Chicken Curry with Golden Raisins and Okra

I’m thinking about highlighting – or is it spotlighting? – one of this Miller family’s  regular dishes here every month. My pieces won’t be in the traditional “recipe” style, but will instead be conversational, wordy, and – like everything else I tend to write – exhibit a flagrant and reckless use of punctuation.

I’ll understand if you bail halfway through, but if you have the time and patience to stick around, I think that you might find a nice, simple dish to add to your own menu.

I’ll start with one of our favorites, adapted from a recipe we found in a magazine a couple of years ago. It’s a curry, but don’t let that turn you off if you think you don’t like Indian food. This is quite mild, not hot at all, and very, very yummy. Trust me – I pull this one out of my little bag of recipes whenever we have a guest and it kills every time.

So – start with:

Boneless, skinless chicken thighs. This is my favorite part of the chicken, both to cook and to eat. Thighs don’t cook up dry like chicken breast so often does, and they’re not filled with tendons or gristle like chicken legs, which no one bones anyway (well, they can be boned, but it’s much more difficult – which is why you never see boneless legs in the supermarket).  Also the longer cooking time that we tend to associate with legs and thighs is greatly reduced when the thigh is boneless; tender, moist, dark meat can be enjoyed after only about ten or fifteen minutes. For dishes like this one the skin must be removed; leaving it on is fine for other dishes if you’re searing the meat and then roasting it, but it’s a no-no when your chicken must be simmered in a sauce, as it will be here (unless you like flaccid, chewy flaps of skin on your plate, in which case I can’t help you).  You should have about a pound and a half of thigh meat (about five or six thighs – they’re actually rather small when boned). Lay them out on a nice, large dish.

Gather some salt and pepper. Sprinkle about ½ teaspoon of salt on the top side of the chicken thighs. Grind a bit of pepper on, as well.

Get some vegetable oil. Canola oil works too, as does safflower oil and peanut oil – anything that has a high smoke point and not a lot of distracting flavor. You know what I mean – no fricking olive oil. If I’m feeling zany I’ll sometimes use ghee, which is a nutty, clarified butter used in many Indian recipes (you could buy this at a store but it’s just as easy to make at home with everyday butter), but the veggie oil works fine. Heat about two tablespoons in a large, heavy-bottomed pot (like a Le Creuset) over medium high heat. You’ll want it nice and hot.

When it’s ready drop the chicken onto the bottom of the pot, seasoned side down, and sear without moving around (the chicken, that is – you yourself can move around as much as you’d like). After about two minutes turn the chicken over. If the pot and the fat were hot enough you should be able to do this without much trouble, but you may have to scrape up the thighs with a spatula or flat-edged wooden spoon in order to keep them from tearing up. Cook on the other side for another two minutes or so, then remove and return to the dish you had the raw thighs on (don’t worry about the raw chicken juices – you’re still going to cook it all off later). If you’re using a pot that doesn’t fit all your chicken together at once, sear them in batches – just make sure that you adjust the heat and add your oil accordingly. Cover the dish with large lid or an inverted bowl, and set aside.

Once all the meat is seared and out of the pot,  turn the heat down and take a look inside. There should still be enough oil or fat in the pan, but feel free to add a drop more if it looks a little dry.

Okay. Garlic. Take three good sized cloves, crush them with the flat side of your kitchen knife, remove the skins and stem-tips, and mince them up. Put them in the pot and stir them around for a minute or so until they just start softening. Remember not to let them overcook; browned, crunchy garlic will not only ruin most dishes, but it will probably get stuck in your teeth as well – and nobody wants to look at that. Trust me.

