I followed the NY Times Butter Chicken recipe by Tom Sifton, which can be found here. I tried not to deviate from the recipe too much. Making it was a pleasure from start to finish. The strong and subtle aromas wafting out of the kitchen were reward in themselves. The taste was what I expected but much more. Homemade butter chicken can have noticeably more complex flavours than take out if you cook with patience and love.
We are so rushed in our daily lives. For many of us, cooking has become a chore that we try to hurry through. When you cook in the moment the process of cooking becomes a pleasure and the final result will show that you’ve taken your time. It isn’t a hyperbole to say that the secret ingredient in this dish is love.
I like the layout of the recipe itself as well. The side by side ingredients and steps make it easier to follow. I also really appreciate that the ingredients are listed in order of appearance, and not in order of grocery category (i.e. dairy, produce, meat etc).
A note on chicken. Probably the most important step in this recipe is cutting the chicken into nice looking, even sized cubes…or something approximating a cube. Doing this may take a little longer than you’re prepared to invest but it will pay off.
Obviously, start with fresh ingredients. There’s a crucial step between grocery store and cooking that needs attention: your fridge. Keeping a clean and well organized fridge keeps your food fresher for longer. Foods stored in the fridge take on each others smells. If your fridge smells bad, everything in it will smell bad if you really pay attention.
Which brings me to another crucial point: smell. Smell your garlic. Slow down and really get in there. Smell it with the peel on, smell it with the peel off. Smell everything. Get intimately acquainted with your food. When you treat the ingredients patiently and with high regard, they will shine in the final dish.
I try to always start with whole spices. The smell of freshly ground whole spices is a totally different world from even the freshest pre-ground spices. If you don’t believe me, crush some cumin or coriander and smell. They have so much more dimension and depth.
I used a marble mortar and pestle. Cumin is particularly hard to crush and I have to admit I lost my patience a little bit with this step. Still, I resisted the temptation to pull out my magic bullet and pulverize these seeds into oblivion because I knew that not only would it change the flavour of the cumin, it would also show disregard for the process.
It was worth it, if only for these pictures alone. There’s something timeless and universal about crushing spices. The smell, of course, is transcendent but its also the connection with the cooking. The feeling that you’re doing something that human hands across the world have done for probably millennia.
Take your time cutting the onion, even if it stings your eyes. My method is to cut in half, then cut evenly spaces lines into each half, rotate 90 degrees and repeat. Be mindful and totally in tune with your knife blade, cutting precise and even lines. Use your senses. Listen to the subtle sounds of knife through onion.
I think the recipe called for fresh but this was all I had. I crushed two of them by hand and set aside. I didn’t wash my hands and then I touched my face. Be careful.
Unlike the recipe calls for, I added the cumin seeds to the ghee first as is common in many Indian recipes (I think they call it blooming the spices.) I heated them until they started lightly popping, and then I added the diced onion. The smell was…like nothing else I’ve ever smelled in my kitchen before.
You can serve with plain basmati or add a little bit of subtle flavour, like a tsp of turmeric and the seeds of two cardamom pods. The cardamom seeds should be shiny and very dark, not grey or ashen looking. For the basmati, add 1 cup of rice and 2.5 cups of water to a pan along with a sprinkle of salt and any flavourings you’re adding. Stir lightly. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for about 10 minutes on medium-low until the water level has reached the rice. Cover and continue cooking for 5 minutes, then turn the heat off and leave undisturbed until ready to serve. Don’t uncover.
I used ghee and almond oil to cook the chicken. I had frozen homemade chicken stock that I added to deglaze. I cooked the chicken in two batches, adding the finishes first batch to the pot of sauce and then when the second batch was ready I poured the contents of the sauce pot back into the cast iron skillet. I simmered lightly for another 5 or 10 minutes.