Rice is one of my most favorite side dishes. I think I can enjoy it with almost anything or even by itself. For so many cultures it's a staple food, including India, where basmati rice reigns supreme. A variety of long-grain white rice, basmati is fragrant and very tender and nutty tasting once cooked. It's mainly grown in India but it's used all over Southeast Asia and the Middle East. It's what makes this biryani authentic and special.
You'll find variations on biryani from India to Iran. The dish is like a pilaf and includes a number of different vegetables. It can also be made with meat—turning it into a main dish of sorts, but it's great just on its own. Its flavors are definitely predominant enough to carry the entire dish.
The classic recipe for biryani is made in two parts. While you cook the rice you'll also want to cook the vegetables. This way the two are finishing cooking at the same time. Then it's just a matter of combining everything. A bit of yogurt stirred in with the vegetables enriches the flavor and texture of the rice as well, but you could leave it out if you prefer. With just a handful of Indian spices you can make this dish whenever you crave the flavors of the East.
Vegetable Biryani with Golden Raisins and Pistachios
for the rice:
1 cup Basmati rice
large pinch saffron
2 tablespoons warm milk
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/4 teaspoon cumin seed
1/4 teaspoon coriander seed
small cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
3 cardamom pods
4 whole cloves
1/2 cup golden raisins
fine sea salt
for the vegetables:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium yellow onion, sliced
2 garlic cloves, grated
1 tablespoon grated ginger (about 1-inch piece)
2 Serrano chiles, minced
1 cup sliced carrot (about 1 large)
1 cup cauliflower florets
1 cup sliced green beans (about 4 ounces)
1/2 cup yogurt, sour cream, or coconut milk
1/2 cup unsalted pistachios
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
In a sieve, rinse the rice under running water. Crumble saffron into a small bowl and pour over with warm milk and let soak until bright yellow.
Melt butter in a pot set over medium heat. Add spices and toast until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add rice and toast until opaque, about 2 minutes. Add 1-3/4 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon salt and bring to a simmer. Stir in the raisins. Cover and cook on low until rice is tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and keep covered for 10 minutes.
Warm oil in a large sauté pan set over medium-high heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, and chile. Sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add carrot, cauliflower, and green beans. Pour in 1/2 cup water and scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom of pan. Season with salt. Bring to a simmer, cover, and cook until vegetables are tender, about 10 minutes. Uncover and cook a few minutes more to evaporate excess liquid. Stir in yogurt off from heat.
In a large mixing bowl, gently combine rice and vegetables with a rubber spatula and toss in pistachios and cilantro. Serve immediately. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.