Sandwiches would have seemed like the obvious choice from the April Bon Appétit. But—and this is a difficult confession—Jessica doesn’t care very much about sandwiches…with the important exception of grilled cheese, of course. Weird, yes, but also true. We were both drawn to the spring pea recipes, but one of us shares most of her meals with a gentleman who doesn’t like peas (also weird but true), and we decided it would be nicer to stick to a recipe that was more likely to be a crowd pleaser. We settled on the chicken tikka masala, because we both love Indian food and because Laura recently found out that she’ll have some less urban living in her future, and it seemed like a good call to try out a dish that will be harder to find in her new town.
Jessica’s Take: I will always always order chicken tikka masala when I’m eating Indian food, whether in a restaurant or for delivery. Sure, I enjoy a malai kofta and a saag paneer as much as the next gal, but tikka always trumps everything for me. So I was excited to see if making it at home could come close to the flavors I’m used to, and curious to see how complicated it would be. Yes to the first question and not very to the second, as it turns out, tho the recipe is pretty involved.
Part of what made this dish fun was tracking down the ingredients. There’s a wonderful store, Sahadi’s, in my neighborhood, that I’d heard great things about but had never checked out for myself. Hal and I swung by one afternoon after brunch, and I was immediately in love. First of all, they actually had ghee–the mysterious clarified butter I’ve seen in several ingredient list over the years, but never in person. It was a semi-splurge, but I decided to go for it and make the recipe with no substitutions. Of course now I’m wondering what to do with a big ole jar of 100% pure ghee, but I’m sure I’ll think of something…Sahadi’s has an awesome spice selection, so I was able to scoop up cheap turmeric, garam masala, coriander, and cardamom pods. Actually,they were out of tumeric, but after a quick check in one of the employees disappeared for a while and returned with a stack of containers full of tumeric. Very impressive.
There’s a fair amount of prep to this dish. A quick read of the recipe had me thinking that the time involved would all be on the back end, since the first step is putting together a yogurt marinade for the chicken to soak in for 4-6 hours. When I actually set out to make the marinade, I realized that I hadn’t thought to factor in the time it would take me to grate six cloves of garlic and four teaspoons of ginger. I’m sure there are speedy graters in the world (a hunch tells me that Laura may be one of them), but I am definitely not in their company. The best thing I can say about my grating experience is that I did garlic first and ginger second, and so came away smelling not as much like I was lit-rally made of garlic as I might have otherwise. It’s the little things. After grating, it was so satisfying to combine all of those spices into a deep redish orange paste, and then to mix half of it into a yogurt sauce that becomes the most lovely pale yellow. One of my favorite parts of this recipe is what a gorgeous aesthetic experience it was, from smell to look to taste.
After the chicken has had plenty of time to soak up the marinade, you put together the base sauce of the dish, with a lot of simmering and time to thicken. It’s all very straightforward (minus some cardamom pod confusion that Laura and I shared and she mentions below), but I do have one probably obvious note that didn’t occur to me until too late–when you add whole peeled tomatoes to a sauce, “crushing them with your hands as you add them,” you will cause tomato juice and seeds to explode all over the place. And if you don’t have your hands sufficiently deep into the pot, this will result in a stovetop and a you covered in tomato. Just something to keep in mind.
I loved the end result of this dish. It was just as tasty as the delivery tikka I’m used to…which at first made me proud, but on second thought made me wonder if it was worth spending a day on. I think so, ultimately, because it was fun to do and felt good to recreate something that I enjoy so much. I certainly won’t do it every time I have an Indian food craving (and I’m now accepting any and all suggestions for what to do with leftover cardamom pods), but it’s a great recipe to have in my back pocket.
Laura’s Take: Ed and I are downright spoiled by the wonderful Indian food in DC. I’m lucky enough to have the city’s second best (according to me) Indian restaurant, Masala Art, within walking distance of my apartment. I wish I could say Masala Art is the very best in DC, but that title goes to Rasika, which is a remarkably creative and unfailingly delicious restaurant. I am sure that Ed and I will find really tasty Indian food in Boston this year, but our options will be fewer starting in the summer of 2014, when we’ll be living in central Illinois. There are plenty of good dining options where we’re headed (and according to Yelp, maybe even a great Indian place), but there will certainly be less Indian food and who knows how Springfield’s options will compare to DC’s. Needless to say, I have been thinking about learning to cook some Indian specialties and I was eager to give the Bon‘s tikka a try.
I had the benefit of Jessica’s experience to guide me as I tackled this dish. She’d given me a heads up that grating the garlic was a headache, so I felt justified in mincing and mushing it instead (I grated garlic for this recipe and smelled like it for days). Grating probably releases more flavor, but my technique worked fine. I stuck to the grating instructions for the ginger (mainly because it’s a breeze to do with a microplane and smells like peace and harmony). I planned to serve this dish on a weeknight, and per Jessica’s advice, I spread the preparation over two nights. On the first night, I prepared the spiced yogurt marinade. I added the chicken to the marinade the next morning to let it soak while I was at work. I ended up exceeding the suggested marinade time by a few hours, but I think that only made the chicken more tender and juicy. On the second night of prep, I was crushing the cardamom pods when I had a little panic. There were black seeds inside the pods. Was I supposed to add those seeds? The ingredients said “cardamom pods, crushed.” No mention of seeds. I texted Jessica and thank goodness she responded instantly. She just threw the whole things into the sauce, so I did the same. Crisis averted.
One interesting divergence in our cooking experiences was that Jessica thought the times in the recipe were a little long for softening the onion and browning the spices. I thought they were a little short. I think that’s probably due to the variance in our stovetops and pans. Another difference we had is that my sauce needed a lot of salt. I threw fat pinches of salt into the sauce at many points. I also added a small pinch of sugar because my tomatoes were too acidic.
Jessica told me she felt this was a good mimic of restaurant tikka, but it’s a lot of effort for something she can so easily get delivered. There aren’t nearly as many Indian take-out options in DC as there are in New York, though, so if Ed and I get a craving for Indian and don’t want to spend too much time or money, we have two choices: (1) prepackaged simmer sauce or (2) frozen meals (Tandoor Chef is our preferred brand). Obviously, this recipe is a lot more work than opening a jar or the microwave, but it is also much, much better than those two Indian-lite meals.
Ed and I really liked this and happily ate it twice for dinner with Thai Jasmine rice. The luxurious day-long yogurt soak my chicken enjoyed made it unbelievably moist. Ed’s only critique was that the sauce might be more pleasant if it were smoother. I think he’s right. Next time I make this, I will purée the sauce and strain it before adding the chicken. The leftovers (which were ample) kept very well. Warmed up slowly on the stove, the meal three days later was almost as good as on day one. Given that this dish took so well to being made ahead of time, I think it would be a perfect dinner party meal.
Final Thoughts: This was some delicious chicken tikka masala, but whether it is worth your time and effort might depend on how easily you can get really good Indian food in your hometown.
You can find the recipe on the Bon‘s website and in the April 2013 issue of the magazine. Jessica served hers with a simplified version of the spicy sauteed spinach that the Bon recommended–she skipped the chives and mustard seeds, and was glad to have another reason to use up some ghee.