chicken biryani

I know that these days everyone is looking for the next thirty-minute meal, but every once in a while (with Mother's Day right around the corner, hint hint!), it's nice to have a genuine showstopper up your sleeve. I won't lie, biryani isn't easy, but it gives back every ounce of work you put into it, with several layers of perfectly seasoned steamed rice, veggies, and lots more good stuff. [edit: for an even easier version, try my weeknight biryani]

Last month, my cousin Maryam generously taught me how she makes her fabulous biryani. Maryam's Assyrian-Armenian family has roots in Iran and Iraq, so their cuisine includes Persian and Iraqi dishes like biryani. And because biryani is the kind of thing that everyone makes very differently (not just from region to region, but from family to family, and even from person to person), Maryam taught me about her own personal philosophy of biryani and her own particular cooking techniques. The key to Maryam's biryani is layering.

biryani

First, you should carefully season each layer as you go. Everything in this dish becomes super flavorful because of the time you take seasoning every single element. Instead of just dusting everything in spices right before serving, the spices temper in the oil and infuse everything with really deep, intense flavors. You should taste things as you cook, and then taste them before you assemble everything to adjust the seasonings to your own preference. This advice is helpful for most cooking, but it's especially important with biryani. By doing this, every single bite ends up perfectly seasoned.

spices
biryani

In addition to building layers of flavors while you cook, you'll also use different cooking techniques on each layer of ingredients, so that each ingredient is done to perfection. Separating out the layers certainly gives the biryani a stunning appearance (just look at those layers!), but it also allows you to give each ingredient the attention it needs to become its best self.

For instance, a potato cooks entirely differently than an onion, and if you mix too many of them together at once they'll turn into a mushy mess (which would be great in another context! Like making oniony mashed potatoes). So instead of just dumping and stirring, you'll fry the potatoes in oil until they're crispy, slightly caramelize the onions until they're golden, cook the peas just a little until they dimple, steam the rice to perfection, brown the meat to add even more flavor, and baste the almonds and raisins in butter until they're golden brown and delicious. And then everything magically comes together in perfect harmony right before serving.

biryani
biryani
biryani

chicken Biryani

Yield: approximately 12 servings *
For an easier version, try my
weeknight biryani

1 1/2 teaspoons allspice
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1 1/2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon yellow curry powder
Salt to taste
About 3/4 cup cooking olive oil (divided; most of the oil is just for pan frying and will not end up in the dish)
2 small onions, thinly sliced (2 cups sliced)
3 cups basmati rice
2 russet potatoes (1 pound 2 ounces), sliced into thin half-moon slices
4 1/2 cup water (plus more for soaking and rinsing the rice)
1/2 stick unsalted butter (4 tablespoons)
2 1/4 cup frozen peas (12 ounces)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3/4 cup slivered almonds
3/4 cup black raisins
2 pounds boneless skinless chicken (3 small breasts and 3 thighs, or another combination), cut into small chunks **

Serving suggestion: Biryani makes a complete dinner, and it's certainly special enough to serve on its own without much else at the table. But if you want a little extra something, any yogurt-based sauce would go great on the side, such as tzatziki or raita, which adds a little more moisture to biryani's crunchiness.

  • Combine the allspice, paprika, cayenne pepper, and curry powder. You will use this spice mixture, along with salt, to season each element of the dish as you cook, to your own particular preference. ***

  • Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat for a minute or two. Add 1 tablespoon of oil and add the onions. Season with salt and spices to taste. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 10 to 15 minutes, until the onions are a soft and a little golden-brown. Set aside on a plate (keep all components separate until the last minute).

  • Add 1/2 cup of oil to the pan, turn the heat up to medium-high, and let it heat for about a minute.

  • While the oil is heating, submerge the rice in a few inches of water, and then let it soak for about 30 minutes while you cook the potatoes.

  • Working in about 3 to 4 batches, add some of the potato slices to the pan of oil, so that they cover the bottom of the pan without overlapping. Fry them for about 4 minutes per side and season them with salt and spices as they fry. Once they're crispy and golden-brown, remove them with a slotted spoon and cool on paper towels. Remove the sauté pan from heat while you work on the rice.

  • Rinse the rice until the water runs clear.

  • Add the 4 1/2 cups water and 1/2 stick of butter to a stockpot and bring to a boil over high heat. Once it comes to a boil, add the rice and season with 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt, and spices to taste. Stir to combine and then do not stir again. Boil, uncovered, for about 6 minutes. Once you can tilt the pot to the side without the water pooling around the side of the pan, cover, reduce the heat to low, and continue to steam the rice for 9 more minutes. After 9 minutes, turn the heat off, do not uncover or stir, and let it sit until you're ready to assemble the dish.

  • Remove most of the oil from the sauté pan (optionally, set aside a few tablespoons to drizzle over the rice), leaving about 2 teaspoons in the pan, and turn the heat to medium. Add the peas and simply season them with salt while you cook them for about 6 minutes, stirring occasionally, just until heated through and slightly dimpled. Set aside in a bowl.

  • Add the 1 tablespoon of butter to the sauté pan. Add the almonds and cook for about 5 to 7 minutes, stirring constantly they are golden brown. Add the raisins in the last minute of cooking. Set aside.

  • Add 1 tablespoon of oil to the pan and increase the heat to medium-high. Add the chicken and sauté for about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it is cooked through and golden brown. Season with the spices and salt as it cooks and add any chicken drippings (and, optionally, the couple tablespoons of oil you previously set aside) to the cooked rice.

  • Fluff the rice with a fork, and taste each component, adjusting the seasoning as necessary.

