chicken tikka masala

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Chicken tikka masala sounds so good in theory. It’s everything I love about Italian food – carbs and meat and tomato sauce mixed together – but it’s Indian food, which I also love. Except, the first time I made it, the similarity was too strong. I felt like I was eating spaghetti sauce with weird spices over rice when it should have been pasta.

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It took a couple years, but I finally got around to trying a new recipe. Maybe it’s the lemon juice in this recipe that makes all the difference, but there was no spaghetti confusion here. Marinara doesn’t usually have chili spices, ginger, and yogurt either.

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There’s one thing about this recipe that will seem strange and might make you uncomfortable, and that is that the chicken is not cooked all the way through on the grill. A trip to the grill (or the broiler) is important to really brown, even char, the meat, but then it’s chopped so it can finish cooking in the sauce. This gives it time to soak up some flavor from the sauce with drying out.

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It may be an unusual technique, but it works, because this is the best chicken tikka masala I’ve ever eaten. Of course, the only other chicken tikka masala I’ve eaten was the spaghetti one, so my basis for comparison is not large. Still, I know good when I taste it, and this is very good.

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Chicken Tikka Masala (slightly adapted from The Food Lab)

6-8 servings

3 tablespoons ground cumin
3 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoon ground coriander
2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
12 cloves garlic, 8 smashed and 4 minced
3 tablespoons minced or grated fresh ginger, divided
2 cups yogurt
¾ cup fresh juice from 4 to 6 lemons, divided
salt
5 pounds bone-in chicken pieces (breasts, legs, or a mix), skin removed
2 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, roughly chopped
½ cup roughly chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems
1 cup heavy cream

1. Heat a small not-nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the cumin, paprika, coriander, turmeric, and cayenne; toast, stirring constantly, until the spices begin to smoke. Immediately remove them from the pan so they don’t burn.

2. Combine 6 tablespoons of the spice mixture, 8 cloves smashed garlic, 2 tablespoons ginger, the yogurt, ½ cup lemon juice, and ¼ cup salt in a large bowl. Score the chicken at 1-inch intervals and immerse in the yogurt mixture; cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to 8 hours, turning occasionally.

3. When the chicken has marinated, heat the butter in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until the foaming subsides. Add the onions, 4 cloves minced garlic, and the remaining 2 tablespoons ginger. Cooking, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to brown at the edges, about 8 minutes. Add the remaining spice mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Puree, either with an immersion blender or in batches with a regular blender. Stir in the cream and the remaining ¼ cup lemon juice. Season with salt if necessary; set aside.

4. Heat a grill to high heat. Grill the chicken without moving until charred, 5-7 minutes. Flip the chicken and char the second side. Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and allow to rest for 10 minutes. The chicken should not be cooked through. (The chicken can also be broiled instead of grilled.)

5. Cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces; transfer it to the sauce. Bring the sauce to a simmer over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, until the chicken is just cooked through, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately with rice or naan, topping with the remaining cilantro.

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chicken curry

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I don’t get too hung up on authenticity. If the food is good and I can find the ingredients, I’m happy. On the other hand, I’m not opposed to authenticity if I can get it. This recipe strikes me as pretty close, and it was good and I was able to find the ingredients, so it was a score on all accounts.

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Indian food might be an easier cuisine to tackle in a town without specialty food stores than something like Chinese food, which always seems to involve ingredients I can’t find. This recipe in particular is a pretty standard list of ingredients – a lot of spices but nothing unusual, chicken, tomatoes, cilantro. The quick marinade of nothing but lemon juice, salt, and pepper was unusual, but considering how good this recipe was, I wouldn’t change a thing.

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The spices are toasted, onions and garlic are processed into a paste that is then browned, then tomatoes are added and the chicken braises in this mixture until tender and infused with flavor.  It wasn’t a difficult or time-consuming recipe, and served with coconut rice and cinnamon cumin roasted cauliflower, we had a fantastic meal of Indian food – something not found often in a small town in southeastern New Mexico.

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Chicken Curry (adapted from Indian Simmer)

Serves 6

I prefer whole canned tomatoes to diced, especially for something like this, because diced tomatoes contain more citric acid, which keeps them from breaking down into the sauce as smoothly.

