There is something a little stultifying about early February. The festive season is a distant memory, the holidays are over and the daily grind of work, school and office lunches and desperate stops at the shops on the way home to cobble together dinner have begun.
Luckily for me, I have just had two glorious weeks where the restaurant has been closed and I have indulged in a “staycation” that has allowed me to spend innumerable hours in my beloved vegetable garden.
It has been a funny summer. There have been cold days where the fire needs to be lit, so out-of-season wood must be foraged. And there have been days of searing heat that have encouraged almost all the heading lettuces to bolt towards their reproductive ends, rendering them bitter and only good for the chickens. Tending a vegetable garden keeps you in touch with the fragility of nature but can also astound you with the sheer magical abilities of plants and their patterns of survival.
Quiet hours spent in the garden provide a great deal of thinking time and I have often wondered why, as a child and an adolescent, the job of growing or farming was never mentioned to me as a possible career path. I had no idea until my mid-40s that growing food on a peri-urban scale was even a possibility. In fact, I never knew that small-scale food production in the format of peri-urbanisation – using arable land on the urban fringe to provide food for those closer in – was a thing. Perhaps as the world changes, the generation of children at school now will be encouraged towards this sort of farming.
Gardening in summertime fragments your days. On hot days it is always better to get up early, spend a few hours outside, and then return later in the afternoon and continue into the cool of the evening. That little patch of time I’m indoors is the perfect window to make a biryani. But before I come inside I collect handfuls of this and that from the garden to add to my dish. In our family this is one of our go-to one-pot dinners. You can use all manner of vegetables, not just the ones I have used here. Think peas, potatoes, tomatoes and so on. I might even slip in a couple of very non-Indian zucchini in the height of zucchini season. I finish it as you would a pilaf in the oven. It is delicious hot or warm and is excellent to pack into lunch boxes for the next day as well.
Serves 4 with leftovers
– 2 tbsp olive oil
– 1 large onion, thinly sliced
– 1-2 cups diced or sliced vegetables (red capsicum, cauliflower and carrots work well)
– 3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
– 1 tbsp ginger, chopped
– 1 tbsp cumin
– 1 tbsp ground coriander
– 1 tsp chilli powder (optional, or to taste)
– 1 tsp cinnamon (or 1 cinnamon stick)
– ½ tsp cardamom powder (or 3 crushed cardamom pods)
– ½ tsp turmeric
– 1 bay leaf
– 2 cups golden basmati rice, rinsed
– 4 cups vegetable stock
– ¾ tsp salt
– 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
– ½ cup raisins
– coriander and mint chutney (recipe below)
– ¼ cup toasted cashews and chopped parsley and coriander, to garnish
Preheat your oven to 180ºC.
In a large saucepan or shallow Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté, stirring often, until it is tender and golden (about five minutes). Turn the heat to medium, add your choice of vegetables and garlic and ginger, and cook for a further four to five minutes. Remove one cup of the mixture and set aside.
Add the spices and bay leaf and stir for one minute, toasting the spices. Add the basmati rice and sauté for one minute, stirring. Add the stock and salt.
Top with the chickpeas and raisins and the cup of vegetables you set aside. Bring to a simmer over high heat, then turn the heat to low. Cover the pot with foil and place the lid over the top of the foil. This will tighten the seal and keep the steam in, allowing the rice to cook more quickly and evenly.
Place in the oven for 20 minutes or until the rice has soaked up the liquid.
While it is cooking, make the coriander and mint chutney.
Uncover the vegetable biryani and fluff up with a fork. Top with the cashews and parsley and coriander. Serve with the chutney.
Coriander and mint chutney
– ½ cup yoghurt (for vegans, use vegan yoghurt or silken tofu)
– 3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
– 1 bunch coriander (tender stems are okay)
– 1 cup mint leaves, firmly packed
– 1 medium green chilli, sliced
– 2 tsp sliced ginger
– 1 garlic clove
– ¼-½ tsp salt
– ½ tsp sugar (or an alternative such as honey, palm sugar etc)
– 1 tbsp water, or just enough to get the blender or food processor going (you may not need this)
Blend all the ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth. Taste and add extra salt and lemon if required.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 15, 2020 as "Spicing up summertime". Subscribe here.