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.

I Wish That I Could Go To Just One Party That Didn’t Have The Word “Birthday” In It.

Wait, did I ever say that I would actually post here on a regular basis? Is that really what people do when they have blogs – post things regularly?

They do?



My bad. So anyway, Sarah turns three today – three! – and as you would expect we’re all pretty excited. Admittedly, the significance of this particular day might be stronger felt if we hadn’t been celebrating her birthday for a whole week already, but who am I to complain? The more parties the better, right?

Believe it or not, we’re the kind of parents who fully intend to keep these annual ceremonies small-ish and manageable. I’m looking for a word here – dignified doesn’t really work, not with children…tasteful, no… free of clowns, jugglers, balloon animals and bounce houses, too wordy…how about…underwhelming. Yes, that’s the word. We’d like to keep all of these parties underwhelming. The idea is that Sarah will grow up having learned the value of a nice, quiet evening spent with a small group of well-chosen, and ethnically diverse, friends. I’m thinking tapas. She’ll thank us, I’m sure.

Well, okay, so I’m kind of kidding. Bounce houses and jugglers are actually awesome, and Sarah has already shown an affinity for balloon animals (at least, those not attempted by me), so of course we’d never deny her the pleasures of a normal , whimsical childhood. We do still prefer to keep things small, however (and if a clown dares to come within 50 yards of us I will call the cops), but as any parent knows, what we’d prefer to do and what winds up happening are often two different things. Particularly when one factors in the needs of one’s extended family members, Sarah’s current schoolmates, and the kids and parents from her past “mommies” group – many of whom have already had you over to their kid’s birthdays so you know what that means.  Well I don’t know about you, but there’s no way that we’re fitting all these people under one roof in one day, so it looks like we’ll have more than one party – in this case, make that four parties.

We had our first party last Saturday, and I have to admit it went swimmingly. And no, it wasn’t at a pool, smart guy, it was at a gym, specifically the “Kidnastics” in Los Alamitos. Kidnastics, as the name implies, is a pretty straight-forward and self-explanitory concept, and if you need any advice or guidance as to what it entails then for you I feel only pity.  We have been going to this gym weekly, and it’s an absolutely fabulous time for all involved. This was actually a duel birthday party, an old playmate of hers having turned three a week prior, and was a co-production of the respective parents. You would think that that would lessen the workload, especially taking into account that both we and the other parents wanted to eschew all excessive elements (no gifts please, no decorations, and no party favors), but that would only have been the case if one parent hadn’t offered to make the cakes at home rather than buy one fully decorated, as is customary. That parent was a fool.

That parent was me.

I do all of the cooking around here, but baking cakes is not my thing. Oh, I’ve tried – I remember struggling two years ago on Lizzy’s birthday, hovering over a large mixing bowl with my cheap, Target-bought hand mixer, waiting what seemed like hours for the damned butter and sugar to cream. Well, I had no intention of doing that again, and vowed early on to use only store-bought cake mix, but I still wanted to do something nice. I knew there would be at least 15 kids so I decided to make a double-layer sheet cake, which I could then frost decoratively. Both kids’ names would be written, in perfect script, with icing.

Figuring out how many boxes of cake mix would be needed for the sheet cakes was a trick – it turns out two boxes will fill one sheet tray with a bit left over, which means that I would need to mix up four boxes, eyeball how much to put into each sheet tray and then bake either a small cake or several cupcakes with the leftovers. There was also the matter of adjusting the cooking time (since most boxes include directions for a smaller cake), baking them without overcooking the sides or undercooking the middle, and then – if I were lucky enough to get this far – inverting the cakes out of the trays cleanly without destroying them.

And yes, ultimately I had to run back to the store for more ingredients – not only because I wrecked one cake by undercooking it but because I realized, after staring at the sheet trays and going over the numbers in my increasingly panicky head, that I would not have enough to feed all the kids and the parents. So two sheets of cake turned into four (plus the one that I had to redo), and the amount of icing I had planned to make doubled.

[On a side note – if you’ve made cakes from a mix you know that you still need some ingredients – the first mix I bought required lots of butter, eggs and milk; the second (when I went back the store was out of the original stuff, natch) needed oil, eggs and water. Add to that the ingredients required to make the icing – 10x sugar, Margerine, shortening, milk, vanilla and food coloring – and you suddenly know with absolute certainty that anyone who says it’s cheaper to make your cakes at home rather than buy them fully baked and decorated is a complete ass.]

So ten boxes of cake mix, two dozen eggs, a bottle of vegetable oil, one pound of butter, a half pound of Margerine, six pounds of powdered sugar, a half gallon of milk and an immeasurable amount of shortening later, and I had my two cakes. Each cake was decorated in light blue and dusty-rose pink (initially designed to be gender-neutral but ultimately looking very pastel), and each read Happy Birthday!!! Isaac and Sarah in purple icing. A large candle in the shape of the number “3,” purchased at the local Ralph’s, would top off the ensemble.

As I said, the party went off without a hitch – the kids played happily while the parents chatted, we didn’t run out of pizza or drinks, and the wonderful staff at Kidnastics not only entertained and monitored the children while the parents gabbed, but also cleaned everything up at the end.

And, of course, we didn’t even touch the second cake.

So that’s one down and three to go. Sarah’s classroom is having a little thing today (another joint venture with a classmate), we’ll do something just the three of us this coming Saturday, and then we’re heading out to New England to visit the family where yet another party, this time with lots of alcohol and seafood on the menu (finally!),  awaits us. At this rate I figure we’ll be done celebrating some time this coming August.

Oh yeah – anyone need a cake?