BOOTHBAY — When the smell of saffron steeping in warm milk fills her house, memories of childhood flood Cherie Scott’s senses.
This recipe for lamb biryani is complicated, and lamb is expensive, so her mother made the dish only on special occasions at their home in Mumbai. That included Scott’s birthday, when Scott would stand by the stove while her mother pan-seared potatoes in ghee and gobble them up as fast as they were cooked.
“This is what my mother did for us, and we never appreciated it,” Scott said last week, surrounded by bowls of chopped vegetables and spices as she re-created the dish in the stunning new farmhouse kitchen her husband built for her. “She’d be out there in the kitchen, all hours of the night, chopping, slicing. No food processors, none of that stuff. Hand grating, hand chopping. We never got gifts on our birthday. It’s just not something you do in India. But food – that’s what my mom made for me.”
A biryani is a rice dish made with meat marinated in yogurt and spices. In this version, tomatoes, onions and potatoes cooked in ghee help flavor the fragrant lamb. That saffron milk, as well as spices, cilantro and cashews toasted in ghee provide color and crunch in the basmati rice. As with most Indian cuisine, the flavors are painstakingly layered during a long cooking process and best experienced after they’ve had time to blend. So save this dish for sometime when you’re in no hurry – a snowy weekend? – and are in the mood for warm, inviting comfort food.
Scott says any meat can be used with this recipe, but if you use lamb, have your butcher cut a leg of lamb into two-inch pieces. Keep the bone to add to the dish later.
“It adds great flavor,” Scott said. “I love my St. Bernard, but he’s not getting it.”
There’s one ingredient that should not be skimped on or substituted, Scott says, and that’s the basmati rice, which is grown in the foothills of the Himalayas and tastes nuttier than other varieties.
In the spring, when the snow melts, “all of that silt that comes down with that snow ends up fertilizing that entire region down below,” she said. “It’s so incredibly fertile and aromatic. This basmati rice can only be grown in those fields. Basmati rice grown anywhere else in the world is Texmati, Jasmati, but not basmati.”
The lamb marinates, preferably overnight, in yogurt, which helps breaks down the meat and picks up the flavor of the spices – turmeric, cumin, coriander and chili powder. After the onions, tomatoes and potatoes are fried in ghee, the lamb is added with lots of cilantro.
The gravy “needs to sit and cook for an hour and a half,” Scott said. “You make the rice while that’s happening, and then the marriage of the two is what makes that explosion of flavor and makes the biryani what it’s supposed to be – a feast for the eyes and the senses.”
The origins of biryani, a dish that dates back at least several hundred years, are unclear. Some say the word is derived from the Farsi word “birian,” so it must have Persian roots. One legend has it that Mumtaz Mahal, the woman entombed in the Taj Mahal, saw a group of starving soldiers and ordered her cook to create something that would be a complete meal for them. While the Mughals made the dish famous through their feasts, there are many different ways of making biryani, including covering it in dough and burying in the ground to cook, Scott said.
“Within one nation, you’ll probably get 40 versions of biryani, depending on whether you’re in the north or south of India, west or east coast of India,” she said.
Cherie Scott’s parents are from Goa, a former Portuguese province on the western Arabian seacoast, but they raised their family in Mumbai. They had good jobs, but they wanted more for their children. So, 20 years ago, they immigrated to Vancouver, Canada.
Scott was 16 then. It was a move she had begged for, yet once she got to Vancouver, she worried about fitting in. “I wanted to keep who I was,” she said, “but I didn’t know who I was.”
Her dream was to be in musical theater, and by the time she turned 17 she had won the Michael J. Fox Performing Arts Scholarship at her high school, the same one the actor attended. After her prom, she hopped a plane to New York City and never looked back. She worked three jobs while studying musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. “I ate one meal a day and never told my parents,” she said.
She got work performing but after Sept. 11, 2001, decided to move to New Jersey to study journalism and “get that education that my parents had sacrificed so much to give me.” She graduated from Rutgers University and landed internships at MSNBC and Dow Jones. She met her husband, Guy, and had a daughter, Sophia, now 7.
The couple moved to Maine to give Sophia “a gentler life.” Scott now works for the Boothbay Harbor Region Chamber of Commerce. Her parents are still in Vancouver. Now in her 30s, Scott wants her daughter to know her Indian heritage.
“I’m finally coming full circle, where I’m embracing my culture and who I am,” she said. “I’m at a point in my life where I now want to share it with people.”
She does a lot of that sharing through food, cooking Indian food several times a month for friends and family and sometimes bringing a dish to school or community events.
The final step of her biryani is the rice. It’s flavored with warm and hot spices, cooked part way, then strained. The rice goes on top of the lamb, then Scott pours the saffron milk over the rice gently, in circles – no stirring. Finally, the pot goes into the oven.
Scott suggests making the entire biryani the day before you’re going to serve it. When your guests arrive, put it in the oven at 200 degrees and let it warm up while you serve cocktails. Serve the biryani with other Indian dishes, as Scott did last week. In addition to the lamb biryani, the table was laden with red lentil dahl, spicy Goa chorizo, pappadums, raita (a yogurt-based condiment) and mango lassis to counteract the hotter spices. For dessert? A Goa semolina coconut cake served with a mug of hot chai.
All of this cooking, Scott said, brought back “floods of memories of my mom and how much love she put into everything.”
This particular biryani, she told her husband, will stay with her for a while. She felt like she finally got it right.