¼ cup lemon juice from 1-2 lemons
salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
2½ pounds chicken thighs
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons minced, peeled fresh ginger
2-3 serrano peppers, seeded and minced
1 (14-ounce) can whole tomatoes, chopped
1 cinnamon stick
4 whole black cardamom
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
5 cloves
3 dried bay leaves
2 tablespoons coriander powder
1½ teaspoons garam masala powder
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon butter
¼ cup minced cilantro

1. In a large bowl, mix the lemon juice, ½ teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper. Add the chicken; stir to coat. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, transfer the onion, ginger, garlic, and peppers to the bowl of a food processor; pulse until pureed to a paste. Crush the cinnamon, cardamom, cumin, and cloves in a small bowl.

3. In a 5-quart Dutch oven, heat the oil over medium heat until it flows like water when the pot is tilted. Add the crushed spices, bay leaves, coriander, garam masala, and turmeric; cook, stirring continuously, until they just start to smoke. Add the onion mixture; cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is dry and golden brown. Add 1 teaspoon salt and the tomatoes. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down, about 10 minutes. Add the chicken and stir to coat in the sauce. Reduce the heat to medium-low; cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes, until the chicken is cooked and the liquid is reduced to a sauce.

4. Add the butter and stir until blended. Cover; let set off the heat for 15 minutes. Stir in the cilantro and serve with rice or naan.

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chai snickerdoodles

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Making a commitment to cook two pre-chosen recipes a month has been a great way to push my boundaries with the occasional challenging recipe, as well as check off some easier recipes that have been nagging me for years but I never got around to making. There’s not always a good reason that I needed the extra push, but sometimes the accountability is necessary to check that dish off the list. It’s been a great way to convince myself to try flavors I knew I would like but hadn’t quite convinced myself to make yet, like the ones in these cookies.

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But. There is a problem sometimes. The problem is not that I end up making a recipe I’m not in the mood for because it’s the last day of the month, although that has happened. That’s part of the game. No, the problem is that I am then obligated to share recipes here that I don’t necessarily recommend. If I was a more organized person, I would make the recipes multiple times in the month until I had them perfect, but this is stretching my competence too far.

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Instead, we have snickerdoodles that didn’t turn out just right. Which is particularly annoying, because they’re from a recipe I wholeheartedly endorsed several years ago. This time, however, they were crisp, without that light cakey bite I prefer in snickerdoodles. I can only guess that the difference is the temperature of the dough right before baking.

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But this challenge was about chai, not snickerdoodles, and the chai spices were perfect. They weren’t drastically different from regular cinnamon-coated snickerdoodles, but the extra spices, especially the cardamom, made them a bit more special.  They weren’t perfect, but neither am I, so I have no choice but to share an imperfect recipe.

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One year ago: Yukon Gold and Sweet Potato Gratin
Two years ago: Bacon Egg Toast Cups
Three years ago: Sopaipillas
Four years ago: Chocolate Chip Cookies (comparison of 4 recipes)

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Chai Snickerdoodles (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated and The Novice Chef)

Makes about 60 cookies

Dough:
2¼ cups (11¼ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups (10½ ounces) granulated sugar
2 large eggs

Chai mix for rolling dough:
4 tablespoons granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1½ teaspoons ground cardamom
½ teaspoons ground ginger
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon nutmeg

1. Adjust oven racks to the middle position. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt; set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, salt, and sugar on medium speed until well combined, 1 to 1½ minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, add the eggs, and beat again until combined, about 30 seconds. Add in the dry ingredients and beat at low speed until just combined, about 20 seconds.

2. In a small, shallow bowl, combine sugar and spices for rolling the dough. Stir or shake well to combine. Working with a scant tablespoon of dough each time, roll the dough into 1-inch balls. Roll the balls in the cinnamon sugar mixture and place them on the prepared baking sheets, about 2 inches apart.

3. Bake until the edges of the cookies are beginning to set and the center are soft and puffy, 8-10 minutes. Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets 2-3 minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely.

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red kidney bean curry

When my schedule picks up, I tend to fall into a weeknight dinner rut. I think we ate pasta with chopped tomatoes and fresh mozzarella ten times during the month or so of peak tomato season. Fish tacos are in no short supply around here year-round. Red beans and rice, salmon pesto pasta, braised white beans, jalapeno-baked fish

Surely there must be new recipes for me to try that fit my tough weeknight standards – quick, light, fully balanced, vegetarian or seafood-based. And yes! This is perfect. Plus I love my one other Indian curry standard and knew there must be similar-but-different dishes out there to try.

