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Jamie's Dinners: Chicken Tikka Masala

This is an excellent rendition of an Indian-restaurant classic. Jamie Oliver understands the necessity of slowly cooking the spices to coax the most flavor out of them, and the results are excellent.

Oliver's got a penchant for vague ingredient amounts; in this recipe, he calls for a "small handful" of cashews or almonds. I measured my small handful out, and it was 1/3 cup. I believe the sauce could benefit from even more nuts -- up to 1/2 cup would work well.

In an effort to get my onions as thin as possible, I sliced them on a mandoline. If you have one, or a vegetable slicer, this is a good time to give it a workout. Of course, you can always slice the onions by hand with a very sharp knife.

I must have been lazy yesterday, because I also chose to forgo the knife and use a mini-chopper for the garlic, ginger, and chilis. These can also be chopped by hand, but if you've already got the chopper or food processor out to grind the nuts, why not throw the aromatics in there and chop them right up?

Oliver doesn't specify, but I believe it's preferable to use raw cashews. If you can't find them at a health-food store or your regular grocery store, use raw blanched almonds instead. Don't use roasted nuts; they don't grind up as finely and won't help to thicken the sauce.

This sauce doesn't get terribly thick. It's not a gloopy gravy, so don't worry if it seems a bit thin (like half-and-half consistency). The rice will sop it all up. Oliver suggests serving the chicken with "a huge bowl of steaming basmati rice, some poppadums and lots of cold beer." All excellent ideas. If you prefer, you can substitute my recipe for Saffron Rice Pulau, listed below.

Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 to 6 servings

6 cloves of garlic, peeled
3 inches fresh ginger, peeled
2 or 3 fresh red chilis, seeded (if you can't find red chilis, use serranos, or whatever small, hot chilis are available)
Olive oil
1 Tbsp mustard seeds
1 Tbsp paprika
2 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
3 Tbsp garam masala, divided
generous 3/4 cup plain yogurt
4 medium boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into large chunks
1 Tbsp butter
2 medium onions, sliced very thin
2 Tbsp tomato purée
a small handful (1/3 to 1/2 cup) cashews or almonds, ground very fine in a food processor or mini-chopper
1/2 cup heavy cream
Fresh cilantro, chopped

If you're using a mini-chopper, use it to finely mince the garlic, ginger, and chilis. Alternately, you can grate them on the smallest teeth of a grater, or chop with a knife.

Heat a splash of olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan. Add the mustard seeds. When they begin to pop, remove from the heat immediately and add them to the garlic mixture (once mustard seeds start popping, they will pop all over the place, so watch carefully and remove from heat as soon as the first one goes "pop."). Add the paprika, cumin, coriander, and 2 Tbsp of the garam masala. Put half of this mix in a large bowl, add the yogurt, and stir in the chicken, making sure to coat all sides with the marinade. Let it sit for about a half-hour.

Melt the butter in the large saucepan and add the sliced onions and remaining half of the garlic-spice mixture. Cook gently for at least 15 minutes. Do not brown the onions; you're trying to soften them up and mellow the spices. Add the tomato puree, ground nuts, 2 1/2 cups of water, and 1/2 tsp of salt. Stir well and bring to a gentle boil. Let the sauce reduce and thicken slightly (about 5 minutes), then reduce heat to low.

Cook the marinated chicken on a grill or under the broiler, until just cooked through.

While the chicken is cooking, add the cream and remaining 1 Tbsp of garam masala to the sauce and bring it up to a boil, then add the chicken. Check the seasoning, adding salt or cayenne pepper if desired. Top the chicken with cilantro and squeeze lime juice over the top. Serve with basmati rice or Saffron Rice Pulau.

Saffron Rice Pulau
1/4 tsp saffron threads
1/4 cup hot water
2 Tbsp butter
2 cinnamon sticks
10 whole cloves
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 cups basmati rice, rinsed well
1/3 cup raw cashews

Put the saffron threads in the hot water and set aside to steep until serving time.

Melt the butter over medium heat in a medium-sized saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Add the cinnamon, cloves, and cumin seeds and stir, 1 minute. Drain the rice well, then add to the pot and stir-fry until the grains are coated and the rice begins to smell fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add 3 cups water and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover. Cook until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes. Remove cinnamon sticks and cloves. Just before serving, pour in the saffron water and stir well to combine. To garnish, roast the raw cashews in a 350 degree oven until light golden, about 8 to 10 minutes (watch carefully, nuts burn quickly). Top rice with nuts and serve alongside Chicken Tikka Masala.



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