This is a love letter to humble vegetables. It’s a meal for special occasions, whether that be Diwali, Christmas, or a bar mitzvah. It’s packed full of a rainbow of colors, flavors, and textures, from spiced paneer, chickpeas, and tomatoes to roasted beets, sweet potatoes, and a citrusy coconut and cilantro sauce. It’s not a difficult recipe, far from it, but it’s definitely one to take your time over.
NOTE: You will need a blender, and also a medium casserole dish or biryani dish—around 9 inches in diameter is perfect.
Serves 6 as a main course
2¾ cups basmati rice
1 pound sweet potatoes
1 pound raw beets
1 pound ripe tomatoes
1 x 14-ounce can of chickpeas, drained
½ pound hard paneer, cut into ¾-inch cubes
1¼ teaspoons ground red chile
1¼ teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons garam masala
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 large onions, finely sliced
11 ounces storebought frozen and defrosted puff pastry
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1 tablespoon nigella seeds
Preheat the oven to 400°F and line three baking pans with foil. Wash the rice in a few changes of cold water, then leave to soak.
Next, wash the sweet potatoes and beets well (no need to peel them) and cut into wedges around 2½ x ¾ inches. Put them on separate pans. Cut the tomatoes into quarters, then eighths. Place them on the final baking pan and add the chickpeas and cubes of paneer.
Put 6 tablespoons of oil into a small bowl with 11/3 teaspoons of salt, the ground red chile, cumin, garam masala, and lemon juice. Mix well, then spoon over the vegetables, adding more to the tomato and paneer tray than the other two. Make sure everything is evenly coated, then put the pans in the oven—with the paneer on the top shelf—and bake for 40 minutes, checking and stirring after 20 minutes.
In the meantime, put 3 tablespoons of oil into your casserole or biryani dish over medium heat. When hot, add the onions and fry for 15 to 20 minutes, until really soft, brown, and caramelized, stirring regularly. Remove to a bowl and keep the dish to one side.
FOR THE COCONUT + CILANTRO SAUCE
1 x 14-ounce can of coconut milk
3 cups (approx. 3½ ounces) cilantro, roughly chopped
6 cloves of garlic
1 Indian green chile
1½-inch piece of ginger, peeled
¾ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice
While the onions are cooking, place all the ingredients for the coconut and cilantro sauce into a blender and whizz to a fine consistency. Pour it into a frying pan (make sure to scrape down the sides of the blender) over medium heat and cook for 10 minutes, stirring every now and then. Check the salt and take off the heat.
Next, drain the the rice and place in a deep saucepan. Cover with plenty of cold water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a fast simmer and cook for 10 minutes or until the rice is just tender. Drain well, cover with a clean tea towel, and leave to one side. Break the egg into a small cup, add a generous pinch of salt, and whisk with a fork.
Now you are ready to layer your biryani. The aim is to end with a rice layer topped with caramelized onions. First, put half of the paneer, tomato, and chickpea mixture into the bottom of the pot. Follow with a quarter of the rice and a quarter of the onion mix. Then add half of the coconut and cilantro sauce and half of the beets and sweet potatoes, then a further quarter of the rice and onions. Repeat, finishing with a final layer of rice and onions.
Cut a square of puff pastry to fit over the top of your pot. Working quickly (as you need to keep the pastry as cold as possible), press it down tightly around the edges of the pot. Brush the top liberally with the beaten egg, and sprinkle with the seeds. Place in the oven for 25 minutes.
Gingerly take out of the oven and place on the table. Cut the pastry away and discard to reveal the steamy biryani. Serve big spoonfuls so that everyone gets good colorful layers, alongside a bright beet raita (see here) or cucumber and mint raita (here), and a salad like the leaves, herbs, and curds (here).