It’s such a basic recipe – sauté aromatics and spices, add beans and other flavorings, simmer, serve over starch. It makes me wonder how many other cuisines I could do this with. I suspect I’ll be trying a few, because you can never have enough quick healthy balanced vegetarian meal ideas.

One year ago: Stuffed Mushrooms with Sun-Dried Tomatoes
Two years ago: Mulled Cider

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Red Kidney Bean Curry
(adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

This recipe has another trait I love – it takes well to freezing. Make a large batch, freeze in portions, and your next meal is that much easier!

The first time I made this, it seemed a little bland so I’ve increased the spices and added garam masala. I love garam masala. I’ve also changed the tomatoes around to something that makes more sense to me.

I know Deb’s looks like soup and mine looks like a paste. My only explanation is that this batch was frozen and defrosted, and I was too busy catching up on The Office episodes to see that it needed more liquid.

Serves 6

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 jalapeno, minced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 teaspoons garam masala
1½ teaspoon ground cumin
1½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with juice
2 (15-ounce) cans red kidney beans, rinsed and drained (or 3 cups cooked beans)
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

In a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the onion and jalapeno and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion just starts to brown at the edges, 5-8 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger, tomato paste and spices; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juice, the beans, and the salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then decrease the heat to low and simmer uncovered for 10 minutes. Stir in the cilantro, taste for seasoning, and serve over rice or with naan.

vegetable curry

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I’m particular about cookbooks. I’ve gotten into the habit of buying one hopefully comprehensive cookbook per cuisine. It started with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Marcella Hazen’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, then it was Corinne Trang’s Essentials of Asian Cooking, and most recently, Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking.

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The thing is, I’ve hardly made anything from any of these. I’ve barely even opened Indian Cooking since I got it for Christmas this year, and to be honest, I’m really not bothered by this. It makes me happy just knowing that I have them, and that someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, I’ll find the time and discipline to learn what I can from each one.

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In fact, I’ve only made a couple of Indian dishes ever, but that was all I needed to be convinced that I’ll love it; I enjoy the basic flavors and ingredients so much. One of my favorites is a vegetable curry dish from Cooks Illustrated, but every time I made it, I was surprised by how long it took. I wanted something simpler that I could reasonably make on a weeknight.

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Then I found a recipe for Aloo Gobi that had a lot of the same ingredients, except less of them, plus a simpler cooking method. It has potatoes in it, as does the CI recipe, but since I wanted to serve my curry mixture over rice, I decided that I could eliminate the potatoes. I also wanted this to be a one-dish meal, but the original didn’t have any protein. Exchanging the potatoes for chickpeas killed two birds with one stone.

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The recipe starts out with sautéing all sorts of delicious aromatics – garlic and ginger of course, but also spices, including curry powder and garam masala. Garam masala is seriously delicious stuff. It’s a blend, so brands will vary, but I’ve been perfectly happy with McCormick’s. Then I added cauliflower, which is my favorite vegetable, and then tomatoes and chickpeas. One ingredient I love after another. At the end, peas are stirred in.

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This was exactly what I was looking for. It has similar ingredients to the Cooks Illustrated recipe that I enjoyed so much, but it’s easy enough to make on a weeknight. Aloo gobi  has similar flavors, but this version has the right nutritional balance for a one-pot meal. I wonder how many more great Indian dishes I can discover by actually looking through a cookbook?

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One year ago: Grits, Onion, and Cheese Souffles

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Vegetable Curry

Serves 3-4

I love this over basmati rice (I like to put a cinnamon stick and some cloves in the pot with the rice cooks) and topped with mango chutney and plain yogurt.

I didn’t have peas when I photographed this. Also, I used too much of the spices; the recipe below calls for less than I used, so if yours looks a little different from the pictures, that may be the reason.

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon minced or grated ginger
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoons garam masala
2 teaspoons curry powder
Salt
½ medium head cauliflower, cut into small-medium sized florets
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 ounces (about ¾ cup) frozen peas

1. In a large skillet, heat the canola oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, ginger, garam masala, and curry powder. Cook until fragrant, 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly.

2. Add the cauliflower and toss to incorporate with the spices, then stir in ½ teaspoon salt, the chickpeas, and the tomatoes with their liquid. Cover the pan and simmer over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until the cauliflower is tender, stirring occasionally. Stir in the peas, cover again, and continue simmering for 2-3 minutes, until the peas are heated through. Serve over rice, topped with plain yogurt and mango chutney, if desired.

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