“My sieve-like mind didn’t want to lock away dates and details; it wanted to float and
meander. If I mixed all those facts and theses up with a little gelatine and egg white,
would they stick together better?” – Julia Child, My Life in France
I have been reading Julia Child’s memoire, My Life in France, and feel an increasing kinship with her, despite the many decades of life that separate us (not to mention at least a foot in height!) One of the many ways in which we are similar, it seems, is in our faulty memories and “sieve-like minds,” as Julia wrote when lamenting that she struggled to remember the important details of current events and debates. I wager her mind was anything but sieve-like, however, when it came to the kitchen.
My mind is sadly not so discriminating in its tendency to forget, as I was reminded when I sat down to re-create several recipes my husband and I had learned in our cooking class in India. Jyoti, our chef and teacher, had given us a recipe packet, but, true to Indian cooking, the directions and amounts leave a little (ok, a lot) of room for interpretation. It all seemed so clear in her Delhi kitchen a few years ago, but now as I peruse the packet, I curse myself for not taking better notes to flesh out the now-mysterious recipes.
The recipe for butter chicken was particularly vague. My packet instructs me to use indeterminate amounts of tomato paste and garam masala, and to make exactly 10 cashews (hurray! A number) into a paste with milk. I don’t know about you, but I hadn’t the foggiest idea how to make cashew paste with milk. (Luckily, we have the interwebs, which gives us much better instructions.)
And then, most disturbing of all: the recipe is called Butter Chicken, and the ingredient list simply says “butter.” Salted? Unsalted? Amount??? No clue, and my sieve-like mind isn’t offering anything up.
So I won’t lie – there was a fair amount of guessing and substitution in this recipe, and I am quite sure I used less butter than Jyoti (or Julia) would have, but even so, this was pretty damn good butter chicken, if I do say so myself.
Legit Butter Chicken
- 4 T salted butter or Ghee (clarified butter) or a little more or less, depending on how much you like your arteries
- a few (?) dried fenugreek (kasoori methi) leaves, or, if you don’t happen to have them in your spice cabinet, try 2 small bay leaves like I did
- salt and chiles to taste
- 1 T garam masala
- 10 cashew nuts
- about 1/4 cup whole milk
- 1 T heavy cream
- 2 T tomato paste
- 2 smallish-medium fresh tomatoes, pureed (or you could use 1 can pureed/crushed tomatoes if they are out of season)
- about 1 lb raw skinless, boneless chicken, cubed (breast, thighs, a mix, whatever you have)
Make the cashew paste
Break the cashews into bits. Heat about 1/4 – 1/2 cup whole milk in the microwave (but watch that it doesn’t froth over).
Place the cashews in a small bowl and cover with the hot milk; let it for 10 minutes while you follow the other steps.
Whenever you have a moment, pulse the nut-and-milk mixture in a food processor until they form a paste, more or less. Mine never looked particularly paste-like, but it got the job done.
Cook the chicken
Season the raw chicken cubes with salt, a little pepper, and maybe a little garam masala if you’re feeling spicy (remember, we’re winging it here!)
Add a little butter to a pan/wok and heat. Add chicken to the butter and cook until the chicken pieces look mostly cooked through, just a few minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan.
Pull it all together
Heat butter in the same pan or wok; add in whatever dried spice leaves you are using and cook 1-2 minutes to release fragrance.
Add pureed fresh tomatoes and chiles (I didn’t have chiles, so I used some Indian red pepper [kashmiri mirch], but you could add whatever sort of spicy heat you like here, in pepper or powder form).
Next, Jyoti says, “cook till the butter leaves the tomatoes.” I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, so I just cooked it for about 5 minutes until it bubbled.
Add the cashew paste and tomato paste and cook for 2 more minutes.
Add in the chicken cubes and cook for several minutes until cooked through, and liquid is slightly reduced.
Add in cream, taste, and add salt if needed. Garnish with some cilantro if you have it.
This recipe makes a pretty saucy dish, so definitely serve with rice or naan.
It wasn’t exact, but it sure tasted like butter chicken! I think Jyoti would be proud.