Lamb Pulao

Friendly warning…

This is not a recipe for the time poor…or those who like one-pot dishes…or folk who enjoy a jar of sauce as the backbone of their curries…or someone who is really hungry right now. No, not for them. Fair warning has been issued.

Lamb Pulao is a slow, luxurious layering of phenomenal flavours, built over a whole day, maybe even a number of days. Multi-staged, multiple pots & pans and many, many ingredients. A cooking experience to be cherished and best cooked for times of togetherness.

Don’t back away if you don’t have time today though. Bookmark the recipe and save it for a rainy day, for there is bound to be one soon. This sumptuous, aromatic dish deserves time and attention. It can wait until you’re ready.

First things first…the rice.

This may be a recipe that contains chilli but it is the quality and preparation of the rice that will make or break the dish. Basmati is the grain of choice here. It has super perfumed, long grains with snow white qualities. The Perfect Prince of Persia.

The rice should be treated with the care and consideration it deserves. Give it a thorough washing by gently whooshing it around in a large bowl. Replace the water a good few times. Try not to bash the grains too much. The aim is too remove the dusty starch from the outside of the grains but not break the grains and release more starch. After the initial rinsing, soak the rice overnight in plenty of cold water. The next day change the water a couple more times. The rice is more fragile after an overnight soak so again, try not to break it. Aim for clear water. Leave it sitting in a bowl of water until ready to cook the pulao.

Time for the stock. Apart from the lamb, there is a vast store cupboard list of ingredients. Perhaps grab a cuppa before reading on:

  • 1 kilo of lamb bones, preferably with some meat left on them. Or pieces of lamb specifically for making pulao. Neck, cutlets and the like. The goal is to have the flavour from the bones but with pieces of meat within the finished rice. Ask your butcher, make him your friend and you will most certainly receive all sorts of goodies.
  • 3 brown onions
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 2 inches of ginger
  • 1 head of garlic
  • 1 cinnamon stick/cassia bark
  • 1 tbsp black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp red chilli powder/flakes
  • 6 cloves
  • 6 black cardamon
  • 3 Allspice berries
  • small handful of cumin seeds
  • 10 green cardamon
  • handful of coriander seeds
  • salt to taste
  • 3 whole green finger chillies
  • 1 large tomato
  • fresh turmeric, only about a 1cm length.
  • 3 tbsp sunflower oil

Here we go, the method…

  1. Find your biggest pan and open the windows. Roll up your sleeves and get this show on the road.
  2. Heat the oil in the pan. Brown the lamb. Smokey!
  3. Once all the bones are sealed it’s time for the veggies, just halve them and add to the pot. You could deseed the chillies if you want. Your choice. Give everything a quick hot fry.
  4. Chuck in the spices. There may be a lot but no need for special treatment, in they go like George’s Marvellous Medicine.
  5. Then pour in the water. Stand back unless you want a spicy (and meaty) facial.
  6. Bring the pan up to boil and then simmer for a good long while. Probably a couple of hours. The meaty bits of the lamb should be tender.
  7. At this stage you should test the stock for salt. It should be a little over salty as it will be used with bland rice.
  8. Strain the stock. The veggies and spices have done their work but when things have cooled down pick the meat from the lamb bones and keep it in a separate bowl.
  9. The stock can be stored for a couple of days in the fridge or divided into meal sized quantities and frozen. Cook a great big vat of the stuff and your midweek meals will be transformed.

Your work for today is done.

And now, the pulao ingredients,

Don’t be scared but here comes another hefty shopping basket of ingredients. This makes enough rice for 6 hungry adults, maybe with a little leftover for the next day.

  • 3 cups of pre-soaked, washed basmati rice
  • 6 cups lamb pulao stock (double the number of cups of rice you will be using)
  • 3 brown onions, sliced
  • ghee
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • pinch of saffron
  • small handful coriander seeds
  • 2 tbsp cumin seeds
  • lamb pieces from the stock
  • 3 black cardamon
  • 5 green cardamon
  • 1 bay leaf
  1. Fry the onions in the ghee until as dark as you would like. A little caramelisation is no bad thing. This adds a good depth of flavour and that strangely desirable dirty look to the rice.
  2. Pop the whole spices into the pan and allow them to release their aroma. Careful not to burn anything at this stage.
  3. And now the lamb pieces. Remember them? Ooooh, they’re going to be soooo good in the finished dish. Gently though, don’t break them up.
  4. Add the rice, fry until slightly translucent. Keep it moving to allow all grains to be coated in the ghee and spice mix.
  5. Stock next. Double the quantity of rice. So, 1 cup of rice = 2 cups of water. Just remember to use the same cup to measure.
  6. Bring to the boil. Put on a tight lid. You can add a layer of tinfoil before the lid if need be. The pulao can be cooked in the oven or simmered on the lowest heat on the hob. There is less chance of the bottom layer of rice sticking if you bake it in the oven.
  7. Cook for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to stand for a further ten minutes. The grains should be light and fluffy and separate.
  8. Serve with your favourite dahl and maybe something yoghurty. A salad on the side would be perfect. Perhaps some fermented chilli sauce or fermented lime pickle. Ooooh, dinner is served.

