Chicken Tikka Masala and a Simple Rice Pilaf
I think I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it now and will most likely say it again some time in the future: I am no authority on Indian cuisine. I go to an Indian restaurant, get a little frustrated when I read the description of every dish as “meat with a blend of herbs and spices” (seriously, how am I supposed to differentiate between the dishes with details like that?), and then blindly point my finger to one of the items on the menu with the hope that I’ll end up liking it. That being said, I always do end up liking it because I happen to think Indian food is very tasty. But still, the point I am attempting to make is that I might be a little more than lost when it comes to understanding the nuances and or really even the basics of Indian food.
(As I am re-reading what I wrote above, I’m starting to realize that the technique I described above of blindly pointing my finger to a random item on the menu because I have no clue of what to pick out is something I employ quite often, and not just in Indian food. This is what I did when I was in Italy and couldn’t read the Italian menus, and what I often do when I am too indecisive to firmly pick something out at any type of restaurant, foreign or not. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, maybe I have used at least a variation of this technique for some other, somewhat greater, decisions of my life. Like choosing colleges to apply for, or places to apply to work at. Whoops.)
Anyway, it doesn’t take much expertise or active consideration to flip through the glossy pages of my American Test Kitchen Menu Cookbook, spot a pretty picture of chicken tikka masala, hop over to the store to pick up a serrano chili and a bundle of cilantro, and then do the little bit of chopping and stirring that this dish requires. I don’t know much about this dish (ahem, see first sentence of this post), but I do know that it technically didn’t even originate in India but rather in London sometime in the 1970’s. It has, nonetheless, grown to acquire a level of popularity so much so that it is now considered to be the national dish of India. So you see, chicken tikka masala, you and I aren’t so different when it comes to Indian authenticity after all.
Anyway, no matter the degree of authenticity of this dish or my understanding of the cuisine or the accuracy of my decision-making skills in general, this chicken is just plain good. It’s simple enough for a weeknight sort of meal, and is easy to pair with this simple basmati rice pilaf and some cooked vegetables. The chicken for the masala can be grilled, if summer grilling is on your daily menu in these upcoming months, or it can be cooked under the oven broiler setting, as I did with this version here. After only a few minutes of cooking the chicken, it’s ready to be added to the spicy tomato sauce that is made heavenly with the addition of a bit of cream and some smooth spices (garam masala, I love you). I think this dish becomes exceptionally good after a day or two, once the flavors “meld” or “marry” together or however that goes. My mom brought some leftovers to her work the following day, and once realizing that her delicious-smelling meal did not come from an Indian restaurant, her coworkers promptly asked for the recipe. This recipe is something to keep and take note of, and it doesn’t take any authority on any cuisine to realize that.
Chicken Tikka Masala
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen Menu Cookbook
Serves 5 to 6
If you’re using a very thick greek yogurt brand such as Fage in this recipe, you might want to thin down the yogurt with a few tablespoons of water when making the yogurt mixture for the chicken.
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 28 ounces total)
1 cup whole, plain yogurt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small to medium onion, diced
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or more for taste
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
1 serrano chile, stemmed and seeded, minced
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream
minced cilantro, for garnish
To prepare the chicken, combine the salt, cumin, coriander and cayenne pepper in a small bowl. Pat chicken breasts dry with a paper towel and place in a platter or dish. Sprinkle evenly with the spice mixture, mixing and gently pressing to help the spices adhere. Cover the chicken with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes or up to an hour. Whisk yogurt, oil ginger and garlic together in a large bowl and set aside until the chicken is ready to be cooked.
For the masala sauce, heat the oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering and hot. Add the onion and 1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt and cook until softened and lightly brown, about 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in garlic, ginger, chili, garam masala and tomato paste and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Add the crushed tomatoes and sugar and allow the mixture to come to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to medium low, cover, and allow to simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once reduced, stir in the cream and return to a simmer. Remove pan from heat and cover to keep warm.
While the sauce is reducing and simmering, cook the chicken. Grill the chicken on an outdoor grill, or cook under the broiler heat setting in the oven. To broil the chicken, adjust an oven rack to the upper-middle position and preheat in oven to the high broiler setting. Set a fine wire rack above a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Using tongs, dip the chilled chicken into the yogurt mixture so that the chicken is coated with a thick layer of yogurt and lay on the prepared baking sheet. Discard extra yogurt mixture, if any.
Broil the chicken until the exterior is lightly charred in spots and the chicken registers 160 degrees, about 10 to 15 minutes, making sure to flip the chicken half way through its cooking time. Once fully cooked, allow the chicken to rest for 5 minutes. Cut the chicken up in to 1-inch chunks and stir into the warm sauce. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Serve over rice pilaf (recipe below), and garnish with cilantro.
Basmati Rice Pilaf
Serves 6 to 8
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2 cups basmati rice, rinsed
3 3/4 cups water
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened, about 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in rice and cook, stirring often, until the edges of the rice begin to turn translucent, about 2 minutes.
Stir in the water and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low, cover, and continue to simmer until the water is absorbed and the rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Fluff rice with a fork, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.