What is your favorite cuisine? It’s not an easy question. Each has something unique to offer — intense heat and flavor depth in Vietnamese cooking, Morocco’s balance of sweet and savory, rich and aromatic Thai, slow-simmering North Italian. I appreciate many cuisines, but my heart goes with Indian.

In 2001 my dad found out he’d spend three weeks in India for work. Our family began experimenting at home with less Americanized recipes, ate local Indian fare and bought wonderfully delicious treats at the Indian sweets shop. Since that time I’ve continued my Indian cookery exploration, learning several crucial lessons along the way. I’d like to share with you the two I feel are most important:

1. Do not be intimidated by long ingredient lists, some of which may be new to you. This is the number one reason I hear from people who refuse to make Indian food at home. Many of these ‘new’ ingredients are spices and can be found at larger grocery stores in the spice aisle, at Indian or Asian specialty foods stores, or at spice purveyors, such as Penzey’s or The Spice House

2. Read through the entire recipe, prep ingredients in advance and have them close at hand, preferably in order of use. Indian cooking can be fast-paced — an add, add, add mentality — so it’s helpful to have spices measured onto a plate, vegetables cut, sauces and grains measured into dishes, and the proteins cleaned, trimmed and seasoned appropriately.

Biryani — baked rice, usually layered with meat — should have a sweet fragrance and herbal warm aroma; be savory, not too spicy. It was the first Indian dish we made after my dad returned. It was one he’d enjoyed several varieties of in various parts of India, and one we’d eventually turn to many times at home.

When I’m cooking at home, I often settle on a full-flavored vegetarian biryani with mushrooms, peas, a quick homemade masala paste and toasted cashews. I serve a cool cucumber raita on the side, which is just the thing to balance a subtle heat. Large bowlfuls we thought impossible to finish disappear quick.

I really recommend you try cooking Indian food at home. What do you think? Remember my two crucial lessons — Don’t be intimidated and Prep, prep, prep. I am hopeful you’ll give it a chance, enjoy the process, and discover new flavors you didn’t know you loved! Let me know.

Mushroom Cashew Biryani [serves 2 as an entrée, or 4 as a side]

Printable recipe

If you feel the need to offer accompaniments, try garlic-buttered naan or Robin’s moong dal soup in starter portions. Leftovers (if there are any) can be served up a few days later, tasting as good, if not better than before.

1 T vegetable or grapeseed oil, plus 1 T for frizzling onions

1 T ghee (clarified butter) or butter

1 large white onion, sliced

Masala Paste (recipe below)

1 c white button mushrooms, coarsely chopped

1/2 t turmeric powder

1/2 t red chilli powder

1 t garam masala

1 large tomato, pureed, to equal about 1 c

1 t tomato paste

1 c green peas, thawed if frozen

salt, to taste

2 c cooked basmati rice (to be exact, 2/3 c uncooked ≈ 2 c cooked; otherwise cook 1 c, take needed 2 c and save the rest in the fridge)

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For the Masala Paste:

1 small or 1/2 large white onion

5 green chillies, stemmed and seeded (such as jalapeño or serrano)

1″ piece of ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped

4 to 5 garlic cloves, peeled and kept whole

1 t cinnamon

1/2 t cardamom

1/4 t cloves

5 to 6 stalks of cilantro, leaves + stems

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To garnish:

1/2 large white onion, sliced thinly — for the frizzled onions

1/4 c raw cashews, toasted and coarsely chopped (pre-roasted is fine; chop only)

2 T chopped cilantro leaves

To make the frizzled onion garnish: Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high. When hot, add onion slices and stir frequently until deep golden brown and crispy, 6-8 minutes. Remove from pan and set aside. Keep the skillet out for biryani, wiping out excess oil or any burnt onion bits, if necessary.

To make the masala paste: Add all masala paste ingredients to the bowl of a food processor, and pulse to form a rough paste. Set aside. [I removed the paste to another container and used the same processor bowl to puree the tomato.]

To make the biryani: Heat oil and ghee (or butter) in the skillet used to frizzle onions. When butter is foaming, add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add the masala paste and mix well until nicely fried, about 2-3 minutes.

Add the mushrooms; cook until soft and any water the mushrooms have released has evaporated. Add the chilli powder, turmeric, garam masala and fry 1 minute. Add pureed tomato and tomato paste, stirring well until ingredients come together. Add peas and cook 1 minute.

Gently mix in cooked basmati rice. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Remove from heat and divide among 2 (or 4) bowls. Garnish with frizzled onion, toasted cashew pieces and cilantro. Serve with cucumber raita (recipe below).

Adapted from Edible Garden

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Cucumber Raita [makes 1 cup]

1/2 c plain whole milk yogurt (fat free is okay, though the raita will be thin, borderline runny)

1/2 to 1/3 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and finely chopped, to equal about 1/2 c

2 T chopped cilantro leaves

2 t chopped scallions (about 1 scallion)

1/4 t ground coriander

1/4 t ground cumin

salt, to taste

Mix all ingredients in a medium bowl. Season to taste with salt. Chill, covered, until ready to serve.

Leftovers can be kept up to two days; stir well before serving again. Great as a sauce for Middle Eastern-spiced lamb or beef burgers, in pita sandwiches (like chicken shawarma or gyros), or simply as a dip with pita chips or crackers.

Adapted from Bon Appetit

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