Recently I’ve been craving Indian food for no good reason, and while I’m usually more than happy to simply pick up a hefty order from my favorite local spot (Crown of India — don’t mind the hookers in the parking lot), I’ve decided that this is a cuisine I’d really like to start cooking. I already knew how to whip up a pretty awesome chicken tikka masala thanks to a Cooks Illustrated recipe, but how many times could I make that? Many, as it turns out. But I craved more. And so I decided to look up a recipe for one of my favorite Indian dishes: chicken Korma. Well, thanks to the magic of the internet, I found many recipes for this simple curry. In fact, I found TOO many. I didn’t know which to choose. Do I trust a random blog? Or do I go with the seemingly inauthentic stuff found on Food.com? Clearly, I needed a source I could trust. Enter Madhur Jaffrey.
It’s more or less a given that Madhur Jaffrey is the preeminent Indian cookbook queen. Any recipe by her should steer me in the right direction. But here’s the rub: Madhur Jaffrey has, like, five Korma recipes. And so I spent a good amount of time comparing the recipes, and I eventually ended up with one published on an obscure blog. Long story short… it was a disaster. I didn’t take pictures because I was hurried, but it’s all for the best. This first foray into Jaffrey cuisine was not good. Overcooked chicken, weird flavors — something didn’t seem right. I blamed it on a combination of my dubious cooking skills and even more so on the blogger, whose slapdash reproduction of the recipe left me scratching my head more than once. Clearly, I couldn’t rely on the Internet for my Indian food. Nor did I really want to anymore. And so I headed to Barnes and Noble, and with the help of my friends Esi and jash, we sifted through about five Maddhur Jaffrey books until I ultimately decided on my purchase: Indian Cooking. I chose this book because a) it has pretty pictures, b) it features discussions on technique and ingredients, and c) it seems concerned with preparing dishes as part of an overall meal. $30 later, I finally had my first Indian cookbook.
So what the hell does any of this have to do with Chicken in a Red Sweet Pepper Sauce? Well, again, I have plenty of unnecessary backstory on that front. I was so excited by my new cookbook that that night I immediately embarked on THREE of the recipes: a raita (simple), a corn and potato side (also pretty easy), and a Goan coconut chicken dish (problematic). The latter recipe required unsweetened grated coconut, and unfortunately, I couldn’t find any. Instead I spent an hour prying fresh coconut meat out of the shell or casing or whatever it’s called. It’s a shame I wasn’t taking pictures (again, I just wanted to make the food and eat it, not stop every minute to document) because I probably looked like a damn fool wrangling these coconuts. I had all sorts of things going on: a hammer, a filleting knife, an open flame. In the end, the dish took about two and a half hours to make and only tasted okay, thanks in part to my coconut issues, which I’m convinced undermined the overall flavor and texture of the curry.
Of course, the very next day I found unsweetened shredded coconut at Ralph’s of all places, and now I’m determined to find redemption with this dish using this key ingredient. In the meantime, however, I decided my second true attempt at Jaffrey cuisine would be something a bit simpler. And that brings me to Chicken in a Red Sweet Pepper Sauce.
Even though I wanted to try several other recipes first, I decided to give the Chicken in a Red Sweet Pepper Sauce a try. It called for no tricky techniques, no exotic ingredients, and a minimal number of steps. What could go wrong? Quite a bit, actually. But enough to derail the final results?
We start with a simple blender of potential. It’s filled with onion, ginger, garlic, almonds, two red peppers, salt, cumin, cayenne, coriander, and turmeric.
Some of the contents from above, just in case you needed to see the salt.
After a few whirs in the blender, we have a bright and vibrant orange purée.
In a pot, I heat up seven tablespoons of oil. It’s a bit much, and in the future, I might experiment with a smaller amount. The recipe calls for vegetable oil, but I use canola, which is apparently slightly more heart-healthy.
Two pounds of chicken thighs make their triumphant debut.
