Food spawns traditions– or maybe it’s the other way round. But you get what I mean, don’t you?
Most of life’s biggest celebrations, observations, and events center around food, gorgeous food. Special kinds of foods mark special occasions. Growing up, food was always the centerpiece of just about any day in our lives that was out of the ordinary. Puran Poli for Holi. Modaks for Ganesh Chaturthi. Chavde, Chakali, and Karanjis for Diwali. Shrikhand-Puri for Gudi Padva, the Maharashtrian new year (while most dishes were usually made at home, the Shrikhand was always bought “ready-made” from the bustling, family-owned Vijay Store in Vile Parle which made, unarguably, the best shrikhand ever).
When there was nothing to celebrate, the food alone would sometimes lift a day above mere ordinariness.
In my home too, where celebrations don’t necessarily follow the beaten path, a number of traditions have evolved around food and, sometimes, its availability. And many of these delicious celebrations happen in summer.
When I planted my zucchini, for instance, I waited eagerly for the day I could collect enough of its flashy yellow blooms to make my favorite zucchini flower pakoras (I did, earlier this week). Light as gossamer, these have to be eaten to be believed, and they made the day one to cherish and remember.
Also in summer, I wait for the tomatoes to start forming on their delicate green vines so I can make Green Tomato Masial, one of Desi’s favorite foods that I usually cannot cook during the long months of winter because the only tomatoes I can buy here are already ripe. And when else but in summer can I make tons of different dishes featuring eggplants in every hue (you know it’s my favorite veggie)?
One more dish that’s like a tiny celebration in itself is a biryani.
I’ve posted biryani recipes before, and they’re all delicious, but this time I was looking to make a simple vegetable biryani. For inspiration, I turned to the VahChef.
The VahChef’s biryani is not vegan, so I needed to make some substitutions, like using my “tofu yogurt” instead of regular yogurt, and skipping the paneer (you could add firm tofu cubes). I also ended up making other tweaks to the biryani masala (he uses storebought masala in the recipe, but I wanted to try making his version of a biryani masala from another of his videos). The masala had some strange ingredients in it, like prunes, which I honestly would never have thought of adding to a biryani masala. But I did, and because the prunes I had were not quite dry, my blender ended up gasping and choking and begging for some water before it could move on. To make a long story short, my masala ended up being a wet one rather than in powder form. But all was well and ended well, and the biryani masala and the biryani were nothing short of spectacular. I also substituted the anardana, or pomegranate powder, with some aamchoor, or mango powder, because the role of the anardana in biryani masalas is to tenderize the meat. And here in Holy Cow world we don’t have to worry about tenderizing dead animals.
So here’s the recipe. Hope everyone’s enjoying the summer. Have a great weekend, all!
1 small onion, very thinly sliced, then fried in a fairly hot griddle for about 10-15 minutes, stirring often, until the onion turns brown and crispy. You don’t want to leave the onion unattended too long because onions contain sugar and will burn.
10 prunes (dry plums)
4 bay leaves
4 1-inch cinnamon sticks
10 black cardamom
10 green cardamom
10 black peppercorns
1 tsp aamchoor
1 tsp red chilli powder
1/2 tsp turmeric
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
Place all the ingredients in a blender, add just enough water to make the blades turn, and let it all roll away into a smooth paste. You will need about half of this paste for the biryani recipe and can store the rest of it in an airtight container in the freezer…for a long, long time.
1 onion, sliced very thin and fried on medium-high heat with 2 tsp oil until quite crispy. Set aside.
1 1/2 cups basmati rice, soaked for about half an hour, then drained
1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
1/2 cauliflower, separated into florets
2 medium carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 small potatoes, cut into a 1-inch dice
4 green cardamom pods
2 cinnamon sticks, about 1-inch each
1 recipe tofu yogurt — blend half a block of firm tofu with 1/2 cup soymilk and juice of half a lemon.
1/2 cup chopped mint leaves
1/2 cup chopped coriander leaves
2 green chilies, slit down the middle
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1/2 cup cashewnuts, chopped
1/4 cup raisins
A generous pinch of saffron, soaked in 1/2 cup of warm water for about 30 minutes
1 tbsp canola or other vegetable oil
Salt to taste
Heat 2 cups of water and add to it some salt.
When the water comes to a boil, add the rice. Bring the rice back to a boil, lower the heat, and cook about 4-5 minutes or until all the water is absorbed. Be careful not to let the rice stick to the bottom of the saucepan. You want the rice to be mostly — not all the way– cooked. Set aside.
Heat the oil
Add to it the cardamom, cinnamon and cloves and saute for a few seconds. Add the cumin seeds and the ginger-garlic paste and then the veggies– potatoes, carrots and cauliflower florets.
Saute the veggies for about five minutes, stirring frequently, so they take on a golden-brown sheen.
Add 1/2 the recipe of biryani masala (recipe above), the coriander and mint leaves, green chillies, and the tofu yogurt.
Mix well and cover the saucepan. Allow the veggies to cook until they are almost tender. Add salt to taste and take off the fire.
Spray a thin coat of oil in the base of a large pot with a tight-fitting lid. Now take half the cooked veggie mixture and spread it in the bottom of the pan.
Pour out half the cooked rice and spread it on top of the veggies.
Sprinkle the cashewnuts and raisins evenly over the rice.
Add another layer of the remaining veggie mixture, and then the remaining rice.
Sprinkle the saffron water on top, cover the pot with a lid, and place in a preheated, 350-degree oven for 30 minutes.
After taking the biryani out of the oven, let it stand, uncovered, for at least 10 minutes.
Serve piping hot!