Early in the pandemic, Jim and I began weekly Zoom ‘Happy Hour’ get-togethers with some friends in Wisconsin, Marty and Maureen. Isolated from our families during the first pandemic holiday season, we decided to do a Zoom Thanksgiving together, agreeing on a menu that we would each do separately and then eat together.
It was a great success, so we repeated it for Christmas and New Years.
And then Marty made an announcement: His pandemic project was to learn to cook. Previously, his only contribution to family meals was to grill steaks and hamburgers.
He wanted to do more interesting things, and he asked me if I'd share recipes with him and mentor him as I prepared them.
Maureen voted 'yes' on the whole concept. Especially the me-as-mentor part.
So once or twice a month now, our ‘happy hour get-together’ is a ‘dinner get-together'. I’ll send Marty a recipe, we’ll both prepare it, and then eat together via Zoom.
We started out with easy recipes, but Marty was a quick study. We moved up to some more involved dishes and Marty was eager to try all different types of cuisine. We’ve cooked Italian food, Hungarian food, Chinese food, Spanish food, Middle Eastern food, Indian food… and next week, we’ll be making a Greek dinner.
Marty and Maureen live in a very small town in Wisconsin and they don’t have access to diverse ethnic restaurants like we do. So this has really been a treat for them — in some cases, these meals were the rest time they’ve had certain types of cuisine. They also now shop in a Central Market-type grocery store in another town — and that’s been a treat for them too.
A couple of weeks ago, we made biryani — a popular Indian dish — and it was the first time they had Indian food. They loved it, and since the recipe we used makes a huge pot of it, they shared it with many neighbors and family members… all of whom thought it was outstanding. The recipe we used follows. But first, let me point out a few things about it:
The original recipe is by Tejal Rao and was published in the New York Times. I’ve only made a few modifications to it, but two of them are significant. The first is that I make it with pork. Traditional biryani is made with lamb or goat. Pork is less expensive and we like it better. Second, I use red rice instead of white basmati rice. The dish also includes saffron, and the white rice takes on a vibrant orange-gold color. That doesn’t happen with red rice, so my version doesn’t look like traditional biryani. But, we like red rice better, and more significantly, it’s healthier. Since there is so much riced in this dish, this substitution is important to us. One might argue that my modified version isn’t really biryani anymore. I still call it biryani. And the folks from Wisconsin certainly didn’t know any better.
This recipe is a project. It’s started the night before by preparing a fairly involved marinade, and preparation and cooking time takes hours.
There are a lot of spices in this recipe — many of which are not common pantry items. I suggest you shop at Central Market and buy spices in the bulk area. It will be far less expensive than buying full containers of each spice.
This recipe will feed an army. But, it freezes very well. I recommend doing the full recipe… it’s a lot of work, so best to spread that work out over several meals.
This is a stock photo, and it shows biryani with white basmati rice.
For the pork:
4 serrano chiles, stems removed
8 cloves of garlic, peeled
a 4" piece of fresh ginger, peeled
2 medium sweet onions, quartered
2 Roma tomatoes, quartered
1 cup of full-fat plain yogurt
1 cup of fresh mint leaves
1 cup of fresh cilantro leaves
1 tablespoon of ground coriander
1 tablespoon of ground cumin
1 teaspoon of chile powder
½ teaspoon of ground turmeric
2 teaspoons of salt
3.5 to 4 lb pork shoulder or roast, cut into 1.5 to 2" cubes
2" cinnamon stick
12 whole black peppercorns
6 green cardamom pods
1 tablespoon garam masala
For the fried onions:
1 cup of neutral oil, such as grapeseed or canola
2 sweet onions, thinly sliced
½ teaspoon of salt
For the rice:
2.5 cups of red rice
6 tablspoons of whole milk
½ teaspoon saffron threads
2 cups of mixed fresh cilantro and mint leaves
6 tablsepoons of butter, sliced
Prepare the marinade the night before: combine the serrano chiles, garlic and ginger in a food processor until finely chopped. Add the onions and tomatos and process until smooth. Scrape it into a large bowl and add the yogurt, mint, cilantro, coriander, cumin, chile powder, turmeric and salt. Stir to combine. Add the pork and toss to coat the pork with the marinade. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Prepare the fried onions: Heat the oil on low in a large heavy pot. Add the onions and salt and sauté on low until browned, aboout 25 to 30 minutes, stirring occasiionally. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and place on a plate lined with a paper towel. Using 2 forks, separate the onions a bit to prevent them from sticking together too much. Set the onions aside.
Turn the heat up to medium and add the cinnamon, peppercorns, cloves and cardamom to the pot. Fry until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Stir in the meat, its marinade and 1 cup water, and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender and the sauce is very thick and dark, about 2 1/2 hours, adjusting the heat as needed to maintain a low simmer. Stir in the garam masala.
While the meat is cooking, prepare the rice. Cook per pacage instructions, however, only cook for ¾ of the cooking time in the instructions.
Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.
Prepare the saffron milk: Warm the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until it steams. Take off the heat. Add the saffron by crumbling it with your fingers as you drop it into the milk.
In a large, heavy oven-proof pot or Dutch oven, add about ⅓ of the meat mixture, and spread it evenly so it is covering the bottom of the pot. Sprinkle the meat with a third of the herbs and a third of the rice, assembling lightly without packing the layers. Drizzle 2 tablespoons saffron milk over the rice and add about a third of the fried onions. Build two more layers of meat, herbs, rice, saffron milk and onions. Top with pats of butter and cover the pot with foil.
Put a lid on the pot and bake until piping hot, about 1 hour. Let rest for about 10 minutes, then serve hot.
Jane Gennarelli is co-editor of LNF Weekly. She also edits the Lavaca & Friends weekly arts and entertainment newsletter.