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Vegetable Biryani, or What to Make When Your Kid Decides to Become a Vegetarian

4 Jun

Remember when I said that I was done with my frenzy of Indian food posts?  That Indian Food Week-Plus had drawn to a close?  Well, it turns out that I wasn’t being entirely truthful.  My duplicitousness was not purposeful, I promise.  I was all set to close the door on this cooking run of mine until my friend Mike, one of the most dedicated dads I know, who also happens to be one of the most dedicated carnivores I know, happened to mention that his daughter had decided to become a vegetarian.

Upon hearing that this young lady was weighing a switch to vegetarianism, the vegetarian-centric cooking node in my mind went into overdrive.  I was a vegetarian for most of my life, and many of those years were spent in the company of people who weren’t familiar with, and didn’t care to be familiar with, a balanced vegetarian diet.  As a result, I became what one might call a little bit slack in my own eating habits, and spent the better part of five or six years constructing my meals around a basic principle of cheese + carbs = not hungry anymore.  Obviously, it was not the healthiest thing I could have done, but since I never became lethargic from hunger or developed scurvy, I assumed, at the time, that whatever I was doing was fine.

Maybe it was, for a time, but, in the long term, that’s just no way to live.  Food, no matter if it contains meat or not, should be an experience that provides you with something more than just nourishment.  Food can be an adventure, a chance to learn, an opportunity for discovery, and when you’ve decided to make a huge change in the structure of your diet, there is no better time to start seeking out new frontiers in food and cooking.  And when you’re going vegetarian, there is no better place to focus than India.  I’ve written about this before, but one of the most notable things about Indian vegetarian cuisine is the fact that when food is made to focus on things other than meat, there is never a sense of something being missing.  There is no effort to make up for a lack of meat, and thus your experience eating a truly fine vegetarian meal is one of satisfaction and comfort rather than of substitution.

Thus, it is rather ironic that when I wanted to develop a great Indian dish for Mike’s daughter to try out, it ended up being based on a favorite chicken dish.  However, personal contradictions aside, this really is a phenomenal meal for anyone looking to develop a nice repertoire of vegetarian meals.  The perfect blend of spices adapts well to any vegetables you choose to include, and if you throw in a cup of cooked chickpeas to accompany the toasted cashews, you’ve got a one pot rice dish that also happens to be a source of complete protein.  Not that you have to utilize the old battering ram of healthfulness in order to get people to eat this.  I made this biryani last night, and, at the evening’s end, three people (two adults, one kindergartener) had eaten nearly every last grain.  With its mix of savory Indian flavors and perfectly roasted vegetables, I think your greatest challenge with this dish is making sure there is enough to go around.

Last Year: Six Threes Ice Cream

Dozens more vegetarian recipes can be found right here in the archives.

Vegetable Biryani Recipe

Heavily adapted from a non-vegetarian recipe in Mangoes and Curry Leaves

3 large cloves of garlic, grated finely (you want to end up with about 2 teaspoons total)

1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger

1 large Yukon gold potato, or 1 medium russet potato, diced into ¼-inch cubes

about 12 fresh green beans, chopped into 1-inch pieces (you should end up with ½ cup pieces)

½ cup frozen peas

1 ½ teaspoons ground coriander

½ teaspoon cayenne

¼ teaspoon turmeric

¼ teaspoon garam masala

2 teaspoons salt

2 cups basmati rice

3 medium-large onions (about 1 pound)

½ cup vegetable oil

½ cup lightly toasted, unsalted cashews

1 large tomato, diced into ½-inch pieces

1 cup minced cilantro leaves

2 tablespoons of water

About 1 hour before you want to serve the dish, place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a large bowl, combine the grated garlic and ginger, then mash together using the back of a spoon.  Add the diced potatoes, sliced green beans, and peas to the bowl with the garlic and ginger.  Add the coriander, cayenne, turmeric, garam masala, and 1 teaspoon of the salt.  Stir to mix until everything is combined, then cover with plastic wrap and allow vegetables to marinate while you prepare the other ingredients.

While the vegetables are marinating, rinse the rice in several changes of cold water.  Place in a bowl, cover with water, and allow to soak for about half an hour.

Slice the onions as fine as possible.  You will want about 3 cups of sliced onions.  Place a large heavy ovenproof pot with a tight-fitting lid over medium-high heat.  Add the oil and, when it is hot, add the onions.  Lower the heat to medium.  Cook until the onions are very soft, wilted, and just touched with golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes.  Lift the onions out of the hot oil and set aside.  There should be a little over ¼ cup of oil left in the pot.  Remove 2 tablespoons of oil from the pot and set aside for later.

When the onions are cooking, precook the soaked rice.  Place about 8 cups of water in a large pot and bring to a boil.  Add the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, and allow the water to come back up to a boil.  Sprinkle in the rice.  Allow rice to boil for 4 to 6 minutes, or until the rice is no longer brittle but still firm to the bite.  Drain in a colander and set aside.

Place the heavy pot containing the oil over medium-high heat.  Distribute half of the marinated vegetables over the bottom of the pot, then sprinkle on half the precooked rice.  Scatter half the cooked onions over the top, then sprinkle on half of the diced tomato, half of the cashews, and half of the cilantro leaves.  Repeat with the remaining marinated vegetables, rice, onion, tomato, cashews, and cilantro.  Sprinkle on about 2 tablespoons of water, and drizzle on the reserved 2 tablespoons of oil.  Lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the top of the pot to cover it completely, then top with the lid.

Transfer the pot to the oven and bake for 1 hour.

Carefully remove the lid and the aluminum foil (the pot will emit a great deal of steam, so stand back and be careful to steer clear of the hot cloud).  Remove the biryani to a platter.  Scrape out the crusty layer of vegetables and rice from the bottom of the pot, and lay it on top of the biryani.  Serve hot or warm.

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2 Responses to “Vegetable Biryani, or What to Make When Your Kid Decides to Become a Vegetarian”

  1. Rufus' Food and Spirits Guide June 4, 2012 at 3:43 pm #

    This makes me want to be a vegetarian!

    • savorysaltysweet June 4, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

      The good news is, you can still be an omnivore and eat this! I promise not to tell anyone if it turns out you like vegetarian biryani more than chicken biryani.

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