Authentic, wholesome, comforting, aromatic and overwhelmingly delicious. Not much else to say except, you’re welcome.

Potting on the seedlings

A lot has happened since things kicked off this year. Our seeds were hot housed in the steamy propagator in the hope that germination would be quicker, more consistent and we would be a bit more successful with the chinense types. And things have indeed gone well. Hundreds of seeds germinated, hundreds of paper pots were made and now it is time to pot on the strongest of the plants to a more substantial home.

Paper pots
Germinated chilli seeds in their forever paper pots. Some seedlings just showing their leaves

How do we know it is time to pot on?

The seedlings are starting to show roots through the bottom of their paper pots. Many have two or more sets of leaves. The sun is shining in the UK and is forecast to be so for at least a couple more days. Perfect for a bit of window sunbathing to help the chillies settle in to their new pots. All good signs.

Seedlings ready to pot on

Using the specially formulated potting compost mix, the plants are tucked into 9cm square black pots. A layer of grit is put in the bottom and the paper pots are not removed, just buried within the new pot. Minimal root disturbance and the plants hopefully don’t feel swamped by the new pot.

Hey presto, 151 seedlings are potted on, fed and watered and basking in the sun.

Sunbathing in their new pots

Capsicum pubescens

Capsicum pubescens is a late entry to the heated propagator. Whilst using the last of our homegrown Rocoto chillies it was impossible to just throw the seeds away. So, they were introduced to the chitting pod. Having sworn we would get going earlier with the seeds this year, to allow the longest growing period possible, a quick diary check reveals that these seeds are starting off at pretty much the same time as last year. So much for planning.

Alberto Locato Rocoto

Four days later the roots have emerged. Much quicker than the chinense types and almost as quick as the speedy annuums.

chitted-rocoto-chillies
Chitted Rocoto seeds

And why did we bother with these seeds? Well, it turns out we’ve got a bit of a crush on these squishy fellas. There are far less varieties of Capsicum pubescens available on the market and you would certainly never see them in a UK food store to buy. The chilli fruit are all pretty similar with thick walls, juicy flesh and matt black seeds. With a round shape: some are a little more apple shaped, others lemony and some occasionally cheeked like bell peppers. Heat levels are medium to hot and they have a punchy fresh fruit flavour. They come in a range of -green-yellow-red but not purple or white. So far.

Capsicum pubescens are the smaller group of the five domesticated species of chilli. They are further away from others genetically. They trace back to pre-Incan times in Peru. In fact it is thought that the chilli remains found in the Guitarrero caves 10,000 years ago was a pubescens type. Historically significant as the chilli in question was found alongside evidence of campfires, grinding stones and human bones. It seems chillies were considered pretty valuable food stuffs. Not much has changed in 10,000 years then.

At The Birdhouse, we only grew one plant of this type last year: the high shine red Alberto Rocoto Locato. Gifted to us by my mother. It was easy to spot in the greenhouse as the plant grew differently to the others. For one, it had tiny white hairs on its leaves. Secondly, once it had got going, it split into two branches about 30cm up. It then sprawled out sideways and needed support from other plants. It snapped easily if knocked. It had bright violet flowers, with dusty white stamen. The chillies were late to set and took a long time to ripen to glossy red, maybe a 100 days or more. It matured about sometime similar to the Scotch Bonnets and they supposedly take 120 days. The plant was prolific despite being in a smallish 2.5 L pot. Whilst it was fed well it could probably have done with more root space.

Striking purple flowers

A quick bit of research tells us that these chillies are a fan of cooler nights, although still happy basking during the day. They are far more tolerant to lower temperatures generally. Although not frost tolerant. This bodes well for a UK climate and the need for a longish growing season. They are also long lived perennials, living up to 15 years. They can be climbers or tree formations. I think we might have a few Winter inmates this year. Let the pubescens journey begin.

