Sometimes I don’t feel like talking about food. I feel like posting a pretty picture.
I took the above shot last month in Huntsville, Alabama, the town where my college roommate Kim lives and where I met her for the afternoon one Saturday. She treated me to high tea at this fancy little shop, and then she drove me around the area’s historic neighborhoods, letting me ooh and ah at the architecture, and to this park off the highway, where we climbed into the woods and looked out through leaves at the parking lot and, off in the distance, the hills of her hometown.
Tim was away in New York that weekend (you’ll remember his happy homecoming here), and I was missing him, so when I came back to the empty house that night, I was glad to be so tired from driving and touring and eating little scones, because at least that meant I would fall fast asleep, a skill usually reserved only for the male half of this little family, and fall fast asleep is exactly what I did. The next day, he was back, and we ate filet mignon and kale mashed potatoes, and by evening, he was sound asleep beside me the minute his head hit the pillow and, thirty to forty minutes of heavy late-night thinking later, so was I.
There are many things I tend to envy about my husband, not the least of which is his soft, wavy hair, but his sleeping ability is becoming one of the great marvels of our married life. Whereas I need to wind down after a day of work or social activity or drama-filled TV, Tim simply climbs into bed, shuts off the light, and he’s out. Gone. Dead to the world. It’s amazing. We’ve had many long, hilarious conversations about this, wherein I try to prompt him to describe for me what this feels like or how it works (or, ahem, see how long I can keep him awake with me). And over thirteen months of marriage, what we’ve essentially concluded is this: sleeping is one area in which he will likely always have the upper hand.
Indian food, on the other hand, is another story.
I may be the one who’s half Indian, but, in our marriage, Tim’s the one who first loved Indian food. When we were dating, he took me to Sitar downtown, and told me to order his favorite dish, Chicken Makhani (or, butter chicken), and garlic naan. The moment those glistening pillows of garlicky dough arrived on our table, followed by a creamy, spicy chicken mixture I all but licked off the solid white plates, I knew an important change had just occurred. I could never go back to the person I was, one who sometimes tolerated but never especially loved Indian cuisine. From that point and forever forward, I was all in.
We went back to Sitar to celebrate a month of marriage and then again to celebrate two months. More than once over the last year, at random times when the fridge has been lean but the spice cabinet full, Tim’s whipped up a curried dinner out of celery and carrots and rice, leaving me speechless, every time, eyes welling up with tears that such a meal could come from the simplest ingredients and, more than that, that the man who could bring them together was the same one laying next to me each night.
But over time, he’s taught me a few tricks of the trade, and I’ve become more heavy-handed with heat in my cooking, and now one of our regular dinners is a bunch of chopped vegetables, sautéed on the stove and mixed with spices and cream, the kind of thing that just slightly burns your throat as it goes down, a mysterious proof that sometimes the simplest (and cheapest!) foods can make the best meals.
Similar to the butter chicken that first wooed me into this curried world, Chicken Tikka Masala is a classic entrée at Indian restaurants that relies on a tomato-based creamy sauce and a blend of fragrant spices. There is no shortage of recipes for either of these dishes online, but our version has one great advantage going for it: it’s fast. The day I wanted to make it, I had leftover roasted chicken in the fridge and a desire to make a meal as quickly as possible, so I wanted a nuts-and-bolts set of directions to use as a guide instead of a ruler.
Over at Serious Eats, I found this:
“The basics of masala sauce are simple: start with a base of aromatics—onions, garlic, and ginger are common—cooked in oil, ghee, or butter. Add a simple spice mixture, largely based on cumin, coriander, and chilis, throw in some canned tomatoes, cook them down, then purée the whole deal with heavy cream and fresh cilantro.” J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, Chief Creative Officer, Serious Eats
A bunch of chopping, a little sauteéing and less than an hour or so later, we had this meal on our plates, my version of following the general guidelines above. It was easy, it was spicy, and, by the end of the meal, it had us wiping the skillet and wooden spoon clean, wishing for more. I can’t believe how much of my life I wasted not loving this style of food—and I’m glad the one to open my eyes is the same one I sleep next to (OK, he sleeps, I think) every night.
Speedy Chicken Tikka Masala (Dairy-Free, Grain-Free)
Serves two (or, if you’re very hungry, one)
So the idea here is to make the meal fast, which is why precooked chicken is key. Ours was roasted the day before and pulled off the bone, but you could probably use boiled, too.
1 1/2 tablespoons of coconut oil or butter (using butter makes this no longer dairy-free, though)
Sprinkling of ginger powder
1 cup chopped onion (from about 1/2 an onion)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 cup quartered grape tomatoes
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup chopped, cooked chicken
1 teaspoon of sea salt
1 tablespoon of coconut sugar
In a large skillet over medium heat, warm 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter, moving around the pan to coat the bottom evenly. Just as the butter melts, give a few shakes of ginger powder on top. Add onion, garlic and bell pepper; stir; let cook.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix the spices (cayenne, cumin, chili powder, coriander powder, tumeric powder).
Once the onions have begun to caramelize and turn golden, add the spice mixture, letting it hit the pan directly and toast. Give it a minute or two, and add the tomatoes; toss.
Add the coconut milk, the cooked chicken, the salt and the sugar. Stir everything together and let the flavors meld and the liquids cook down slightly. Adjust seasonings to taste, and enjoy!