Next up is the curry powder. Curry powder is actually a blend of several spices including, but not limited to, turmeric, cumin, coriander, chili, fennel seeds, cardamom, garlic, cloves, fenugreek, tamarind, ginger, mace, pepper, saffron, nutmeg, poppy seeds, cinnamon, and curry leaves. In India families tend to make the blend themselves, usually from family recipes, which means that each household’s curry is unique. For the purpose of retail sale, however, as well as for restaurant cooking (and general categorization), the basic curry powders can fall under several names: Vindaloo Seasoning (very hot, usually mixed in a paste), Garam Masala (traditional, good on cauliflower), Maharajah style curry (the most prized; heavy on the saffron and therefore very expensive), Tandoori (named after the clay oven called the Tandoor, which is used to make the bright red, roasted chicken you find at every Indian restaurant), and Rogan Josh (great in the eponymous lamb dish). The heavy use of curry in regional cuisine is not limited to India, either; after a little digging one might be able to find a Sate seasoning from Pakistan, or a Balti seasoning from Indonesia, for example. Here in America when a recipe calls for curry it is probably referring to basic, sweet curry powder (there is also a hot version, so check the label), and it’s what you’ll be using here. You will need one rounded tablespoon, though you can adjust this accordingly once you’ve tried the dish. Add it to the bottom of the pot and continue to stir it up along with the already cooking garlic.

Add some Cayenne pepper. Cayenne, a member of the Capsicum family of hot peppers, is named after a town in French Guiana, located in northeastern South America. It is generally dried (or mashed into a pulp), then ground into a fine powder. There’s a special place in my heart for this humble and cheap spice, if only because it’s probably the first really hot spice I recall my family using way back in the eighties, just when our – and much of America’s – tastes were starting to transcend the horrible casserole/fondue/buffet inclinations of the previous decade, and were tentatively experimenting with something a little different – dare I say it, “foreign”. If memory serves we’d add cayenne to chicken and turkey soups, and the marriage of heat and poultry seemed made in heaven. In this recipe, frankly, the heat isn’t even that necessary, since the curry, tomato and coconut make up the bulk of the flavor, but it’s a nice touch just the same. As such a quarter teaspoon or so will do – more if you like things spicy and less if you don’t. Heck, leave it out if you want. What can I do about it? It’s a free country.

Continue to cook the garlic and spices for a bit. This won’t be a delicate process – everything will seem rather dry and will probably be balling up around your spoon or spatula. Don’t be unnerved.

Open a can of stewed tomatoes. I tend to go with Del Monte, though any brand should work fine here. Just remember to check the label carefully in order to avoid the many variations on the Classic stewed tomatoes (which is what you want), such as Italian Style, Zesty with Green Chile, or, heaven help us, No Salt Added.  Remember – stewed tomatoes are tomatoes that are thickly sliced and then cooked with minced peppers, onion and other seasonings, so simply buying diced tomatoes will not do the trick. Your one can of stewed tomatoes will weigh 14.5 ounces. Add the contents of the can, including the juices, to the pot and stir up. The liquids in the stewed tomatoes should have a deglazing effect on all the curry, garlic and chicken fond (the dark, flavorful bits of the meat left over from searing, usually stuck to the bottom of the pot), so make sure you dig it all up while stirring.

Next is coconut milk. This can be found in any decent grocery store, often in the Asian section. Coconut milk is not, it should be noted, the clear, sweet liquid found in the center of a whole coconut, but is in fact derived from pureeing (or grating) the white coconut meat, wrapping it in cheesecloth, then squeezing out the extract. This process produces a substance thicker than you might imagine; when you open the can of coconut milk (and stir it up) it should be of a consistency roughly equal to that of heavy cream. This nepenthes, you should be warned, is staggeringly high in calories and saturated fat, but what it lacks in healthfulness it more than makes up for in awesomeness. You can purchase lower-fat, “light” coconut milk, which is produced from the pulp being soaked repeatedly in water and then squeezed several times, but I’d really rather you didn’t as the resulting sauce will be too thin and much less rich. Plus, trust me when I say that you’re really not as overweight as you think you are. Anyway you will need one can containing about 13.5 ounces. Add it to the pot.

Now take the dish of seared chicken thighs and tip everything, pink juices included (lots of flavor there, which is why it’s good to cover the dish with a lid), into the pot. Shift everything around so that the meat is mostly covered.

