Foodie Tuesday: Tikka Masala Madness

We were both hungry for something Indian-food-ish. Really hungry. It was time to figure out a new recipe for a nice Tikka Masala-like sauce, for a change of pace. So I went hunting. I looked through my Indian cookbooks and went wandering online for a while, and found that the core ingredients for a creamy tomato curry seemed fairly stable from one recipe to another, but as with any sort of classic food, not only did the proportions vary widely but the peripheral or add-on ingredients did, too.

Jamie Oliver’s recipe seemed to me to sit somewhere right in the middle of the typical combinations, so I chose to use that as a jumping-off point for today’s home-brew. And what do you know, it came out pretty nicely. And relatively simply. I made a big enough batch that I could freeze a couple of meals’ worth, too. I opted to cook up the other parts of the meal (a batch of vegetables, roughly chopped prawns, and coconut rice) separately, then just took some of the finished sauce after it’d simmered for a while and spooned up customized individual combinations in bowls for our dinner.

This is a recipe where it’s particularly helpful to have your mise en place waiting next to the cooktop so it goes together very easily.Photo: Tickled Tikka Masala

Tickled Tikka Masala

Finely mince or crush 2-3 cloves garlic, 2 Tablespoons fresh ginger, 1-2 teaspoons freshly chopped jalapeño, and 1 T grated citrus zest (I used lemon and lime together). Mix with 2-3 T lemon juice, 1.5 T chicken bouillon (I like Better Than Bouillon brand). Set aside.

Blend together dry ingredients: 2 Tablespoons garam masala, 1 T ground coriander, 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 T cumin, and 1 T smoked paprika, and 2 T freeze-dried diced shallots. Toast gently in 3-4 T ghee in a large pan over medium-low heat.

Add the citrus-bouillon blend and stir it all together to warm through. To this, add a whole can of rich coconut milk (13.5 oz Chaokoh, my fave) and stir it in. Add 24.5 oz canned tomato puree or sauce (tomatoes and salt only; Mutti Passata is my favorite) and about 2 T tomato paste. Let this whole thing simmer gently for an hour or two, covered, stirring occasionally.

Add whole milk yogurt or labneh to taste, serving by serving and garnish with chopped fresh cilantro. Or, if you don’t have a yogurt-and-green-thingies-averse partner like mine, finish the whole dish with them. Or you can top it with toasted coconut, with cashews, pistachios, bacon pieces, chopped dried apricots, or whatever suits your fancy. However you choose to do it, as you can see by the long list of ingredients and the longer list of recipes I surfed before landing on one of my own, the dish is endlessly customizable. And yes, it turns out, every bit as tasty as I remembered.

Photo: Tikka with Toppings

Foodie Tuesday: Not the Raw Prawn

It should be noted that while I prefer my prawns cooked in various ways, I would trust a sushi master to feed me uncooked ones without (as my Oz friend and colleague John taught me in grad school would be a less kindly gesture) either giving me or coming the proverbial ‘raw prawn‘. Old-school colloquialisms aside, it can be a great kindness to feed me well prepared prawns in a number of guises, as they’re not only tasty protein sources but well respected in a number of the world’s great cuisines. I’ve had the good fortune to live and/or vacation in a few places noted for particular kinds of prawns and shrimp, and when they’re ‘done up right’ I would be hard pressed to resist them as a top choice for eating.

In their compact and sturdy form they do lend themselves to skewering and grilling or to the great dive-in-and-get-messy kind of eating in a traditional Shrimp Boil or rekefest (the classic Cajun and Norwegian shrimp-eating parties, respectively), and I’ve certainly been served spectacular ones whole in dreamlike paellas, gumbos, cioppinos and other dishes. No complaints here! But when it comes to fixing things myself, I’m more inclined to think my fellow diners might like to be as lazy as I am, given the chance, and prefer most often to peel and devein shrimp and prawns before using them in my cooking. There’s no reason not to use the shells then and there for cooking up in a great batch of broth, of course, so I don’t see the necessity of wasting them, but I love to be able to eat meals unencumbered by the slowing process of dressing out the food unless it’s really a necessary part of the experience. Once the critters are cleaned, the meal prep is just as easy anyway, and if broth is on hand as a result, it’s the perfect base for an enriched soup or sauce in the bargain.

