Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Spice Road

I was craving, in the worst way, something rich and spicy that didn't take all day to prepare and/or six hours to simmer. In other words, I wanted Chicken Vindaloo.

You know, I hesitate to say it's Indian because I suspect it's an Americanized version that may bear little resemblance to actual vindaloo. Much like from-Italy Italians are horrified by what we consider pizza, I imagine people from India get their hopes up here when they hear "vindaloo" and then wonder what the heck is on their plate.

Regardless of its origins and authenticity, it's a terrific dish. When recipes move out of their country of creation, they adapt to whatever food is locally available and favored in the community (meaning "if this was originally made from a part of the chicken I'm not used to eating, it would never have been made in my kitchen").

Something to keep in mind - the fewer ingredients a recipe has, the higher quality each of those ingredients needs to be. For those of us on a budget, dishes with lots of ingredients have some leeway.

If you cook a lot with, say, coriander, then it's worth it to invest in Penzey's or some other highly-regarded brand. But if you don't keep cardamom on hand and you just want some for this recipe, try going into a Hispanic market or the Hispanic aisle of your local supermarket. You'll find small packets of spices for a dollar or so. You won't take up space in your kitchen or drain your wallet for something you'll rarely use. To be honest, in a dish this highly seasoned an expensive spice isn't likely to stand out and be noticed, anyway.

I like to serve this on top of hot rice or barley, with a salad on the side. The leftovers make a terrific lunch.

Chicken Vindaloo
1/3 cup white wine vinegar (plain white vinegar is fine if that's what you have)
6 large garlic cloves, peeled (they mellow out, I promise)
3 T BSP chopped fresh ginger (yes, fresh ginger root. No substitutes here)
1 1/2 Tablespoons curry powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
2 TBSP yellow mustard seeds (eh - it's optional in my book)
2 pounds chicken, cut into 1- or 1 1/2-inch pieces (this is easier if the chicken is still partially frozen and you're using a good, sharp knife)
4 TBSP olive oil (or regular vegetable oil or canola oil)

2 1/2 cups chopped fresh onions (you can go up or down 1/2 a cup with no ill effect)
1 14 1/2 to 16-ounce can of diced tomato in juice
1 cinnamon stick (they're pricey and, I think, overpowering. I'd use less than 1/4 teaspoon of ground cinnamon)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro (optional)

Note: If you want to do serve this on a weeknight, make the marinade and cut up the onions the night before. Store them in the refrigerator, and when you get home from work you've just got the cooking to do, which is hands-off.

Combine the vinegar, garlic cloves, ginger, curry powder, cumin, cardamom, cloves, and red pepper in a blender or mini food processor. Add the mustard seeds and blend until smooth. [At this point, you can refrigerate the marinade]

Transfer the spice mixture to a large bowl. Add the chicken, 2 Tablespoons of oil, and toss to coat.

Heat the remaining oil in a heavy, large pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until golden (about 5 minutes). Add the chicken mixture, stir, and cook for 3 - 5 minutes to blend the flavors. Add the tomatoes WITH their juice, the cinnamon (stick or dash of ground cinnamon), and bring to a toil.

Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until the chicken is tender, about 30 minutes.

Season with salt & pepper (optional) and mix in the remaining one Tablespoon of mustard seeds (also optional). Simmer uncovered until the sauce is slightly thickened. If you used a cinnamon stick, remove it and throw it away. If you're using cilantro, stir it in just before serving.


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