  • Spoon the rice over a very large serving dish. Top with onions, chicken, potatoes, peas, almonds, and raisins (in that order).

  • Serve at this temperature, or move to a 250° oven for about 25 minutes to heat all the way through.

* This recipe is easily halved. If you reduce the recipe, you should add a few extra tablespoons of water to the rice. I like to make the full amount because the left overs hold up very well in the refrigerator or freezer.
** You can easily substitute your favorite meat (beef, pork, lamb, etc.) or meat-substitute. If you're using a delicate vegetarian substitute like chickpeas or tofu, you should coat them in a thin layer of oil, season them with salt and some of the spice mix, and roast at 425° F until lightly browned and crispy, instead of sautéing. Other good vegetarian substitutes are quorn or seitan, which can be sautéed just like meat.
*** You might end up using the whole amount of spice mix, or you might only use half. If you have any left over, you can serve it next to the dish at the table. I use all but one or two teaspoons.

jeweled rice and noodles | riza sh'ariyeh

riza sh'ariyeh

Friends often tell me that they find rice difficult to prepare well. I'll tell you what I always tell them: the trick to making rice isn't knowing more about rice, but knowing more about yourself. If you're someone who does not have a tendency to micromanage, if you tend to entirely check a project off your mental check-list the minute you delegate it, you'll probably be just fine. If you're the kind of person who over-waters succulents and kills goldfish by loving them to death, you've got to be really careful when making rice and pay extra-close attention to the following suggestions:

First, set a timer and leave the rice alone while you cook it. Don't peek under the lid and just let it do it's thing. But, secondly, if you do need to check on it a couple times to make sure it's doing ok, whatever you do, do not stir the rice. I'm not a food scientist, so I'm not entirely sure why this is so important, but it really will ruin the texture and doneness of your rice. Third, when you eventually turn the heat off, do not remove the lid for 10 or 15 minutes. Once the heat is off, the rice still needs the residual heat to steam the rest of the way. And finally, after it's rested, fluff the rice with a fork or chop sticks and serve. When it comes to cooking rice, less is more.

Basmati Rice Bag
Sh'ariyeh Noodles

Riza sh'ariyeh is the foundation of most Assyrian meals. It's steamed basmati rice and toasted noodles, usually topped with butter-fried nuts and golden raisins. The raisins become succulent and caramelized while they baste in butter and everything else gets a golden toasted flavor and color. My grandmother's mother, Yemmah Sourma, would make this rice with tabouli or fatoushi every Friday night when they would fast from meat; we still make it exactly the same way.

If you don't have a go-to method for making rice, riza sh'ariyeh is a good one to have memorized or bookmarked. You can quickly whip it together for weeknight meals or really carefully prepare it for a fancy dinner party. Without the decadent topping, it makes a perfect plain pot of rice. But with the almonds, pine nuts, and golden raisins, it's really something else. Pine nuts are easier to come by in Lebanon, but they're often prohibitively expensive in the United States, so feel free to leave them out or replace them with more almonds. But if you can include them, they elevate this dish to special occasion status.

riza sh'ariyeh
riza sh'ariyeh

Riza Sh'ariyeh

also known as shariya rice or rice with vermicelli
serves 8
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  • 2 cups basmati rice (or other long-grain rice)

  • 3 cups cold water

  • 1 cup fine egg noodles, broken into pieces no longer than 3/4 inch *

  • 1 stick of unsalted butter (8 tablespoons), divided: 1/2 stick set aside for the rice, the other 1/2 stick cut into thirds **

  • 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 teaspoons fine salt (to taste)

  • 1 cup slivered almonds

  • 1 cup golden raisins

  • 1/2 cup pine nuts (optional)

  1. Use a fine mesh colander to rinse the rice under cold water until the water runs clear and is no longer cloudy.

  2. After you've rinsed and drained the rice, add it to a large sauce pan or small stockpot along with the 3 1/4 cups of cold water, the 1/2 stick of butter, and the salt. Set the stockpot aside.

  3. In a frying pan, melt the first of the three chunks of butter over low heat. Add the egg noodles and stir constantly until they turn light brown.

  4. Once the egg noodles have toasted, add them to the rice, water, butter and salt in the stockpot. Turn the stockpot's heat up to high. As soon as the rice comes to a boil, set the heat to low, cover, and cook for 13 minutes.

  5. Add another chunk of butter to the frying pan and melt it over low heat. Add the raisins, stirring constantly until they start to slightly caramelize and soften. Once they're done, remove them with a slotted spoon to a paper-towel-lined plate.

  6. Add the final chunk of butter to the frying pan with the almonds and pine nuts. Stir them constantly over low heat until they are golden-brown. Remove them with a slotted spoon and add them to the plate with the raisins.

  7. Once the rice timer goes off, do not lift the cover. Turn off the heat and let it rest for 15 minutes.

  8. After the rice has rested, fluff it with a fork, spoon it onto a large serving dish, and cover with the almonds, raisins, and pine nuts.

gluten free / vegan variations:

* If you don't eat gluten or want to make the recipe egg-free, you can use a gluten- and/or egg-free pasta. Thinner pasta works better; angel hair/spaghetti broken into pieces or orzo would work great. Add an extra 1/4 c of water if you're using a less voluminous pasta, since egg noodles aren't very compact).

** If you want to make the recipe vegan or dairy-free, feel free to substitute olive oil for the butter. Just make sure you add an extra 2 tablespoons of water to the rice.

Note on making this ahead: The nut and raisin topping can be fried ahead of time and set aside until needed. If you need to keep the rice warm before serving, fluff it after it rests for 10-15 minutes, and then keep it covered in the stockpot.

Jeweled Rice