Rice Casserole (Vegetarian Biryani)

A perfectly cooked fragrant rice dish can be a great meal for entertaining small or large crowds, but it is primarily used as a festive side dish for special occasions such as weddings in India. I first tasted this dish while visiting one of my brothers-in-law in Lucknow, India. To me, it is nothing more than my version of rice casserole, which is basically a “one pot” meal known as biryani. Traditional biryani is fairly time consuming, requiring lengthy prep and cooking times due in part to the endless ingredients that are needed.

My version focuses more on simplicity while not sacrificing taste. I don’t claim that this is the best vegetarian biryani (if you can even call it that) but I would suggest we leave that to the food critics. In any event, I love to make this “one pot” meal as long as I have the needed ingredients in the refrigerator. With your choice of vegetables (assortment of vegetables or meat), long grain rice, nuts, spices and herbs, you can create a delicious meal based on what’s in the refrigerator. The key is that you want to partially cook the vegetables and rice separately (traditionally the rice was cooked more than halfway through) and then layer and bake it in the oven. The type of rice and vegetables selected for this dish is one of personal taste. However, the traditional rice for the festive biryani is always prepared with basmati rice. Like any Indian dish, there are probably as many variations of any given recipe as there are cooks. I prefer to serve it with plain yogurt or cucumber raita, sliced tomatoes and plain papads.

1 1/2 cups basmati or any long grain rice
2 2/3 cups water infused with aromatic spices
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads dissolved in warm water or warm milk
3 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil
1/2 cup cashew halves or choice of nuts
1 large onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
1 cup of each – green beans and carrots, cut diagonally
2 cups cauliflower florets or as needed
1 tablespoon biryani masala or as needed
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/2 cup frozen green peas, thawed
1/8 cup of each – chopped mint and coriander leaves
Crispy fried onion, thinly sliced tomatoes or choice of garnish
Plain yogurt or raita

1) Wash the rice thoroughly under the cold running water until there is no milky residue present. Cover with cold water and soak for 30 minutes. Drain in a sieve and set aside.
2) Make a bouquet garni by placing 2 bay leaves, 1-inch crushed cinnamon stick, 3 crushed cardamom pods, 5 cloves, 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds and 8 crushed black peppercorns in a 6-inch muslin cloth and tie with white string. Or simply add the aromatics to boiling water and strain before adding to sauteed rice.
3) Bring water to a full boil and add the bouquet garni. Reduce the heat to low and let it simmer covered while you prepare the vegetables (or meat) and rice.
4) In a large skillet heat 1 tablespoon oil or preferably ghee and fry cashew halves until aromatic. I omit this step. Carefully remove cashew halves with a slotted spoon to a plate. Set aside.
5) Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to skillet and add black cumin seeds if desired. (Traditionally at this point whole aromatics – one-inch piece crushed cinnamon stick, 6 peppercorns, 2 crushed cardamom pods, 2 bay leaves and 5 whole cloves were added before adding onion). Stir in onion and saute until translucent. Add ginger-garlic paste (or masala paste), green beans, carrots and cauliflower florets. (Again these vegetables were sautéed individually in different stages).
6) Add more oil if desired. Cook the vegetables until caramelized, stirring frequently to prevent vegetables from scorching. Stir in the biryani masala and salt to taste (I add only 1/2 teaspoon of this masala since I find most of the commercial blends quite spicy for my palate but add my own mix – ground fennel, cumin-coriander, turmeric, a generous pinch of cinnamon, freshly grated nutmeg and cardamom). At this stage add 1/4 cup plain yogurt and green peas and stir to mix thoroughly. Lower the heat and cook until the vegetables are almost done. Add the mint and coriander leaves if desired (since I have picky eaters try to omit adding these herbs in the cooking process).
7) Meanwhile in a 3-quart saucepan add 1/2 tablespoon oil just to coat the bottom of the pan and saute rice until opaque (traditionally rice was fried or toasted without washing in generous amount of ghee which took longer time to cook). Add the boiled water to rice and discard the bouquet garni. Stir in the salt to taste and cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid and simmer for about 8 to 10 minutes until rice is almost cooked.
8)Carefully spread a thin layer of rice (approximately 1 1/2 cups rice) evenly in the bottom of a lightly buttered 3-quart casserole dish or douch oven with ovenproof tight fitting lid. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon saffron water in a circular motion and scatter the vegetables evenly over the rice. (At this stage I like to add my favorite nuts).
9) Repeat the process until all the ingredients are used and drizzle the remaining saffron water in a circular motion over the rice and top with the nuts. Cover with a lid or aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes in the middle rack of the oven. At this stage it can easily be prepared in the microwave. Let it sit for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Note: I prefer 1 part rice to 2 part of an assortment of vegetables and some kind of protein (Japanese eggplants, Italian green beans, mushrooms, green, red bell pepper and water chestnut) with the tomato based spice sauce and pressed tofu.

Yield: 6-8 servings.

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