Meanwhile, in one of my more thoughtful moments, I opted to wash the pot right before heating up the oil. This meant that I had some lingering drops of water in the pot, which in turn caused the oil to explode like a rapturous monster. Needless to say, a splatter guard was summoned.
With the oil nice and hot, I add the puree and stir it around. Madhur Jaffrey says to cook it for ten to twelve minutes or until the oil forms little bubbles around the edges. I assume this is a typo because after about sixty seconds, the whole thing begins bubbling like crazy. Maybe Madhur Jaffrey meant ten to twelve SECONDS…
With the sauce bubbling away, I add the chicken, lemon juice, and some water to the pot. I bring it all to a boil and then reduce it down to a simmer for the next twenty minutes.
After twenty minutes, it looks like this. Kind of thin and soupy. Could this be right?
I pluck out a thigh. Hardly any sauce clings to it. A quick taste test reveals that the chicken is cooked perfectly and full of flavor, but it’s more the inherent flavor of nicely cooked chicken more than anything else. The sauce itself isn’t particularly impactful.
I remove all the chicken for fear of overcooking it, and then I consult the internet. Turns out that everyone else who’s made this recipe has a sauce that is thick and luscious — sort of what you’d expect from any curry. Clearly I’ve made a mistake.
Furthermore, there’s no discussion anywhere of any suspected Madhur Jaffrey typos. Everyone, it seems, had cooked the puree for ten to twelve minutes.
Clearly, my arrogance in ASSUMING that Madhur Jaffrey had committed a typo had done me in. By not frying the purée for ten minutes, I had neglected to cook out lots of liquid. My only saving grace now would be to reduce the sauce after the fact.
And so I raise the heat on the sauce and let it reduce for the next ten to fifteen minutes.
Slowly but surely, the liquid seems to be thickening.
Even more encouraging is that as the liquid reduces, the flavors strengthen.
I pour a liiiitle bit of sauce on the chicken. It’s still a bit too thin.
A few minutes later, it looks like we’re reaching the desired consistency.
Finally, I have the goop I want. I actually contemplate reducing it just a touch more, but I fear it will get too salty. I turn off the heat.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have Indian food.
I ultimately serve the chicken with some eggplant raita (yum) and a “mushroom pulao” (brown rice with mushrooms, onions, and garam masala, among other things). Looks pretty good to me!
The verdict? Great! Despite my issues with the sauce, everything turned out just lovely. This dish absolutely tasted like it came from a restaurant, and I say that not because my cooking skills were so good (obviously they weren’t) but because the food had the strong, bold flavors I love when I get my takeout (not the wannabe Indian flavors of some Americanized recipes).
Additionally, the chicken was perfectly moist (I used boneless thighs and adjusted accordingly by shaving five minutes off the cooking time), and the sauce paired delightfully with the rice. Compared to the other Indian dishes I’ve made (the tikka masala, the ill-advised korma, the Goan chicken), this was also the easiest and shortest to prepare by far. Spice-adverse eaters can take comfort in knowing this is a totally mild recipe with no kick whatsoever (heat fiends might want to toss a chili into the mix). Furthermore, the ingredients couldn’t be more commonplace. The most exotic of the bunch is turmeric, but even that spice is easily accessible in all supermarkets. Oh, and this is all dairy free, which may appeal to certain lactose intolerant (or kosher-keeping) people out there.
As for the bottom line, chicken in a red sweet pepper sauce won’t break the bank. It can be made with any cut of chicken (be sure to chop breasts up into three parts, as per Jaffrey’s suggestion), but two pounds of boneless, skinless chicken thighs shouldn’t cost you more than $5. Factor in another $3 – $5 for the peppers, onion, almonds, ginger, and garlic, but truth be told, you probably already have some of those items in your pantry. Not terribly pricey, and even better, it lasts over several meals (especially if you are single and tend to eat alone in your dark apartment like I do).
Fun times! Give it a whirl!
Do you have an Indian recipe that you love?