So what do I use these splendid shellfish for, finally? Nearly anything is good with such a sweet, clean taste and firm yet delicate texture. Shrimp puree, as I’ve mentioned before, is a fantastic binder for fish cakes because they don’t dull down the flavor like a starch binder (flour or crumbs, typically) would do, and though I haven’t tested it yet I’m certain it’d make a grand seafood soup or sauce thickener as well. But beautiful prawns deserve respect, too, in their unadulterated-yet-naked form, so they feature in a wide variety of dishes chez moi in addition to the aforementioned international classic presentations.


Butter Prawns—my style—in Basmati.

Curries probably top the list hereabouts, mainly because both members of the household are fans of curry in a wide range of styles. Many classic Indian and Indian-influenced sauces and dishes, in fact, lend themselves beautifully to showcasing shrimp: butter sauce, mainly seen on American plates napping chicken, is one marvelous option, as are Tandoori-spiced grilling on a skewer, prawns biryani, and prawns simply seared in ghee and garam masala and served with fragrant rice.

Italian cooks, too, have given us a multitude of glorious ways to honor the delicious beauty of these shellfish, not least of all in a beautiful marinara sauce over pasta. If you want any advice or inspiration whatsoever regarding Italian cookery, you can’t do better than to visit my friend Chicago John over at his blog From the Bartolini Kitchens, and you can do your own happy swimming through all of his shrimp- and prawn-related dishes with a quick search there. But despite my reverence for John’s glorious and historically rich cookery, I have been known to dabble in my own variants at times, and think I didn’t do too much harm to the image of the Real Thing. One example of this would be when I make my version of prawns Fra Diavolo, which according to Signore Mario Batali is Italian-American anyway, so I have no compunction about further stretching the idea. For mine, I make a sauce of tomato passata with shallots, a splash of a nice, intense red wine if I’ve got one open, a squeeze of lemon juice, a good grind of black pepper, oregano, basil, and a hit of red pepper flakes, varying the amounts to the tastes of my fellow diners, and finally, warm the prawns in the sauce just until they’re pink and curling like a charming devil’s tail.Fra Diavolo can be a friendly little devil.You who love shellfish equally will know that I could go on rhapsodizing about them and the many ways in which to dress them up and swallow them down, but for now I think that that should be the end of this tale.

Foodie Tuesday: India Calling

Who needs call centers in India, I ask you. India calls me all the time, without any help from batteries of trained phone service representatives, using only its myriad delicious foods. Works all the time!photoFor a recent sit-down, for example, I was lured by the siren song of Tikka Masala. Too short a lead time for cooking on the occasion meant I’d need to doctor up some ready-made sauce, and there are certainly plenty on the supermarket shelves, so I picked out a jar and took it home to sauce some leftover roasted chicken and serve over leftover chicken broth rice. On tasting, the sauce proved to be a bit insipid and not quite what I had in mind, but it served as a fair base for a good dish with just a few little additions.  A bit of tweaking with cloves, cardamom and cayenne got it going slightly more brightly. A toss of coconut is seldom amiss, so yeah, I threw that on top.

Buttery peas, freshly cooked pappadums and a spoonful of raita rounded out the meal. I was delighted to discover that ready-to-fry pappadums from the grocery could be easily prepared in the microwave, of all things, which made my dinner’s trip over from India just that much shorter, a good thing indeed. Raita is such a grand condiment, jazzing up many a different dish or meal with its cool and refreshing blend of plain yogurt with a few flavor enhancers like, in this instance, finely diced cucumber, dill, fresh mint and a touch of salt and pepper.photoThe leftovers, since the raita was eaten and gone after the first day of this batch of Tikka Masala and there wasn’t a lot of chicken left in it either, got further doctoring. I added some plain yogurt directly to the dish, and a good sprinkling of my favorite homemade curry powder along with some brown mustard and black sesame seeds. I didn’t want to fix or add more chicken at the moment but wanted to expand the dish enough to fill me up, so I thought I’d love some palak paneer alongside. I love that spinach puree with farmer’s cheese in it, but, erm, it’s hard to make when there’s no spinach around. And no actual paneer, either, it turns out. So I took the similarly slow-melting cheese I did have on hand and cubed it directly into the sauce along with the chicken and peas. I’m pretty sure that this iteration of mine departed so far from true Tikka Masala dishes that it would be virtually unrecognized by any real Indian cook (no matter how far the true Indian versions vary, from what I’ve heard), so I guess India can’t be blamed for what I have perpetrated. But then again, the inspiration, the motivation–that’s all India’s fault.photoAnd I, at least, thank her.