Grab some golden raisins. The original recipe I adapted this from (from Gourmet Magazine, I think) called for dried currants, but, having no currents around at the time and many, many golden raisins in stock (they’ve always been a favorite of our daughter Sarah’s), I decided to substitute the latter for the former. It worked well, and it stuck, but of course regular raisins will do as well. The inclusion of this or any other dried berries does not, mind you, make this dish particularly sweet, so you could add more or less according to your preference. I use a smallish handful, about a quarter to a third of a cup. Toss those suckers in.

Next up is Okra. While this sweet, seasonal pod (actually a member of the Hibiscus family) has its origins in northern Africa and is a staple of Middle East, Mediterranean and Indian cooking, here in America it is usually associated with Southern cuisine, particularly as a slimy, seedy ingredient in Gumbo or as a deep-fried side dish. This is unfortunate, as it is a wonderful vegetable, and delicious when simply steamed whole and served with a little butter and salt. It is a bit slimy when cooked (a trait which, in fact, helps thicken traditional Gumbos), but once you get used to it it’s a treat. Take about 10 ounces of whole, frozen Okra (here at Ralph’s supermarket chain they come in 1 pound bags – I just use half). Fresh Okra is good too, if you can get it, but I’ve learned that for this particular dish it is one of those vegetables – like peas or corn – that tastes just as good when you buy them frozen.  Add the Okra to the pot and shuffle things around again.

Make sure the flame is on medium low and everything is starting to bubble. Cover the pot, allowing just a slight opening in order to allow steam to exit the premises and facilitate thickening .

Have a drink. Something dark, preferably single-malt.  And for God’s sake – drink it neat.

After about ten to fifteen minutes go ahead and check the chicken. Stir it up well and have a taste. You should need another half teaspoon of salt, but better, I think, that you determine that yourself as it is of course subjective. If everything’s in order then your curry should be fully cooked and ready to go.

Scoop it out with a large spoon and serve over rice. Mounds and mounds of rice.

Dogs on Parade

The other day Lizzy and I were out taking Sarah to a local exorcist when we met, outside the office door, a middle-aged woman smoking a butt by the parking lot.  The cigarette didn’t bother me though; what really got me raging was her Bichon Frise. For those of you not familiar with these creatures, I’m talking about those dirty white, puffy, toy dogs that all the upper classes seem to be in love with. I’m sure you’ve seen them all over the place – they’re undeniably cute but equally prone, it seems, to being on the receiving end of some spurned or otherwise disgruntled ex boyfriend’s ire. I remember a story from a few years ago wherein some thuggish road-rage sufferer tossed one of these critters into traffic; another, if memory serves, involved the pup plummeting through the air via an upper-level window. None of this is justified, mind you, and I’m in no way condoning any kind of cruelty to animals, but I’m just sayin’ – they’re as easy to hate as they are to love.

I do, occasionally, see the value of tiny novelty dogs. Here in Long Beach we live a half mile or so from one of the wealthier neighborhoods, and there’s also a healthy gay community here. Often the two overlap. The result? Lots and lots of really small dogs. The good news for us is that we get to attend dog costume parades (yes, dog parades), and even I have to admit that these things are a hoot.  The organizer calls the event “Haute Dog,” and the idea is to grab your tiniest, most execrable four-legged family member, dress them up like something ludicrous (but creative), and parade them down 2nd Street in Long Beach while thousands gawk.

Actually we’re blessed with two of these – one at Easter, and one during Halloween. We prefer the Halloween parade (called the “Howl-oween parade and billed as “the world’s largest Halloween pet event”), due both to our general affinity for that glorious holiday of death as well as to the wider spectrum of tiny dog costumes available to owner and viewer alike. I mean, really –  Easter’s nice and all, but how many dog-sized rabbit ears and bonnets can you see before wondering why the hell it was that you left the house in the first place?

During Halloween though, the possibilities are endless. The dogs aren’t simply dressed up and walked, either; most owners pull their pups in wagons that are decorated according to the chosen theme. Think of them as miniature floats. This past year, for example, there was among other things a dog-sized school bus, a tank, and even a dumpster bin, each filled with tiny, costumed dogs. The 2007 winner – yes, there are awards given out – was a little display called “Grilled Chi-s” (A Chi is a cross between a Chihuawa and some sort of Poodle), and that, my friend, I’ll let you visualize yourself.

