A Thanksgiving recipe this is not. Unless maybe you find yourself in India that day and can’t get your hands on a turkey and some cornbread. It’s a few weeks out from Thanksgiving and every blog in the foodiesphere seems to be compelling us to get ready for the big day. But I was in the mood for these flavors, this comfort food from another mother. I’m thinking about Thanksgiving, don’t get me wrong. I have my cranberry sauce duo and mushroom cobbler from last year that you can check out if you really want something for the big T day right now…and I’ll be posting more Thanksgiving appropriate recipes next week. But right now this dish is calling me.
I taught a class in October, a four-part series on Comfort Foods From Around the World, inspired by a wonderful compilation cookbook published by Saveur, called The New Comfort Food. Not every recipe we attempted in the class was a “keeper” (sorry about the ham steak and red-eye gravy…I should leave such things up to the Pioneer Woman!), but this recipe I borrowed (from aforementioned book) for Indian comfort food in the form of tender chunks of chicken breast swimming in a buttery, spice-drunk, aromatic, tomato sauce is going onto my personal favorites list.
A word about mise en place. That’s French for “put in place”. It’s a phrase used in restaurants for the prep work that puts all ingredients “in place” for the line cooks, so when they pull together a dish to order, everything they need is at their fingertips and ready to go. It’s turned into a verb or command as in “mise out” the ingredients, and shortened too, “I’m doing the mise for the chicken…” No matter how you slice it, it’s a great way to approach a cooking. Whether you are working from a written recipe or cooking off the top of your head, prepping your “mise” ahead will result in more stress-free preparation and more consistent results. The mise directions these days usually come right up in the ingredient list…as in “1 onion, finely diced” or “6 tablespoons of butter, cubed” or “6 cloves of garlic, smashed”. Cook like a TV chef by having all your ingredients measured, diced, sliced, smashed and separated into small containers (I love my cheapo, stackable Pyrex bowls) before you start cooking.
What I love about this recipe is that it produces a final product that is mouth-meltingly authentic. My family will tell you how they finally got me to stop trying to do Asian because I never really get it right. I was thrilled when I tested this recipe and it smelled and tasted like a trip to Curry Hill (the NYC east side neighborhood dense with Indian restaurants). I missed the hot tandoor baked bread (which I shouldn’t eat anyway) but beside that, I was very, very happy with my homemade attempt at Indian.
I even made my own Garam Masala, a spice mix that is so delicious and so heady in aroma and flavor it transports you (shown above with garlic, ginger, jalepeno, and tumeric getting ready to become a magical paste that is greater than the sum of it’s parts). Maybe I lived a former life in India, or maybe my palate just wishes I did, because I go Pavlovian over this combination of cardamom, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves and nutmeg. (An easy ecipe for my homemade version of Garam Masala below, or you can buy it pre-mixed from my favorite online spice source Penzeys.)
Some of this gorgeous paste is added to yogurt and cubed chicken breast…
Mixed up and put on a sheet pan and broiled….
Toast some coriander and cumin seed in butter, add the paprika and onions…and the rest of the paste.
Add the tomatoes and cream and simmer….then add the chicken and simmer some more.
Tear yourself away and make some basmati rice with a little saffron or frozen peas and butter thrown in too. Then close your eyes and taste ancient trade routes, spices nations conquered each other over. Nirvana.
Chicken Tikka Masala
adapted from The New Comfort Food, edited by James Oseland, Saveur
1 tbsp. ground turmeric
4 tsp. garam masala (recipe below)
6 cloves garlic, crushed
1- 2 1⁄2″ piece ginger, peeled and chopped, plus julienned strips for garnish
1 jalapeño, stemmed and chopped
1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes, undrained
2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1 1⁄2″ cubes
1⁄4 cup Greek (any type will do) yogurt, such as Fage
Kosher salt, to taste
6 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tsp. coriander seeds
1⁄2 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tbsp. paprika
2 small yellow onions, finely chopped
1 cup heavy cream
Cilantro leaves, for garnish (optional)
Cooked basmati rice, for serving
1. In a blender, purée turmeric, 2 tsp. garam masala, garlic, ginger, jalapeños, and 1⁄2 cup water. Put paste into a bowl. In the same blender, purée tomatoes and hold aside.
2. In a bowl, mix 2 tbsp. paste, chicken, yogurt, and salt; marinate for 30 minutes. Place oven rack 4″ from heating element; heat to broil. Transfer chicken to a foil-lined sheet tray; broil until cooked, 5–6 minutes; set aside.
3. Heat butter in 6-qt. saucepan over medium-high heat. Add coriander and cumin; toast 4–6 minutes. Add paprika and onions; cook until soft, 6–8 minutes. Add remaining paste; brown for 5–6 minutes. Add tomatoes; cook for 2 minutes. Stir in cream and 1 cup water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer until thickened, 6–8 minutes. Stir in remaining masala and chicken; season with salt. Serve with garnishes and rice.
2 tablespoons ground cumin
3 teaspoons ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Mix cumin, coriander, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg in a bowl. Place mix in an airtight container, and store in a cool, dry place.
* You can start with toasting whole cumin and coriander seeds, and digging the seeds out of whole cardamom pods and the flavor will be that much more intense and authentic, but I had all these spices in my spice cabinet already ground so I did it the easy way. What I sacrificed in flavor I gained in sanity and ease. You can also find pre-toasted and pre-mixed authentic Garam Masala at Indian specialty stores or online at Penzys.