Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken by Monica Bhide

Thanks to TB for the photography.

I have a thing for books that present food as medicine. Chocolat, Like Water for Chocolate…..and now Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken, are absolute favorites. Written by the acclaimed food writer turned novelist Monica Bhide, it extols the pleasures of friendship, giving back to those who have helped you, the power of love, and ultimately, the healing powers of cooking for those you love, and the pleasure of well-cooked food. Who couldn’t adore this book?

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The premise of this book is simple, and lovely. Set in present-day India, it tells the story of Eshaan, a young man who is raised by Buddhist monks. He has a heart that you could say is made of butter, so soft that it melts. Having nearly starved to death as a child before the kindly monks took him in after his mother’s tragic death, he one day has the idea to provide a hot meal to anyone in need. Given the vast population of New Delhi and the amount of poverty that exists in this city, to call Eshaan’s idea a momentous task is an understatement. But he starts his restaurant, and it is not quite what he envisions it. Of course, we all know that nothing ever quite turns out the way we plan or desire.

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Eshaan is such a sympathetic and kindhearted character you can’t help but cheer him on, even though he’s not the most practical-minded individual. From the get-go, he is focused on only one thing – feeding people in his restaurant and asking that they pay only what they can afford. Naturally, this leads to a horde of beggars and individuals who have zero money and who can’t – or don’t – pay for a thing. And of course, human nature being what it is, he also encounters those ungrateful types who complain about the food, who urinate on the floor of his immaculately prepared restaurant………..and these are the people he is trying to help!

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The scene that touched me the most is featured both at the very beginning and again toward the end, when Eshaan gets his golden chance to appear on the famous cooking TV competition show to earn money to fund his restaurant. The scene is given context when Eshaan’s turn comes to show the judges what he has cooked, the proviso being a dish that epitomized their childhood. Eshaan initially plans to make butter chicken, in his words, “a simple tomato, butter and cream sauce” for chicken that his mother used to make when she could afford it. But the crushing poverty of his childhood has stayed in his heart and soul all these years, and at the end of the competition, he throws away the dish he’s made and tells the judges, very poignantly, that the taste of his childhood was starvation and an empty bowl. I got choked up here and had to stop reading for a bit.

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Though of course I was inspired to cook the title dish, it was this passage that spoke to me the most. “In fact, I say a prayer for the spices, sparse as they may be, to help heal the person who eats the food. That reminds me. I have only one rule in this kitchen. The cooks’ energy gets passed into the dishes. Only food prepared with love will nurture. If not, it will just be another meal,” he said, placing his hand on his heart. That is so much how I cook – I try to always cook with love and pass that love on to those who enjoy my food. Because food is love.

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Anyway, this is the method for classic Indian butter chicken that worked for me, based on the Little Spice Jar‘s awesome recipe, with the requisite tweaks by yours truly.

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INGREDIENTS
For the meat marinade:
6-7 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed
3 generous tablespoons tandoori masala
2 tablespoons ginger-garlic paste
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon olive oil (or groundnut oil)
For the butter chicken sauce:
2 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee), or a mixture of butter and oil
1 large red onion, sliced into thin half-moons
1 generous tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
2  8-ounce cans diced or crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon each of: coriander, cumin, and garam masala
1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon chili powder

3/4 cup heavy cream

METHOD

In a large plastic freezer bag, mix the chicken with the tandoori masala, ginger-garlic paste, yogurt and oil. Marinate for at least 3 hours before cooking, in the refrigerator.

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Melt the clarified butter in a Dutch oven or other heavy pan. Saute the onions about 7 minutes, until they’re translucent and you can smell the delicious scent wafting up at you. Add a pinch of sea salt to keep them from burning.

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Add the next spoonful of ginger-garlic paste to the onions, and stir well. Then, add the two cans of tomatoes, the chili powder, the coriander, cumin garam masala, and fenugreek seeds. Simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes.

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Whip out your most excellent stick blender and blend the sauce until it is rendered down into a rich, red sauce. Turn the heat off, cover and let sit while you prepare the chicken.

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In another pan, add a bit more clarified butter and brown the chicken pieces. Make sure to use tongs and shake off the excess marinade beforehand. Cook for up to 10 minutes, to fully brown the chicken pieces.

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Pour the butter tomato sauce over the chicken pieces, and heat through. Add the cream and bring to a low simmer.

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I served this over basmati rice cooked in chicken broth, into which I put a few crushed cardamom pods, which add to the subtle flavor and scent. I have to say, this dish was FANTASTIC! The acidity of the tomatoes is perfectly offset by the richness of the butter and the cream, and the chicken marinade make the meat incredibly tender. Garnished with cilantro or parsley, it is a delicious dish.

