A typical dinner related conversation in our house might go like this:
Me: “I feel like curry tonight.”
Hubs: “Where are we ordering from?”
But not this time. One of my dearest friends came over recently and we made curry together. She’s promised to do this for some time now but since coming over involves hopping a flight from Europe, I’ve had to be patient. Lucky me, she was in town for a week and we had a glorious time catching up and making delicious food. My friend hails from India and I was always jealous of her because she got to eat home cooked Indian food every day growing up. Not that I’m knocking my mom’s cooking, but eating authentic Indian food every day; there’s a serious drool factor there. Turns out home cooked Indian food is quite different from the creamy stuff you get at restaurants. It’s much simpler, much healthier. That also means that it’s much easier to make. And you know what? It’s so much more rewarding to eat!
The first thing we did when my friend arrived was take a run up to the Indian grocery near my house. Walking in is quite an experience as the aromas of spices and fresh herbs and vegetables hangs heavy in the air. For me this is a little bit like going home since I grew up in Singapore and these aromas and “ethnic” groceries are quite familiar for me. (As a side note, for those of you keeping track, my heritage is Finnish and I grew up in Singapore – Foodie Heaven, as Anthony Bourdain calls it. Bourdain hasn’t been to Finland as far as I know. Gordon Ramsay has and he wasn’t impressed. Though I respectfully disagree with Ramsay’s opinion, the two countries definitely represent culinary extremes! But I digress.) We picked up some red and green peppers, carrots, fresh cilantro, garam masala, cardamom pods, paneer (Indian cheese), and fresh roti (Indian flat bread). We headed to my regular grocery for some chicken, where we decided to save money and buy a whole chicken. In any case, chicken on the bone is definitely the way to go for flavor and tender, moist meat. Our plan is to make a chicken curry and vegetable paneer.
Ingredients for Chicken Curry:
Whole Chicken, broken down or chicken pieces of your choice (how much depends on how many you are feeding)
Plain yogurt (enough to cover the chicken)
Garam masala powder
Curry powder (generic turmeric based powder)
Powdered ginger (fresh is of course OK, but we were lazy)
Garlic, minced (2-3 cloves, or to taste)
Can of crushed/diced tomatoes (I like to use fire roasted, for extra flavor)
Vegetable oil for sautéing
Fresh cilantro (2-3 sprigs roughly chopped and a few left whole for garnish)
Salt to taste
I don’t have a whole lot of experience in breaking down chickens though I’ve seen it done both on TV and in person. I have the theory down, it’s just the practice that’s a little iffy. It looks so easy when someone else does it yet somehow it still turns into a bit of a struggle. For example, the whole concept of popping out the tendon just doesn’t translate into practice all that well for me anyway. Luckily I am not one of those people who cannot handle meat on the bone, so I happily attacked the bird while my friend tackled the veggies. I managed to hack off the drumsticks, thighs, wings and breasts and they don’t look too mangled. We also cut the breast pieces crosswise into two and separated the thigh from the drumstick to allow for more even cooking. I threw the carcass into the freezer for a soup.
Marinate the chicken pieces in yogurt and curry powder (overnight is best but even the time it will take to prep the veggies will be enough).
Wash, peel, and dice veggies, and dice paneer. Mince garlic.
Heat oil in a dutch oven or large pot. Sauté onion, garlic, ginger, garam masala, cumin, and cinnamon. Add the chicken pieces and allow to brown. The spice amounts are all to taste. We used a couple of generous shakes from each jar (maybe 1-2 tsp). As the spices cook, the flavors develop and each spice adds a different layer of flavor. Tasting as you cook and adding more spices isn’t a good idea as you may end up with an overwhelming flavor once everything is cooked. Garam Masala adds a lot of heat, so 1 teaspoon might be enough. Curry powder is a mixture of many spices and varies from brand to brand. It is usually milder so you can add around 1 tablespoon and then adjust according to taste as you get more familiar with your palate and cooking with spices. Cumin has a very smoky flavor, so 1 teaspoon is probably enough. We decided to keep things more mild because of our Little Missy’s delicate palate. I have to admit my friend (the expert) handled the spicing and her approach is “a little of this, a little of that.”
Once the chicken has browned, add the tomato, cover, lower the heat and allow to simmer while you prepare the other dishes. Give the chicken an occasional stir.
Add the cilantro at the very end of cooking and add salt to taste.
Ingredients for Vegetable Paneer:
1 Red pepper, diced
1 Green pepper, diced
1 Onion, diced
3 Carrots, diced
One package of paneer, cubed
Garam masala powder
Oil for sautéing
Salt to taste
Optional: can of crushed tomatoes
The beauty of this dish is that you can use any vegetables you like. This also means that it can easily turn into a variety of side dishes once you have the method down.
Heat some oil in a deep sauté pan. Add garlic, onion and spices and allow to cook. Add carrots, peppers, and paneer. You may add a can of tomatoes or a little bit of water. We poured about half a cup of water into the tomato can for a little flavor and put that in the vegetable and paneer mixture. Cover the pan, lower the heat and allow to cook while you make the rice.
Ingredients for Aromatic Rice:
Rice (I use regular grocery store brand Jasmine rice)
Cardamom pods (5-6 or to taste)
Cinnamon (a few shakes)
Whole Cloves (1 tsp or to taste)
2-3 Bay leaves
Oil for sautéing
Heat some oil in a pan, add your desired amount of rice and sauté, mixing all the time so rice doesn't burn. My friend and I had never actually done this but since her mom always sautés her rice, we decided to try it out.
Add water according to the rice cooking instructions (ie. twice as much water as rice). My friend’s mom will just eyeball the amount of water and never goes wrong. I always measure and end up having to add water before the rice is done. So, we decided to emulate mom and eyeball the water and cook it until done (not necessarily for the 20 minutes as instructed). Guess what? It worked! We added cardamom pods, opened to allow the seeds to come out, cloves, cinnamon, and the bay leaves, covered and let the rice simmer (approximately 20 minutes).
When everything is ready to serve heat up the roti in the microwave for about 30 seconds under a damp paper towel. The beauty of the chicken and vegetable dishes was that they were able to simmer away while the rice cooked and everything was ready at the same time. As my friend puts it, food is always cooked “to death” in India, so allowing stuff to simmer away until you are ready to eat won’t kill the flavor. Actually it’ll probably make it tastier. Of course you don’t want to overcook the rice! All in all the chicken cooked for about an hour, while the veggies took about half an hour. I have to apologize since I have no photos of the finished product. We served ourselves straight from the stove top and scarfed our food down without pausing for a photo opp. Also my friend and I were far too busy catching up as we cooked to stop and take photos (plus there was absolutely no need to immortalize what I did to that poor chicken).
We had a delicious meal that evening and an even more delicious lunch of leftovers the next day since the flavors just continue to develop with time. Little Missy didn’t have a chance to taste it until lunch and I am happy to report that she enjoyed it. The lesson here is to not be afraid to offer flavorful dishes to your little ones (as long as they’re not packed with heat). I definitely plan to incorporate cooking with spices into my repertoire.
In parting, I have to say cooking with my dear friend was loads of fun. There were plenty of “remember when” moments and it was a nice way to catch up, definitely better than sitting in a restaurant. Finally, I have to give a huge public thanks too to the hubs for keeping Little Missy occupied while we cooked.
If you, my dear readers make sense of these recipes and try them out, please let me know how they come out!