01 January, 2008

Happy 2008!

Would someone please remind me of my New Year's Resolution? That is, please to refrain from putting EVERY single poultry carcass that emerges from my kitchen into a stockpot, covering it with water and putting it into my "larder," the space outside my garden door? Because guess what? If I put, say, a turkey leg that was, after serving as a lovely dinner, into such a stockpot and then leave for a week for Christmas, and then come back and forget it's there for another four days... it is an unlovely thing. It does seem a terrible waste simply to chuck the leg bone into the bin and consign it to oblivion, but it is preferable, on the whole, to disposing of its mouldy incarnation 10 days later. Welcome home to me.

But I'm getting ahead of myself: did you ever see such a lovely hydrangea- nearly-on-fire? It wasn't really. But there were some crackly moments that gave us pause, and there was, as well, quite a lot of wax in my hair when all was said and done, my having succumbed to the sheer beauty and sat for a long time on the bench you see here where Avery perched for the precise number of seconds required for the photo and then scarpered. This was two nights after Christmas in Connecticut, two days of rain, unfortunately, so that John's and my valiant attempts to light the candles were thwarted for quite some time. We nearly exhausted three of those turbo lighter thingys I love so much. But it was worth it, wasn't it? For over two hours the candles burned, we took pictures and oohed and ahhed, and Anne came across the road to admire. She, John and I stood there, our feet growing ever colder, just gazing at the flames and waxing philosophical about the meaning of life. John's mom came out to join the admiring throng, as did Avery and Grandpa Jack, but not for long. They succumbed to the temperature, and finally Anne and John did too, and I just sat on the bench among and under the candles, trying to figure out a way to capture the serenity and quiet and glory, and carry it inside with me. Maybe even a way to bring it all back to London, where serenity is a commodity rather thin on the ground.

Lovely! And the next day we trekked up the meadow on the other side of the big red barn and visited the bench we acquired from a donation to the Southbury Land Trust. What do you give the man who has everything (John's dad)? Why not a bench to benefit the Trust, with "John's Dad's Bench" written on a lovely bronze plaque on its back? That worked as a gift. We all sat and drank in the gorgeous views from all sides. The bench is situated in the middle of an enormous meadow, precisely between the only two trees to grace the expanse: two lovely old gnarled apple trees (some rotten specimens on the ground attest to their productivity, so we'll have to visit some autumn). What was it about this holiday and the meaning of life bit? We meditated on that again, while Avery identified winter fairies in all the sparkling bits of ice and snow clinging to the branches. Why not find a spot and a worthy recipient yourselves and be a better person for your donation? I bet your town has a Land Trust too. "I've got a little piece of immortality now," John's dad glowed. Oops, I just typed "immorality," and had to correct it. That sounds like more fun than immortality, actually. But I get his point.

We had an inordinately busy week at "home," much of which is a blur to me now after three days back "home." You see the schizophrenic nature of my life. We came home to face the massive job of unpacking all the glorious Christmas presents (the day spent with Jill, Joel and Jane, along with my family, was quite PERFECT, how we miss everyone). Then the New Year's Day "Ride to Buckingham Palace" with Avery's stable. An annual tradition not to be missed. It's so touching to see it all unfold again: the processional down the Mall, the cross to the Palace, all the tourists taking pictures of our lovely girls. And Avery nearly identical to her self a year ago, only... two inches taller! We have the measuring marks in the Connecticut kitchen to prove it. How is that possible?

Well, finally after ten days of cooking very traditional, American holiday foods, I am pleased to offer you a truly exotic recipe! Remember a while ago I recommended Vicky Bhogal to you? Well, she's really proved herself now. Last night I was longing for something really... not American. No gravy, no potatoes, no turkey. Spices, that's what I wanted! And what I made was indeed spicy, not in a hot way, but in a festive, flavourful way. The house smelled like an Indian restaurant! It's called a biryani, and while the recipe looks complicated, and was a bit, let me share with you a slice of culinary wisdom that I gained through my cooking. Your experience with this dish will be a smoother one, and less prone to intimidation, I think, with this insight. Listen, dear readers, and learn.

Picture a generic sort of... casserole. In American cooking, it could be, say, tuna noodle casserole. In Italian, it could be, say, lasagna. In Greek cooking, it could be, say moussaka. But the general idea is this: cook you up a starch and set it aside. Then cook you up a meaty thing and set it aside too. Now nonstick-spray a deep dish. Then layer the starch with the meat, bake it, and bob's your uncle (or ahmed, luigi, constantin, or whatever). And in Indian cookery, it's... a biryani. I will explain.