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The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

One of the most fun things about this blog is the opportunity to not just read new books, but also to try new food combinations. Challenging myself to step outside of my usual culinary and literary tastes has resulted in some wonderful meals, and given me the knowledge that I can probably accomplish anything I put my mind too, cookingwise.

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This book, The Mistress of Spices, caught my eye at an estate sale in my neighborhood. There was a tableful of books for sale, and a tableful of jewelry……….and was I torn! Sparkly things! Pages of words yet undiscovered! Who can choose? Not me, so I bought four books and two necklaces for a grand total of $5.00. Best money ever spent.

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Apart from falling in love with the chapter titles, each of which was named after a different spice, e.g., Turmeric, Fenugreek, Neem, Sesame, and so on, this book hooked me with its resemblance to both Chocolat and Like Water for Chocolate, tying together the premises of food as medicine, and food – spices, in this case – as the key to opening up the heart. The heroine, an Indian woman named Tilo who is in the guise of an elderly crone, is actually an ancient “Mistress of Spices,” which is a type of genie who unlocks peoples hidden wants and desires with her clever applications of spices.

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Her identity is hidden to keep her magical self hidden from the world, especially those who would steal her talents. Her expertise with the spices also makes her a bit of a magician in the kitchen, affecting people and their emotions through her cooking and food. I’ve said this before and I will say it again. Food is medicine for the body and the soul, and that’s why I’m drawn to certain books that depict the alchemy of food and cooking and their effect upon people. When you cook for people, when you nourish their bodies with what you have created, you are also nourishing their souls.

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“But here is another image. A woman in a kitchen, cooking my rice. She is fragrant as the grains she rolls between her fingers to see if they are done. Rice steam has softened her skin, has loosened hair tied back taut all day……..Into a curry of cauliflowers like white fists, she mixes garam masala to ring patience and hope.”

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Isn’t that just lovely to read and visualize?

Cooking is many things – alchemy, love, magic – and in this book, the spices add to the food a hint of immortality. Which is as it should be, since all things in this world are alchemized into something else, love is eternal, and magic is what happens each day when we wake up and embrace life one more time. This book epitomizes all of those things, and more.

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I don’t care for white rice much these days, finding it tasteless and bland. But I recently discovered the joys of cauliflower rice, and loving the many varieties of Indian curry, I decided to create a chicken curry garnished with cashew and cilantro, and some delicious cauliflower rice to go with, adapted from the this marvelous website.

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This is the method that worked for me.

INGREDIENTS
For the cauliflower rice:
1 large head of cauliflower, any color you want.
Salt and pepper
1 large scallion, finely chopped.
1 tablespoon garlic oil
1 tablespoon clarified butter (left from this post I made two weeks back)

For the curry:
1 tablespoons garlic oil, divided
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed

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1 large scallion, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala
3 tablespoons curry paste, any color. I used green here.
1/2 cup of coconut milk
Bunch of fresh cilantro
1 cup of chicken stock
1 chicken stock cube
3-4 dashes of fish sauce (nam pla) – a trick I learned from Nigella Lawson
1-2 tablespoons of lime juice or to taste
Handful of cashews, ground in a food processor

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METHOD
Wash the cauliflower and break into florets. Either grate with a cheese grater, or pulse in a food processor, until the cauliflower breaks down into small, rice-like bits.

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In a large saucepan, add 1 tablespoon of garlic oil, a tablespoon of the clarified butter (though if you don’t have it, use regular butter), the cauliflower bits and one of the chopped red scallions. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper, and saute for about 10 minutes. Remove to a bowl.

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Using the same saucepan, add the other tablespoon of garlic oil, the other chopped red scallion, and saute until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the turmeric and the garam masala, and stir again.

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Add the cubed chicken thighs, the curry paste, the coconut milk and a handful of chopped cilantro leaves. Stir again to mix well and let the chicken pieces brown and cook for about 6-7 minutes.

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Add the chicken stock, the two stock cubes and the fish sauce. Cover with a lid and let simmer for about 30 minutes. After about a half-hour of cooking,  remove the lid and admire the lovely, bubbling greeny-gold color of the curry. Add in the lime juice, and let simmer without a lid for about 5 minutes more, to thicken slightly. Add in the cashews, stir and simmer another few minutes. I warn you, it smells like citrusy heaven!

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Put the cauliflower rice onto a plate, dollop over a good, thick, unctuous, delicious ladleful of the curry, and garnish with more cilantro, if you like. It’s a delicious dish, rich from the ground nuts and subtly flavored, spicy with the garam masala, and tangy from the lime. The cauliflower rice is surprisingly delicious, filling and has a flavor of its own but does not interfere with the curry. It’s a lovely substitute if you’re looking to omit carbs, and it’s even easier than cooking rice!

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“A warning to readers: the spices in this book should be taken only under the supervision of a qualified Mistress.”

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