need to add more oil or ghee to finish browning. Repeat until all of the meat has been browned. Add about 1/4 cup of chicken stock to the pan and deglaze. Pour the deglazing liquid over the browned meat.
Return the dutch oven stove, reducing the heat to medium. When the temperature of the pan comes back up, add the remaining oil or ghee. Add the onions and cook stirring frequently until they are deep brown. This can take as long as twenty minutes; it is important not to rush this process. When the onions are almost finished, add the garlic and ginger. Cook for 30 seconds then add the tomato paste. Cook, stirring vigorously, for about a minute to let the tomato paste cook out.
Add the garam masala and turmeric, and cook stirring very rapidly for 10 to 15 seconds. Quickly add the red wine. This is a critical step, because if you do not add the wine quickly enough, the spices will burn, thus ruining the dish. Continue to cook, reducing the wine to near dryness. Add back the meat and deglazing liquid back to the pot. The ingredients in the pot should be very dry at this point. Mix them thoroughly.
Add 1 cup of chicken stock to the pot. If this is not sufficient to mostly cover the meat add some more. Add some of your cilantro, 1 tsp salt, and about 1/4 tsp of fresh ground pepper. Reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The sauce should be pleasantly thick at this point. Check and adjust your salt. Depending on how much salt you used on the raw meat you may need to add some more. It may seem too salty at this point, but don’t worry as quite a lot of rice is going in. Remove the pan from the heat.
Sprinkle in the chopped green chilies. Use more or less depending on your desired level of spiciness. The dish will be fine if you chose to omit them entirely. Sprinkle about half of the cilantro on top of the meat and sauce.
Preheat your oven to 350° F. You may want to start this earlier if your oven takes a long time to warm up.
Drain the rice well. Carefully add the rice on top of the meat and sauce in the dutch oven. Use a rubber spatula to get all of the rice out and spread it even in the pot. The rice is very fragile at this point, and too vigorous a movement will break the grains resulting in a dense matted final product. Do not stir the rice down in the pot.
Slowly pour in chicken stock being careful to keep the rice evenly distributed. Add enough to cover the rice by about half a centimeter. Cover and place in the oven for 45 minutes.
While the rice is in the oven, toast your almonds or cashews, either in a pan or in the oven, until golden brown. Let cool, then crush into large chunks. A rolling pin can work nicely for the almonds.
This is a good time to prepare your tomato if you are using it. Blanch quickly in boiling water to skin. Seed it and chop the tomato. The tomato isn’t strictly necessary, however it does serve as a textural and color contrast to the rice and works to brighten the overall flavor.
At 45 minutes, check the doneness of the rice by tasting some. You may need to let it go for another 10 minutes or so.
Once done, pull out of the oven and pour into a mound onto a warmed serving platter, fluffing as you go. Sprinkle on the diced tomato, toasted nuts, and remaining cilantro. Serve at the table with ample quantities of riata.
* As always, creating you own spice mixtures and grinding at the last minute is the way to go. But using a high grade commercial preparation will produce good results as well.