Speedy Chicken Tikka Masala (dairy-free, gluten-free)

Sometimes I don’t feel like talking about food. I feel like posting a pretty picture.

Huntsville Alabama

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.

Huntsville Saturday

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.

speedy chicken tikka masala

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.

Julia Child Quote | FoodLovesWriting.com

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.

spices

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.

sauteeing

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

making tikka masala

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.

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Hot (!) Spiced Milk

hot spiced milk

I started making this milk within the last few weeks, inspired by the tumeric milk posted over at the beautiful Journey Kitchen. Similar to a hot chocolate my friend Carrie makes (milk + cocoa powder + sweetener + heat = bam!), it’s nothing complicated or confusing. It’s hot and soothing—pure comfort when paired with a big down comforter and some online TV, especially when it’s as cold as it has been around here lately. And, because of the powerful spices, spiced milk is actually really beneficial for your health, too:

spices

First, there’s tumeric, the bright yellow spice that colors mustard and flavors curry. Commonly used in both Chinese and Indian ancient systems of medicine, tumeric is one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory spices out there, the same ingredient I heard physicians wax eloquent about at a CCFA symposium I attended with my friend Alicia a few years ago. Because inflammation is connected to so many physical ailments, from Crohn’s to eczema to heart disease, foods that work against inflammation are like nutritional powerhouses, ingredients I want to work into my diet as much as possible.

There are also ginger and cardamom, long considered beneficial for digestion; cinnamon, which helps regulate blood sugar; cayenne, aid to the circulatory system, among other things; and cloves, another anti-inflammatory and also anti-bacterial spice. I add raw honey for taste, but I could just as easily be adding that for the nutritional benefits as well, as raw honey has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties.

hot spiced milk for two

But all that aside, trust me when I say the health benefits are just icing on the cake for this drink, which is at once soothing and stimulating, spicy and sweet. Going down your throat, it burns just slightly (and of course, you could adjust the spices to your liking if you’re less tolerant of the kick of cayenne) and feels like a kicked-up version of chai tea or some really amazing steamed milk.

More than anything though, to me, it’s been one of a hundred comforts I’ve been tasting over the last few days, I really believe brought to me by the Great Comforter, the one to whom I could barely hang on at the beginning of this month. There have been long talks with Tim, encouraging Bible studies with friends, peaceful nights of sleep, random free tickets to the symphony, the ability to think clearly enough to remember how many blessings I’ve been given. My friend Joanna, in a recent email, told me that the darkest times in our lives are also times covered by God’s love and grace to pull us out of them, and she’s right. I’m tasting that these days, and it is good.

You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit.
(Job 10:12 NIV)

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