June 19, 2011

Chicken Tikka Masala - A Great, Big Batch

Juli and I like our leftovers.   We work long hours, and most workdays we eat leftovers for lunch.  Sometimes we eat leftovers for dinner, too.   We've both gotten compliments (and occasional words of envy) over the things we bring for our meals at work, which isn't surprising.  After all, who wouldn't prefer home-cooked lamb stews, Thai chicken soup, smoked ribs or a fragrant shrimp curry with rice and naan over a Hot Pocket or packet of Lipton Soup?   I will admit, I find these sorts of responses quite gratifying, but mostly I'm just glad to provide Juli and myself with some great meals to warm up at work.

Most of the recipes we cook are designed to serve four, which ends up giving us a couple batches of leftovers, but occasionally I like to make a really big batch of something, so I'll have lots of servings of leftovers.   We often finish off our leftovers a day or two after first preparing a dish, but it's also nice to look for something tasty in the freezer and spot a serving of that excellent beef and bean soup or spaghetti with meat sauce or pork vindaloo from a couple weeks earlier. 

Today's featured recipe is from one of those times I wanted to make a lot of leftovers, but it would serve just as well if you simply wanted to feed a lot of people something tasty and slightly exotic and just plain good.

Chicken Tikka Masala has become something of a "standard" Indian dish, even though it isn't traditionally Indian.  It was first cooked in an Indian restaurant in Great Britain and became such a big hit that it has not only become a restaurant staple, spawning countless variations, but is now also cooked in India.  You can find recipes everywhere for it, and I've tried several.  They've ranged from weak to acceptable to quite good, but I haven't yet found "the" Chicken Tikka Masala recipe that will become my standard.  I keep looking, though.

A version at My Gourmet Connection caught my eye some time back.  Looking it over, I realized that it could easily be doubled to serve a bunch of people... or to make lots of leftovers.   I made a few adjustments to the recipe as printed, starting with doubling some of the ingredients and then switching some of the ratios of the ingredients to get the exact mix of flavors and the specific texture I wanted.  I also decided to use some fresh hot peppers in place of some of the cayenne called for in the original recipe.  The recipe below reflects the changes I made, adjusted to reflect some things I'll do differently next time. 

The result was quite good.   Not perfect, mind you.  I still haven't found my "perfect" version of Chicken Tikka Masala.  But this was nonetheless quite good.  It will provide me with a good place to start from as I tinker around and try to perfect the recipe, but in the meantime it is quick and easy and good and makes enough for a bunch of hungry people. 

I was quite happy with the mix of seasonings and the overall flavor of the dish.   I was somewhat less pleased with the texture.  The gravy wasn't as smooth as I'd have liked   The culprit there was the chicken.  I think I used a bit too much yogurt in the marinade, which caused two problems.  First, the chicken didn't chunk up quite the way I'd have liked.    My preference is that the cooked pieces of chicken be firm enough that they cut easily into neat cubes, as one might get with a piece of properly-roasted tandoori chicken. 

In contrast, this chicken was coated in a bit too much marinade, and as a result, it steamed or boiled as much as it roasted, so it didn't have as firm a texture as I'd have liked.  It shredded when cut, rather than slicing into neat chunks, and it fell apart more when it was mixed into the gravy.   This didn't impact the flavor at all, but it did give the dish a texture and a mouth-feel different than I'd prefer.  I also minced the ginger in the marinade rather than grating it, and in retrospect it's pretty obvious that grated ginger would have made for a smoother marinade, which would translate into a smoother gravy.  The instructions below reflect these changes from how I prepared the dish.

Some people prefer Chicken Tikka Masala to have more of a red color to the gravy and less in the way of tomato chunks.  If you'd prefer that, you could simply add some tomato paste, but that risks throwing off the overall flavor of the dish by boosting the tomato element.  A better option would probably be to puree the diced tomatoes before adding them to the gravy.  One could also add a few drops of red food coloring to the marinade, which will dye the chicken pieces red on the outside.  That's what many Indian recipes do when preparing Tandoori chicken, which is then chopped into chunks and added to the gravy.

In any case, this still made for a very nice meal when served up with basmati rice, naan and Indian-Spiced Cauliflower (I'll present that recipe another day), and it did indeed make for a lot of tasty leftovers that froze and warmed up quite nicely.   While I am not done tinkering with this recipe, I was pleased with the results of my first try, and I expect you would also find it to your liking.

Chicken Tikka Masala

yield = 10-12 generous servings

Yogurt Marinade
2                   cups plain nonfat yogurt
4                   tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice
2                   tabespoons minced garlic
2                   tablespoons peeled, grated fresh ginger
3                   teaspoons ground cumin
2                   teaspoons ground cinnamon
2                   teaspoons ground coriander
1                   teaspoon ground cardamom
1                   teaspoon cayenne pepper

Chicken Tikka Masala
5                   pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs,
                        trimmed of any excess fat
3                   tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2                cup sliced almonds
1                   large white onion, finely chopped
2                   serrano chilis, seeded and chopped
2                   tablespoons fresh, peeled and grated ginger
1                   tablespoon minced garlic
1                   tablespoon ground cumin
2                   teaspoons ground cardamom
2                   teaspoons ground cinnamon
2                   teaspoons ground coriander
1                   teaspoon table salt
3/4                teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/2                teaspoon ground cloves
1                   can (28 ounces) diced tomatoes
2                   teaspoons sugar
1 1/3             cup heavy cream
                     chopped fresh cilantro as garnish

Combine the marinade ingredients in a large bowl.  Poke the chicken thighs on all sides with a fork, to allow the marinade to better penetrate, then add the chicken thighs to the marinade.  Turn and stir to coat the chicken pieces on all sides.  Cover and refrigerate for 4 hours or more (preferably overnight).

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Line two or more baking sheets with foil and coat with nonstick cooking spray.  Remove the chicken pieces from the marinade, shaking off excess marinade, and arrange them on the baking sheets, leaving at least 1/2 inch of space between the individual chicken pieces.  

Roast until the chicken thighs are cooked through, turning once (10-12 minutes).  When the chicken is cooked through, remove the baking sheets from the oven and set them aside to cool.

While the chicken roasts, heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat.  Add the sliced almonds and cook, stirring constantly, until they are golden-brown (about 2 minutes).  Remove the almonds from the pan and increase heat to medium high. 

Add the onion and serrano chilis and cook until the onion starts to brown (about 6 minutes).  Add the ginger and garlic and cook until fragrant (about 30 seconds), then stir in the cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, salt, pepper and cloves.  Cook until the spices are fragrant (about 1 minute).

Stir in the tomatoes and sugar.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomato pieces are starting to break down and make a thick sauce (8-10 minutes).   While the tomato mixture simmers, chop the chicken thighs into bite-size pieces.

Stir in the cream, then add and stir in the chicken chunks and cook until heated through (1-2 minutes).  Transfer to a serving bowl, top with the toasted almonds and cilantro and serve with naan and basmati rice.

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