The dish requires cooked rice, and cooked chicken. Then you layer them and bake it all. It's just that the ingredients look intimidatingly foreign, and the method unfamiliar. But cast your mind back to the last time you made lasagna, and do not succumb to fear. It's the same thing, I promise. Only Indian. I've adapted this recipe slightly to accommodate a child's taste buds, which do not accept whole spices. But you could leave them in if you felt brave.

Chicken Biryani
(serves 8)

2 cups basmati rice
5 cardamom pods
5 whole cloves
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 stick cinnamon, snapped in half
1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup oil (not olive, better sunflower)
3 onions, finely sliced
1/2 cup yogurt
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tsps grated fresh ginger
4 green chillies, finely chopped

2 lb diced chicken
1/4 cup chopped tomatoes
5 cardamom pods, slightly split
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp garam masala
1 tsp ground cloves
dash freshly ground pepper
2 bay leaves
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsps coriander powder
1 1/2 tsp salt

3 tbsps lemon juice
handful chopped coriander
large pinch saffron, soaked in 4 tbsps warm milk
butter for dotting

Now. I know that looks like a lot. But I've divided the ingredients up into the categories in which they're cooked together. Picture the rice and spices as the potatoes in a moussaka, or the pasta in a lasagne. Then then onions and chicken and such are the meat sauce. And the last bits are the parmesan cheese topping. Trust me.

So steam the rice with all the spices in it. Stop it cooking just before it's fully cooked, because it will cook further in the oven. Now, I myself removed the whole spices because Avery would never eat them. But aside from the cardamom pods, one could eat them all. You decide. Set the rice aside.

Now brown the onions in a large skillet until quite, quite brown. Save about 2 tbsps on a dish, and put the rest in a large bowl. Combine with the yogurt, garlic, ginger and chillies.

Brown the diced chicken in the onion skillet for about five minutes, and then add the yogurt mixture. Mix well, add all the other ingredients down to the cinnamon and cook VERY VERY low for 30 minutes. The oil will begin to separate. This is good. Remove the bay leaves.

Now you're ready to layer. Start with a chicken layer, then a rice layer, then chicken, then finish with a rice layer. Spread with the remaining sliced browned onions, then sprinkle the lemon juice over, the coriander, then the saffron-milk mixture. Dot with butter, cover tightly with foil, and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour.

DELICIOUS. You should serve this dish with some fresh-made pappadums (nothing easier in the world: 90 seconds in the microwave on full power: they're like a magic trick) and the appropriate garnished (I love cucumber raita and lime pickle, but choose your own), and a good side vegetable. We ended up with sauteed peppers, but they were SO BORING. I have to think of a better side, to marry with such a comforting yet exotic main dish. Suggestions gratefully accepted.


Well, I have spent my second straight afternoon at "Enchanted," for which I feel I deserve a prize although it's enjoyable. Perfect for 10-year-old girls, maybe a bit too scary an ending for a little, little girl. And a cute soundtrack, for which I'm grateful because I'm being forced now to listen to it interminably on iTunes. So as a reward I shall repair to my cherished copy of "The Lord Peter Wimsey Companion," THE Christmas gift from my adoring family. Only they know how much only I could love such a volume. And I do.

So Happy New Year to you all, and may it be a healthy and prosperous one!


Anonymous said...

Happy New Year. The traditional side for biryani is a wet vegetable carry, although okra or mushroom bhaji work well for me.

Anonymous said...

'carry' should read 'curry' of course!;)

Kristen In London said...

Thank you for the suggestion! I am ashamed to say that many of the vegetables I have been reading about for "wet curries" don't appeal to me (don't like okra or cauliflower) but I think mushroom, carrot, chickpeas are all good possibilities. I'm off for a much-needed grocery trip so I can stock up on Indian spices, as well.

Anonymous said...

Lightly spiced sauteed fresh spinach with soft onions is also good (Saag Bhaji) or even spinach with diced potatoes and spices (Saag Aloo). Chick peas sound good but can be quite filling. Perhaps a fairly thick lentil dhall might work better. Just a thought. I could go on forever as Indian cooking has been my favourite style for some years. (A tip if you didn't know - always buy whole spices and grind them yourself. The aroma and flavour are so much better. I use a small electric coffee grinder solely for spices).

Kristen In London said...

The spinach ideas sound perfect. Thank you! I just bought some "paneer" and may, tomorrow night, try to turn it into saag paneer. I'm a little nervous because it's my daughter's favorite Indian vegetable dish and I don't want to disappoint.