It might be strange to think it possible to benefit from a pandemic, and I’m not one to immediately look for silver linings or that sort of thing. I do think, though, that if the time spent social distancing or in self-isolation helps us puncture some of our most dearly-held going forward; this is, of course, in addition to the benefit that comes from stopping the spread of a hideous upper respiratory virus. One could hold forth at this point about the illusions we need to puncture: illusions about work, haste, busyness, illusions about technological mastery over natural perils . . . .
But I’ll let wiser voices speak to those. My goal is more modest: if you think it’s necessary to order takeout to get quality Indian food, think again. You can make phenomenal curries from scratch at home – so good in fact, you might not want to order takeout again. (Please do, though, as many of these restaurants could use your support right now). To prove my thesis, I present to you now the recipe I use for Butter Chicken, or Murgh Makhani, perhaps the most newbie-friendly Indian dish. It is creamy, vibrant, comforting. I’ve served it to many students and young adults over the past couple years, and they rave about it (to the point where I become self-conscious and wonder if they’re seeking me out for spiritual counsel, or just for the Butter Chicken). Credit where it’s due: the recipe is drawn from Cook’s Illustrated. I heartily encourage you to subscribe to their print magazine, or toss them a few bucks per month for their online database of recipes. They’ve never steered me wrong.
Assemble your ingredients. There’s only one esoteric component required – the garam masala – but that is easily sourced in most supermarkets these days. It is essential, but perhaps not as essential as the chicken thighs. Most recipes use chicken breast, which is a drastically inferior portion of the bird. In fact, to call it that is still to esteem it too highly. Chicken breast is dreadful, folks – especially the kind that’s been deboned and denuded. It is expensive, nearly flavourless, it overcooks in seconds, and it seems to have gained whatever repute it has for being “healthy,” a quality of dubious gustatory relevance. Thighs, on the other hand? They’re full-flavoured and forgiving; it actually would take some effort to ruin them. Save your money and please your palate.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces and chilled
- 1 onion, chopped
- 5 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 teaspoons grated fresh ginger (no powdered stuff, please)
- 1 hot chile (jalapeño or serrano), stemmed, seeded and minced
- 1 tablespoon garam masala
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- 1 ½ cups water
- ½ cup tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons table salt, divided
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed
- ½ cup plain Greek yogurt
- 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, divided
Melt half the butter in a large sauce pan. Add the onion, garlic, ginger and chile and stir until softened and lightly browned. Drop in the garam masala, coriander, cumin, and pepper and tend to it frequently with your spoon or spatula for a few minutes. Pour in the water and scrape in the tomato paste, and stir until smooth. Add the sugar and one teaspoon of salt and bring to a boil. Take it off the heat and stir in the cream. When it’s cooled down slightly, blend the sauce until smooth using an immersion blender if possible (otherwise, ladle it into a blender). Keep warm on low heat.
Turn on your broiler to full whack. Place the top rack six inches or so from the heat. Combine the chicken and yogurt and remaining salt in a bowl, and then spread the chicken out on a baking sheet, preferably lined with foil or parchment. Broil those thighs, turning once, for 16-20 minutes, until they’re cooked through. The sugar in the yogurt will brown pleasantly under the intense heat, and that, my friends, is the ticket to flavour town.
Remove the chicken from the oven, let it rest for a few minutes, then cut into 3/4 inch chunks and stir into the sauce, along with a small handful of chopped cilantro. Bring it to the table, and serve it alongside plain basmati rice and naan.
Say grace and dig in.