I can’t say that the dogs are actually mistreated here, but if dogs are said to share any emotional traits with humans then I certainly recognized two: panic and shame. Trust me, I know these looks  because they’re the two I often use myself. They’re also the two my daughter, in her teen-aged years, will most employ upon seeing me in public, but that remains to be seen.  So maybe the dogs themselves aren’t very happy, but everyone else has a pretty good time.

So there are a couple of occasions on which I tolerate, and even enjoy, these little scourges, but most of the time they kind of annoy me. Like when the owners so love the dog that they have to bring it with them wherever they go, usually nestled in an arm or a purse. That bothers me, particularly because it’s one of those things that betrays, in my opinion, a serious flaw in the humans: excessive need. They’re displaying their need to have a companion with them, which, conversely, indicates an inability to be alone, and, y’know, what’s up with that? I mean, I like to be alone – so much so that most of the people in my life have picked up on this and helpfully stopped dropping by, calling me, sending me birthday cards, visiting me in the hospital or even “poking” me on Facebook.

But what really qualifies small dog owners for public smiting is when the life of the pet is valued over that of a human. I remember walking down an alley near an old apartment of ours a couple of years ago, musing thoughtfully on the various architectural styles of the neighbors’ homes and otherwise minding my own business. I had been admiring a particular Spanish-style thingy not too far from my own dive, when I noticed in one of the windows a small, reflective sticker applied from within. Upon closer inspection it was clear that the sticker was designed to direct any firefighters, in the event of the home’s burning, to that window in order to rescue its occupants. We’ve all seen these things, and I imagine they’re generally put to good use. If memory serves I had one myself as a boy.

But this sticker didn’t alert first responders to the presence of a child, no – this was applied strictly to aid in the rescue of the family pet. Now, I’m not a firefighter, and nor do I fetishize them like so many have since 9/11, but Jesus Fucking Christ. Can you believe the thinking that goes on in the minds of the pet owners who put that sticker up? They actually expect that a firefighter would want to make a point of navigating the flame, noxious smoke and falling beams in order to save the Chi in the upstairs room, third down on the left?  Think of the dialogue that must have gone on behind the application of that sticker – I imagine  it would probably go something like this:

Fade In

INT. A spacious, Spanish-style house.

A HUSBAND is lint-rolling the curtains in his well-decorated living room. His eyes are closed and he is humming “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi se soir” under his breath.

Suddenly his WIFE enters excitedly.

Wife: Well, I’ve got the sticker for the window over Hunter’s pillow!

The Husband starts, fearfully.

A beat.

He collects himself.

Husband: Great!

A beat.

Husband: Wait – we have a kid named Hunter?

Wife: (laughs) No, silly, Hunter’s our Bichon Frise!

Husband: (slaps his hand to his forehead) Of course! How could I forget – we’re still waiting for the Malawi government to approve our adoption papers! We don’t have a kid yet!

(Husband and wife laugh for a beat, tension releasing)

Husband (cont.): Anyway, what’s the sticker say?

Wife: Oh, it just tells the firemen where Hunter is so that they can run in and save him if the house is ever overcome by an explosive, life-threatening fire.

Husband: Hmm. (scratches his chin) Hey, don’t you think that may be a bit dangerous? I mean, like, doesn’t the fireman risk injury or death every time he runs into a burning building?

A beat.

Wife: …your point being…?

Wife and husband laugh together some more. Husband resumes rolling the lint brush over the curtains.

Fade out.

See what I mean? This kind of thing can’t go over well with the firefighters either. My guess is that as soon as they see one of these stickers they make a mental note of which room to avoid. I know I would.

So people, if you’re going to have tiny dog, fine. Just try to limit its public exposure to those days when there happens to be a reason to dress it up in something funny – like, say, a lobster. On a grill. And finally, if your house is burning down and you have to get out quick, by all means grab what matters to you most before running to safety – just get it yourself. The firefighters have more things to worry about than orphaning their kids so that your little Punky can live another three dog years.