Homegrown, homemade, chilli and squash soup

February soups at The Birdhouse are typically thick enough to put hairs on your chest. Hearty and wholesome, they keep you going through the gloom when you’d rather dive under the duvet as soon as the sun sets. However, the weather in the UK has been a little odd over the last week or so. Far milder than normal, with hardly any rain, light and bright. Spring is in the air, in the form of the scent of early flowers, the buzzing of insects. It is predicted to go on like this for the next week.

The warmer temperatures mean than a fresher soup is in order. A check in the stores reveals Crown Prince squashes, garlic and red chillies. Sounds perfect for the soup we’re after.

Homegrown Crown Prince squash

Peel the squash, easier said than done, it seems to fight back at every stage. Once battle is done, chunk it up and place it in a roaster with some whole garlic cloves. Splash liberally with olive oil, season then roast in a medium oven until soft and caramelised around the edges.

Chopped and ready to roast
Soup base

While the squash is roasting, prepare the soup base by sautéing roughly chopped onion, celery, carrot and leek in a pan. Add bay, rosemary and red chillies of your choice. Add the roasted squash and garlic. Top up with stock. We had a pot of smokey liquor left over from boiling a ham, perfect.

Squash soup ready to blitz

Bring the soup to a gentle boil and simmer until the veggies are cooked. Remove the bay leaf. Plug in the stick blender and blitz the hell out of that soup. Squash always makes such a smooth, velvety consistency, very satisfying. Add a slosh of double cream to enrich it and bind all the ingredients together. Check for seasoning, add chilli flakes or powder of your choice. We opted for Aleppo pepper, not too hot, vibrant red and sweet sun-dried tomato oiliness notes (no really).

A sprinkle of Apello pepper finishes the soup

Dinner is served.

Sweet Chillies for Valentine’s Day

We have four rocoto (Capsicum pubescens) chillies left from our bumper Autumn harvest. Surprisingly as they are such juicy chillies, the rocoto have stored very well indeed in the top of the fridge door. It seems like a special recipe is in order. How to preserve them and make those precious last chillies count? Today is Valentine’s Day so let’s go crazy!

How about candied chillies? With the intention of adding them to some knock-your-socks off florentines.

Sounds like a plan…

Heat a 50:50 mix of white sugar and water to form a sugar syrup. Add a few extra flavourings to enhance the fruity floral flavours of the rocoto: rose essence and scrapes of tangerine zest. Next, add the sliced, deseeded chillies and bubble away.

The house fills with the aromatic scent of rose and tangerine. Then I add the chillies and begin to choke. The capsaicin explodes into the air and hits the back of my throat, ticket tickle cough, tickle tickle cough.

And yet, sniffing the vapours rising from the saucepan is irresistible. Mmm, warming and aromatic.

As the candy mixture thickens it’s time to get ready to take the chillies out. Place a sheet of greaseproof paper and find a long pronged fork for fishing. There is a fair amount of caramel left in the pan so a handful of pistachios are thrown in to make a last minute chilli nut brittle. Why not?

The caramel brittle is too hot to taste. By the time it has cooled down I find out it is also hot-spicy. Rocoto are fierce and have a long burn. Excellent flavour with the tangerine peel and pistachio though. Must remember that when I make the florentines.

All that remains is to put the matt black seeds in the germinator because it would just be rude not to.

A Bird’s Eye (chilli) view of the Columbian Exchange.

Just how far have modern chillies come?

Everyone seems agreed that a passion for eating chillies originated in the heart of South America. Mexico initially but the news spread like wildfire, notably to the Bolivians (gatherers of wild chillies) and the Peruvians (the great chilli domesticators). Evidence of human chilli consumption can be traced back to 7,500 BC. Cultivation of chillies as a crop has been verified up to 6,000 years ago. That is a serious amount of history right there.

After thousands of years of South Americans quietly consuming, gently taming and trading chillies, how did their hot secret get out?

Let us discuss that oft mentioned historical phenomenon: The Columbian Exchange: a two way process named after Christopher Columbus, Italian explorer extraordinaire.

Previously Europe had traded with China and India via well established land routes. Silk, spices and opiates were all very much part of the European highlife. However, as politics changed and the Turkish Ottoman Empire came into power, land travel to Asia became arduous, unpredictable and dangerous. And yet the Europeans still had a desire for the exotic goods they had become accustomed to. Black peppercorns (Piper nigrum) were one such luxury. As well as a condiment, the popular hot spice was often used as payment and referred to as ‘black gold’. Christopher Columbus saw this demand and put together a proposal to find a new route to Asia. The Spanish Catholic Monarchs, Queen Isabella of Castille and King Ferdinand of Aragon, decided to employ Columbus and fund his sea voyages.

