Anatomy of a Classic

Hoppin’ John Biryani

Serves 8

A Kentucky chef crafts an exotic yet familiar spin on a Southern stalwart

photo: Johnny Autry


Fusion food is tricky business. In the wrong hands, a dish that borrows from different cultures can turn into a muddled mess.

Ouita Michel, who presides over the kitchen at the historic Holly Hill Inn a half hour’s drive from Lexington, Kentucky, knew she was navigating potentially rough terrain when she decided to create a dish to please the families of both a Pakistani bride and her Kentucky groom, who got married there this summer. 

The result is hoppin’ John biryani, a union so delicious you might wonder why no one thought of it before. A spice-perfumed cousin to rice pilaf that made its way to India and Pakistan from Persia, biryani comes in a thousand variations but has much in common with the Southern New Year’s Day staple. Both are dishes built around rice, fortified with beans, meat, or vegetables, and often trotted out for special occasions and holidays. 

Michel, whose parents moved to Lexington when she was still in elementary school, was headed for law school before she found her calling in a New York kitchen. She enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America, and on the first day met her future husband, Chris. On a trip home to plan their wedding, Michel realized she didn’t want to go back to New York. Now she has an empire that includes four other Lexington-area restaurants; Chris runs the business side and serves as wine guru.

Turmeric and saffron give the rice a golden hue as it cooks

photo: Johnny Autry

Spice of Life

Turmeric and saffron give the rice a golden hue as it cooks

The first version of Michel’s biryani, prepared in a customary vegetarian wedding style, was a hit. But she kept experimenting, adding her favorite Kentucky bacon and country ham, mixing in chopped roasted pecans, and brightening it with fresh parsley and green onion. She starts with long-grain rice, preferably the Southern-grown basmati variation called Texmati, then gently stirs in hoppin’ John’s traditional black-eyed peas (fresh or frozen), cooked with bacon and ham stock, as her mother taught her.

“She was from Wyoming, so when she moved to eastern Kentucky, the whole black-eyed pea thing was new to her,” Michel says. “But she was a fabulous cook, so she figured it out pretty quickly.”

When making this biryani at home, feel free to adjust ingredients here and there, depending on what’s on hand and personal preference. Although Michel likes bits of whole spice in the dish, cooks looking for convenience can substitute ground spices.

“It’s kind of fun to make it different every single time,” she says. “This is the kind of dish that can evolve and become part of the family culture.” 


Ingredients

  • Rice

    • 2 cups Texmati long-grain rice

    • 4 cups water

    • 3 tbsp. vegetable oil

    • 1/2 white onion, thinly sliced

    • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin or 1 tsp. cumin seeds

    • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon or 1 2-inch stick, cracked

    • 1/2 tsp. ground coriander

    • 1/4 tsp. ground cloves or 5 whole cloves

    • 1/4 tsp. cardamom or 4 green cardamom pods, cracked

    • 1/4 tsp. turmeric

    • 2 bay leaves

    • 1 tsp. saffron (optional)

    • 1 tsp. salt

  • Black-eyed peas

    • 6-8 strips Broadbent or other thick-cut bacon (about 1 cup), cut into 1/4-inch lardons

    • 1/2 white onion, diced

    • 1 carrot, peeled and diced

    • 1 stalk celery, diced

    • 1 tbsp. garlic, minced

    • 1 tbsp. ginger, minced

    • 1 jalepeño, seeded and diced

    • 1 12-ounce bag frozen black-eyed peas

    • 2 cups ham or chicken stock

    • 2 bay leaves

    • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

    • Salt to taste

  • Add-ins

    • 1 bunch chopped flat-leaf parsley

    • 6–8 sliced green onions

    • 1 cup diced toasted pecans

    • 1 cup diced browned country ham

    • 1/2 cup raisins or dried currants


Preparation

  1. For the rice:

    Soak the rice in water for 30 minutes. Drain and reserve liquid. Pour oil into a 3-quart Dutch oven and heat over medium. Add onion and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add spices (except saffron) and continue to cook 2–3 minutes until spices become fragrant. Add rice and stir to combine. Add saffron (if using), then pour in reserved liquid (you should have exactly 3 cups; if not, adjust amount with water). Add salt. Bring rice to a simmer, cover, and remove from heat. Steam for 20–30 minutes or until cooked.

  2. For the peas:

    Place bacon in a large saucepan and brown on medium-high, about 5 minutes. Add onion, carrot, and celery, and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, and jalapeño, and sauté for 2 minutes more. Stir in peas, stock, bay leaves, and pepper. Simmer uncovered on medium-low for 40 minutes or until peas are tender and most, but not all, of the stock has evaporated. Add salt to taste.

  3. To assemble:

    Fluff the rice with a fork, then fold in peas, along with add-ins. Serve immediately or cover until ready to rewarm; moisten with warm stock, if needed.

Meet the Chef: Ouita Michel

Hometown: Lexington, Kentucky

Favorite kitchen music: “Classic, old-school country, like Johnny Cash.”

Quirkiest piece of kitchen equipment: The bottom of a pressure cooker that’s been in the Holly Hill kitchen for years, used only for grits. “Our whole recipe is geared to this damn pot.”


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