Wednesday, March 13, 2013

UnRecipe: iStew and One-Pot Wonders

Baby, it's not just cold outside, it's kinda rainy and gross. The gloomy skies can be a bit of a downer, no thanks to the fact that despite Daylight Savings, it's still reeeeally dark out there. BLERG. The common complaint is that it's dark when you leave for work before 8am and dark by the time you get home after 5, making you wonder if the light of day ever made an appearance. DOUBLE BLERG. It's no wonder those annoying, sparkly Twilight vampires dig this place so much. But wait, there's a light at the end of the tunnel... and it's bubbling away in your stew pot.

Rich and hearty butter chicken, the cure for the Twilight Vampire Pacific Northwest - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Butter Chicken. It just makes you happy saying it out loud, or letting the words linger in your mindgrape. It's a popular Indian dish, similar to tandoori chicken, but saucier -- oh, behave! It's seasoned chicken marinated and tenderized in yogurt, then cooked in a gravy of spices, tomato and of course, butter. I love this dish, the meat is flavorful and tender, the sauce is tart and acidic from the tomato base and a bit of citrus. It's like a spiced-up marinara sauce that went on holiday to an exotic land.

The base ingredients are simple enough, but getting the right spices for the marinade and sauce can be tricky. The seasoning typically includes cumin, fenugreek, turmeric, coriander, and chili, along with garam masala, which might be the one exotic item that's not at the corner grocery store. It's a spice blend that's generally made up of pepper, cumin, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom, which if you have the whole spices you could make some from scratch, but given its popularity in Indian cuisine, it's more convenient to buy it already ground and blended.  It's available at specialty stores and the next time you pass by an Indian grocer, just run in and grab a bottle o' garam masala, so you always have some on hand. Garam masala is one of those fancy-sounding seasonings like Chinese Five Spice powder that you bought for one experimental dish, but rarely use and just stare at it, wondering how the heck you're going to use it. I can't say much for the Chinese Five Spice, but if you've got a lone bottle of garam masala feeling like it needs some purpose in its life, here's its special day!

Using the whole chicken, from meat to bones - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I used this recipe from Epicurious for Grilled Indian-Spiced Butter Chicken, with a few modifications, like not grilling because it was rainy and gross outside. I did a pan-sear on the chicken parts before letting everything braise in a sauce that's an add-on to the recipe. I just used the same seasonings for the marinade and added some canned tomatoes which cooked down to become the gravy, plus butter, of course. And I wanted a heartier sauce with more bite, like a stew, so I added chunks of vegetables like carrots, celery and leeks, plus a can of chickpeas. This recipe doesn't give you that signature orange color that most butter chicken looks like, but it'll still warm you up on a cold night. I used a whole chicken for this,  making a small batch of chicken stock from the carcass while the chicken parts marinated overnight. It's not a quickie weeknight meal if you're wanting to make the stock a day ahead, but you can always swap homemade stock with store bought stuff, it's not a dealbreaker. The richness of the flavor is in the chicken marinade, the spiced yogurt mixture seeping into the chicken, both flavoring and tenderizing the meat. That's the one step to not skimp on. One of my shortcuts was I didn't use clarified butter since I wasn't grilling the chicken over a super-hot grill, I just added the butter to the sauce.

This keeps this version of butter chicken a somewhat one-pot meal (if you minus the homemade chicken stock the day before), a convenience I can appreciate, especially when I'm using our heavy duty dutch oven. It holds heat marvelously, sears meat like a boss, but is also a monster to clean, as it's quite heavy. I feel like I've wrestled a bear after cleaning this thing, so it's nice to have the dish washing one-and-done complete after this beast.

Another one-pot wonder is beef stew, but I get bored of the same old English-style beef stew, where you often add beer for the cooking liquid. Not that I don't enjoy a basic beef stew, but sometimes you need to mix things up. And clear out some room in that spice rack because, damn, where did all that marjoram come from? Earlier this year, I came up with a spice mixture that put a Mediterranean twist on a typical beef stew, and it was a nice thing to revisit on a miserable rainy night. Making another version of this exotic beef stew, I threw in a few more dry spices like turmeric and some extra chili powder for heat, but that's the nice thing about making your own spice mixtures -- customize as you like! Be a rebel. A spice rebel.

Revisiting old recipe friends - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Just like the butter chicken, this exotic beef stew is dandy poured over a pile of steamed rice, quinoa or cous cous. And it's perfectly fine on its own, sans starch. In both cases, you wind up with a few days of leftovers, which actually taste better the day after, much like chili. And it's all seared and simmered away in a single pot, perfuming the house with delicious smells. We can't do much about our endlessly rainy weather, but a stew pot full of spiced-up, slow cooking food is one of the best ways to self-medicate against the gloom.

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