Most people were now convinced the world was a sphere. Columbus thought one could set off from Spain, sail west, across what was then called Ocean Sea and approach the other side of Asia from this new direction. Although he was a bit off in his calculations (mostly because he underestimated the size of the earth) he still managed to find land and come back with goods that impressed the Spanish court.

He first landed in the Americas in 1492. He thought he was in India and so called the islands ‘The Indies’. He succeeded in bringing back a wealth of new ideas, foods, slaves and indulgences like tobacco. He did not find the desired peppercorns but on his second trip he stumbled across local ‘aji’ hot peppers.

Unfortunately, in addition, Columbus and his crew had transferred devastating diseases like measles to the New World. It is estimated that the population of some islands was reduced by 90% as a direct result of contact with Columbus and his crew. In return, his crew contracted a number of previously unknown diseases and transported them around Europe. An exchange indeed.

European explorer map routes
European explorer voyage routes

But what happened to the chillies?

Ah yes, for a while the chillies were grown as ornamental and medicinal plants in monasteries in Spain and Portugal. After a while the monks noticed the heat of the pods and they began being used in cooking in place of black pepper.

Portuguese sailors were busy solving the Asian trade route situation another way. They too took to the sea but sailed south, along the West African coast and around the Cape of Good Hope to access the Asian goodies once more. They opened up new trade routes and the supply of spices resumed, albeit a little slower. Chillies were transported and traded along these routes.

Were there honestly no chillies in the Old World until Christopher Columbus’ voyages?

As a result of his voyages and the consequent global trade routes to the New World, a widespread exchange of plants, animals, diseases, humans, culture, technology and ideas between the New and Old Worlds occurred. Agriculture changed, populations were altered and an increased understanding of global geography ensued. And yes, you guessed it, chillies were unleashed on the rest of the world. Capsicum Chinense varieties can be traced back to the ‘aji’ that Columbus presented to the Spanish Royal court.

Of course there would have been individual overseas travellers who reached the Americas before Christopher Columbus. Saint Brendan and Leif Erikson to name a couple. They probably brought back a few souvenirs for the family, just like the rest of us when we travel abroad. Why not chillies?

Chillies have been noted and referenced across the world far earlier than the Columbus’ daring travels. For example, clear depictions of chillies in stone carving from thirteenth century Myanmar, South East Asia, mean there must have been some chilli present there before 1492.

So Columbus may not have been the first but he certainly did start a global trend.

Within 30 years of Columbus travelling to and from the New World, chillies had spread far and wide. The Portuguese took them wherever they went; Goa, Japan, West Africa, Thailand and mainland India. Chillies are relatively easy to grow and cultivate and so they were adopted by people wherever the conditions were good.

And so, in conclusion, whilst Christopher Columbus most certainly did not bring back the single Mother chilli from which all chillies have spawned. He was definitely a catalyst in sending chillies to every corner of the world. Not a bad legacy really.

Hot Chilli Glazed Ham

Hmm, first question of the day, what to do with the final jar of last year’s marmalade? Next question…can I use it with chilli?

Well, bake a ham is the simple answer.

So what will we need?

Flavour the boiling liquor with ingredients that will compliment the glaze
  • a ham, a good smokey fella. We always go big when cooking a ham as it lasts for ages, freezes well and goes with pretty much anything you want.
  • For the boiling pot: dried casabel, whole onion, couple of tangerines, fresh bay leaf, fresh thyme sprigs, a few garlic cloves, an apple, jalapeños, allspice berries and peppercorns. Do not stress too much peeling or prepping this as it will all be discarded.
  • For the glaze: marmalade, mustard of your choice, black onion seeds, fresh red fruit chilli, we used a rocoto.
Simmer for 20 mins per 500g
  1. Soak the ham overnight as the salt levels could be high. Discard the water.
  2. Put the ham in a big old pot, add enough water to cover and bring to the boil. Discard the water and start again. More salt management.
  3. Add more water, the liquor flavourings: and bring to the boil again.
  4. Reduce the heat until gently simmering. Cook for 20 mins per 500g.
  5. Remove the ham and let it sit for 20 mins. This just lets it cool down a bit and then it is easier to handle. The remaining stock will make a wonderful pea and ham soup.
  6. Prepare the glaze by mixing the ingredients together. Quantities really depend on the size of your ham.
  7. Carefully slice away the skin. Leave the fat and score in a diamond pattern.
  8. Gently apply the glaze, trying to get in between the criss cross lines.
  9. Bake in a 180 0 C oven for about 30 mins. Keep checking as the sugar in the marmalade could darken quickly.
  10. Take out the ham and try really hard not to eat it all in one go. One nibble won’t hurt though.