Meera Sodha's Grand Vegetable Biryani

If you're looking for a vegetarian recipe to form the centrepiece of a feast or dinner party, look no further than Meera Sodha's celebratory vegetable biryani.

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Introduction

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 colours, flavours and textures, from spiced paneer, chickpeas and tomatoes to roasted beetroots, sweet potatoes and a citrusy coconut and coriander sauce. It’s not a difficult recipe, far from it, but it’s definitely one to take your time over.

Serves 6 as a main course

Ingredients

400g basmati rice
400g sweet potatoes
400g raw beetroot
500g ripe tomatoes
1 x 400g tin of chickpeas, drained
225g hard paneer, cut into 2cm cubes
rapeseed oil
salt
1¼ tsp chilli powder
1¼ tsp ground cumin
2 tsp garam masala
2 tbsp lemon juice
2 large onions, finely sliced
1 egg
300g ready-rolled puff pastry
1 tbsp sesame seeds
1 tbsp nigella seeds
For the coconut and coriander sauce:
1 x 400ml tin of coconut milk
100g fresh coriander, roughly chopped
6 cloves of garlic
1 green finger chilli
3cm ginger, peeled
¾ tsp salt
2 tbsp lemon juice

Essential kit

You will need: a blender, and also a medium casserole dish or biryani dish – around 24cm in diameter is perfect.

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas 6 and line three baking trays with foil. Wash the rice in a few changes of cold water, then leave to soak.

Next, wash the sweet potatoes and beetroot well (no need to peel them) and cut into wedges around 6cm x 2cm. Put them on separate trays. Cut the tomatoes into quarters, then eighths. Place them on the final baking tray and add the chickpeas and cubes of paneer.

Put 6 tablespoons of oil into a small bowl with 1⅓ teaspoons of salt, the chilli powder, 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 trays 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 a 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.

While the onions are cooking, place all the ingredients for the coconut and coriander 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 a 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 the 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 coriander sauce and half of the beetroot 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 colourful layers, alongside a bright beetroot raita (see page 248 of Fresh India) or cucumber and mint raita (page 247 of Fresh India), and a salad like the leaves, herbs and curds (page 140 of Fresh India).

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