“I put it in my mouth, and said ‘That’s Mom.’ ”
MOM’S LAMB BIRYANI
Cherie Scott wrote: “This dish is a true labor of love and brings back a flood of memories. Mom slaved over it for days and fed close to 40 people at each of our family celebrations in Mumbai. Biryanis date back to the 1600s when Mughal emperors entertained and feasted on it. This dish cannot be thrown together in a rush. It demands love, patience, attention to detail and planning ahead. But when you take your first morsel of saffron-kissed rice and melt-in-your-mouth Indian-spiced lamb, be prepared for a symphony of flavor to explode in your mouth. Open a bottle of your best wine: This lamb feast is fit for a king and calls for nothing less than a celebration!”
(If you aren’t accustomed to Indian cooking, some of the ingredients may be unfamiliar. You can find ghee – essentially clarified butter – and garam masala – a spice mixture – in local stores, or check the Indian grocery, Masala Mahal in Scarborough. The saffron is optional, but Scott believes it’s worth the expense. The recipe requires many ingredients and several steps, but broken down into components, as Scott has here, it’s really not difficult to make and much of the time involved is hands off.)
Makes 8 to 10 hearty portions
PART 1: MARINATE THE LAMB
Keep the lamb bone, which, Scott says, “adds a ton of flavor.”
2 cups thick Greek yogurt, beaten with a spoon
2 tablespoons turmeric
2 tablespoons garam masala
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons ground coriander
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 tablespoons garlic paste (available in tubes in the produce section of large grocery stores, or in Indian groceries)
2 tablespoons freshly ground ginger or ginger paste (available in tubes in the produce section of large grocery stores, or in Indian groceries)
2 teaspoons salt
Juice of 2 limes
4-5 pound leg of lamb cut into 2-inch pieces
Mix the yogurt, spices and lime juice together in a large glass bowl. Add the lamb pieces and coat with the marinade. Cover with plastic, refrigerate and let the meat marinate for at least 1 hour or overnight.
PART 2: MAKE THE GRAVY
Do not use sweet onions here.
6 tablespoons ghee or salted butter
4 white onions, sliced lengthwise
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into 6 pieces each
2 yellow onions, chopped
4 large tomatoes, chopped
2 cups chopped cilantro
Remove the marinated lamb from the refrigerator and let it reach room temperature, about 2 hours.
Add 2 tablespoons of the ghee to a medium-sized skillet. When the ghee is warm, add the white onions and sauté for about 8 minutes on medium-high heat until they start turning brown; set aside. (You should have about 2 cups.)
Add 2 more tablespoons ghee to the now empty skillet and pan-sear the potatoes on one side on medium high heat about 5 minutes, until they are crispy brown. Turn the potatoes over, cover the pan and let the potatoes steam another 5 minutes; set aside.
In a 3-quart oven-proof pot or Dutch oven, sauté the yellow onions in the remaining 2 tablespoons ghee for 5 minutes on medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes and fry for another 5 minutes. Add the marinated lamb and cook until it changes color, about 10 minutes. Add 3 cups hot water, the cilantro and the reserved lamb bone. Cover the pot and simmer on low on the stove top until the lamb is tender, approximately 11/2 hours. Resist the urge to peek!
After 11/2 hours, add the reserved pan-seared potatoes and 1 cup of the reserved caramelized onions to the pot to thicken the gravy.
Re-cover the pot and simmer for another 25 minutes.
PART 3: MAKE THE RICE
Scott uses food coloring in her rice. As she says,”you want a nice mix of white, red, and yellow grains so a couple of drops of each color is all you will need.”
3 cups basmati rice
3 tablespoons salt
4 (1-inch) cinnamon sticks
15 whole cloves
4 black or 10 green cardamom pods
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
4 Turkish bay leaves
Red 40, Yellow 5 or Yellow 6 food coloring, a few drops each
1/2 cup milk
Large pinch of saffron
While the lamb is simmering, soak the rice in 3 cups of water for 25 minutes. Run your fingers through the grains to help remove the starch; do this gently so the grains don’t break. Strain through a fine-meshed sieve.
Fill a large pot with 15 cups water and the salt. Add the cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin and bay leaves.
Bring the spiced water to a roiling boil. Gently add the basmati rice. Boil the rice until it is three-quarters of the way cooked. Keep an eye on it and check a couple of grains after 5 minutes to make sure it is parboiled and not overcooked. The grains of rice should feel a bit starchy or gritty in the middle, as if they could crack in your hand. The rice will finish cooking in the oven with the lamb.
Drain the rice, leaving in the whole spices. Pour the drained rice into the pot with the lamb. Add the food coloring.
Warm the milk, add the saffron and stir gently. Let steep for a couple of minutes at the most.
PART 4: ASSEMBLE THE BIRYANI
2 hard-boiled eggs, halved
Handful of toasted cashews
Pre-heat the oven to 335 degrees F.
Sprinkle 1/2 cup of the remaining caramelized onions over the pot with the lamb and rice. Save the remaining caramelized onions for garnish.
Pour the warm milk mixture onto the lamb and rice in circles. Do not stir. Close the lid and bake the lamb for 35 minutes.
Arrange the lamb biryani on a large platter. Garnish with the last ½ cup of caramelized onions, the eggs, cashews and a sprinkle each of cilantro and mint.
To serve, dig a flat serving spoon into the rice, being sure to go to the bottom so you get meat, rice and potatoes in every portion.