Recipes with Julie: Velji family beef biryani
Try this delicious dish of marinated, slow-braised beef, yogurt, spices and masala
It's not unusual to find sisters Dilshad and Rozina Velji cooking together on a Sunday afternoon.
On one particular weekend (a couple years ago now), they invited me to join them as they made one of my favourite dishes, beef biryani: a curry with origins in the Indian subcontinent that's often made with chicken or goat.
To make their biryani, Dilshad and Rozina marinate their beef — eye of round, blade or cross rib works well — in spiced yogurt before braising it in the same mixture until it's very tender. (They did this ahead of time — a great idea for slow braises, which tend to improve in flavour after a night in the fridge.) They then cook a masala, crushed tomatoes, garlic, ginger, cilantro, cinnamon, cardamom and other spices, in a large pot on the stovetop until it darkens and separates.
The braised beef (and its juices) and a sheet pan of roasted potatoes go into the pot with crispy fried onions and enough water to allow it to cook down again without thickening too much. Although it seems elaborate, it's not complicated.
The Velji's pantry is stocked with large jars of dried beans and spices, most of which come from family members visiting from Tanzania. The family moved to Calgary from Dar es Salaam in 1988, just after the Olympics. They grind whole spices and their own garam masala blend using a grinder they bought at a garage sale soon after they arrived.
They also make large batches of ghee by heating butter and letting it simmer all day, straining the milk solids from the surface. The clarified butter is used for cooking, and melting to pour over basmati and Rooster brand rice toward the end of the cooking time before finishing it in the oven.
This is a technique I was previously unfamiliar with and found fascinating to watch. The resulting rice was so delicious.
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Like so many great cooks, Dilshad and her sisters don't measure as they cook, they just go by feel.
This recipe comes from watching, tasting, and taking notes, and when I finally made it again myself, it brought me right back to their kitchen.
Aly says he still has never managed to replicate his mom's cooking. Fortunately his mom and aunts are more than happy to make it in large batches, and have a drawer full of Tupperware containers for sending some to various homes.
- 2-3 lb. beef eye of round (or blade or cross rib), cut into one or two-inch cubes.
- 1 cup plain yogurt.
- 1 cinnamon stick or a few pieces of cinnamon bark.
- About five green cardamom pods.
- About five cloves.
- A few drops of yellow food colouring, optional.
To prepare the beef, marinate it in plain yogurt with a cinnamon stick, some cardamom, cloves and a few drops of food colouring. Refrigerate overnight.
Then cook in the pressure cooker or bake at 149 C/300 F for about three hours, or until very tender. Set aside until you're ready for it.
- Russet potatoes, peeled and quartered (or cut into large chunks).
- Canola oil, for cooking.
To roast the potatoes, toss them in oil and roast on a baking sheet at 218 C/425 F for 20-30 minutes, or until golden. Set aside.
- 2 cups crushed tomatoes.
- ½ cup tomato paste.
- 2-3 tbsp crushed garlic.
- 2 tbsp grated fresh ginger.
- ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro.
- 1 cinnamon stick (or a few pieces of cinnamon bark).
- About 5 green cardamom pods.
- About 5 cloves.
- About 5 whole black peppercorns.
- 1 tbsp salt.
- 1 tsp hot chili powder or cayenne.
- 1-2 cups fried onions (they come packaged in east Indian groceries and stores).
In a large pot, heat a generous amount of oil and cook the tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, ginger, cilantro, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, peppercorns, salt and chili powder for about 20 minutes, stirring often, until the mixture thickens, darkens and looks separated.
Add the fried onions, the beef and any juices that have collected in the bowl, the roasted potatoes and about two cups of water.
Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring often, until the mixture cooks down and thickens, the onions turn soft and the sauce looks more uniform.
Serving: Serve with rice. Serves six.