Monday, September 20, 2010

Indian Feast Pt. 1: Sweet Pepper Fennel Biryani

Once again, these blog posts seem to come in a sort of drought-flood pattern.  I think it's because the very same multitasking that made me so anxious when I was working in cafes (as a server, not a cook) is actually really fun when I am just cooking for myself.  Why make one recipe when you can make four?

Sweet Pepper Fennel Biryani (below) ~ Baingan Bharta ~ Hyderabad Cauliflower ~ Pear Chutney

Most of the spices I used last night!

There's also a pleasure and a functionality to making things that "go together," at least to my untrained palate.  I'm guessing that the combo of three dishes I made (besides the chutney) is a bit more geographically incoherent than might be ... oh, don't use the a-word ... typical?

That said, this was easily

some of the best food I've ever made.

The flavors were so complex, interesting, refreshing, comforting... it was so good, I wanted to cry.

The biryani the least so; in comparison, it seemed a little bland, but it was still interesting and satisfying.  I don't usually go out of my way to make rice dishes, but I was once again seduced by the opportunity to use fennel in a new and interesting way.  The earthiness of the tempeh and the spices, and the sweetness of the long-cooked peppers and onion (especially combined with the fennel), make for a very pleasant savory flavor.  Given the different colors of peppers, it's also very pretty (despite what the last photo, with its wilted cilantro, might suggest).

For this casserole-type dish, I began with Suvir Saran's recipe in Indian Home Cooking, but I made a half-recipe.  I halved the mustard seeds, doubled the garlic, and used brown basmati rice (and changed some water amounts and cooking times accordingly).  I didn't have the tomato chutney the recipe called for, so I added some sugar and some curry powder; on reflection, the slightly-less-spectacular nature of this dish might have been my fault.  Finally, I added a bunch of tempeh along with the bell peppers towards the end.

The assembly is simple: you parboil some rice while in a skillet you make the everything-else mixture.  Then you layer rice and vegetables and bake it.  As with other oven dishes, it's great for entertaining because you can prepare everything ahead of time and bake it just before serving.


Sweet Pepper Fennel Biryani

spice powder:
1/2 TB coriander seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp black mustard seeds
1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1/2 of a whole dried chile, broken into pieces
5 c of water
1 c brown basmati rice
2 TB canola oil
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1-2 whole dried chilies, broken into pieces
1/2 large onion, diced
1/2 tsp salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 bell peppers (any colors)
2/3 a block of tempeh, steamed (optional) and chopped into 1/2-in cubes
1 small tomato, chopped
1 TB sugar
3/8 c (6 TB) chopped fresh cilantro, divided

1. Combine all the ingredients of the spice powder, grind, and set aside.
2. In a saucepan, combine water and rice, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer about 10 minutes.  Drain rice and set aside.
3. In a large skillet, combine the oil, cumin, and chilies over medium high heat; cook 1-2 minutes.  Add onion and salt; cook about 5 minutes, until onion is softened.  Add garlic; cook 30 seconds, then add spice powder and cook 30 more seconds.  Add the peppers and the tempeh and cook several minutes, until tempeh begins to brown.  Add a few tablespoons of water and continue cooking about 6 more minutes.  Add the tomato, curry powder, and sugar, and cook 5 minutes more.  Add salt to taste.
4. Preheat oven to 350*.  In an 8-x-8 baking dish, spread about 1 c of cooked rice.  Then spread half of the pepper mixture over that.  Then sprinkle about 2 TB of cilantro.  Then 3/4 rice.  Then remaning vegetable mixture.  Then 2 TB cilantro.  Then rice.
4B. Or, if you're more of a visual person like me:
5. Cover dish with foil.  Bake for 35 minutes, and let stand 10 minutes more.  Sprinkle with remaining 2 TB cilantro, and serve.  Serves about 4.

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