Most days when I drop off my daughter to school in the morning, I listen to her sing along to the latest show she might be rehearsing for in her local Musical Theater group or we might chat about what’s in store for her day. But on this particular morning, on a whim, I asked Sophia, “What would my baby like for dinner tonight?” The first thing out of her mouth was, “Butter Chicken!”
I knew I was in trouble. Typically, for this dish, I would make sure I had all the ingredients prepped and marinated in the fridge overnight for best results. But I just couldn’t say no to my little girl. I mean, how often does a 7-year-old ask for Butter Chicken for dinner? I could come home and prep it all on my lunch break, I thought silently as I stared at those innocent brown eyes in my rearview mirror. I was going to make it happen, somehow. All I needed was a pair of wings and my magic wand today!!!
I had a packed day: meetings and more meetings. But I was determined to sneak out for a bit. I drove home and ran into my kitchen. My husband, who works from home, thought I was a little crazy as I ran past him in my heels muttering something about chicken, but I didn’t have time to defend myself. I guess when it comes to my daughter’s love for Indian food, I do go a bit overboard and over compensate. In true Rachel Ray fashion, I grabbed every ingredient in both hands and kicked the fridge door shut with my left stiletto, my pearls dangling in between the yogurt and the cilantro.
I tossed the pieces of dark chicken meat into the yogurt and the spices, squeezing the life out of my one life-saving lime. I gave it all a good stir and wrapped it up with cling wrap in a glass bowl. Back in the fridge it went and out the door I flew, back to work, as my belly rumbled reminding me that I just won the award for the best and hungriest mother on the planet.
I comforted myself knowing that the secret to Indian food is not in the cooking, but in the prep. If you can let the spices, the citrus and yogurt break down the meat and season it, you’ve scored.
That evening, I quickly diced the onions and sautéed them in butter. I typically use ghee, but I had run out that afternoon. I tossed in the marinated chicken, the tomato sauce and covered it on low heat for 40 minutes, resisting the urge to peek. While it simmered softly, I soaked my Basmati rice and proceeded to make a fluffy bowl of it to go with the rich gravy.
Minutes later, I could hear Sophia yell out, “Mommy is my Butter Chicken ready yet? I’m starving!”
I opened my Creuset and it smelled exactly the way I remembered it should: heady aromas of cumin, cardamom, ginger, and garlic, among other fragrant spices coating the tender morsels of chicken. The two-hour marinade had done the trick. Who would have thought it were possible? Tickled with my epiphany, I smiled on my way back to the fridge, pulled out the Half ‘n Half and added a full cup of the creamy goodness into the thick red gravy. I could hear my mother’s voice in my head, “If you’re going to take on Butter Chicken, don’t stop at the butter,” she would say. “Add the cream. You’ve earned it!”
PART 1: MARINATE THE CHICKEN
2 cups thick Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons turmeric
2 tablespoons garam masala
2 tablespoons ground cumin or Shah Jeera ( Black cumin seeds)
2 tablespoons of ground cardamom – brown or green cardamom, or a mixture of each
2 tablespoons ground coriander
4 tablespoons Kashmiri Chili powder – this gives the butter chicken it fiery red color
2 tablespoons garlic paste (available in tubes in the produce section of large grocery stores, or in Indian groceries)
2 tablespoons freshly ground ginger or ginger paste (available in tubes in the produce section of large grocery stores, or in Indian groceries)
2 teaspoons salt
Juice of 1 lime
3 pounds of boneless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces
Mix the yogurt, spices and lime juice together in a large glass bowl. Add the chicken pieces and coat with the marinade. Cover with plastic, refrigerate and let the meat marinate for at least 2 hours or overnight.
PART 2: MAKE THE GRAVY
6 tablespoons ghee or salted butter
4 yellow onions, finely diced
2 – 15 oz cans of tomato sauce or puree, no spices added.
1 cup of chopped cilantro
1 cup of heavy cream, light cream or Half ‘ n Half can also be substituted!
Remove the marinated chicken from the refrigerator and let it reach room temperature, about an hour.
In a 3-quart oven-proof pot or Dutch oven, sauté the yellow onions in the ghee for 5 minutes on medium-high heat until golden brown. Add the marinated chicken with the left-over marinade and cook until the chicken changes color, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and allow it to cook on medium heat for another 5 minutes. Cover the pot, reduce to a low simmer until the chicken is cooked, approximately 40 minutes. Resist the urge to peek! Now give it a good stir, add the Half ‘n Half and chopped cilantro and let it simmer for another 5 minutes.
Serve warm over Basmati Rice with Naan and or Papadums for a side.