Ethnic Cooking at Home: Chicken Tikka Masala

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By Emily Paster

One of the benefits — or drawbacks — of entertaining is being left with extra food at the end of the night. Some party leftovers are easy to repurpose: raw vegetables can be used in stir-fry; hunks of cheese from a cheese plate can be turned into very fancy macaroni and cheese; leftover meat is great in sandwiches or hash.

It is not unusual to have a lot of leftover dip after a party and that is exactly the situation I found myself in last week. I had co-hosted an event for my friend Jeff Weissglass who is running for the high school board in my town. We didn't have a firm number of attendees so I made way too much food. At the end of the night, in addition to lots of brownies and assorted hunks of cheese, I had several cups of my curry yogurt dip left over.

Dips are truly a great leftover to have. They can be repurposed as a sandwich spread; you can thin them with lemon juice or other liquid and turn them into a dressing for pasta salad, or you can do what I did with my leftover curry yogurt dip: use it as a marinade. Yogurt is a terrific ingredient to use as a marinade, especially for chicken. It adds moisture and tanginess to what can sometimes be a boring ingredient. (Chicken, boring? Never!)

When I think about yogurt-marinated chicken, my mind goes right to Chicken Tikka Masala, one of my favorite things to order at Indian restaurants. Chicken Tikka Masala combines chicken that has been marinated in yogurt and then grilled with a creamy, flavorful tomato sauce. This dish is apparently not traditional Indian food, but a 20th century restaurant invention. Whatever the origin, Chicken Tikka Masala is extremely popular both here and in England. In fact, one English Prime Minister called it that country's national dish. (I might have gone with fish and chips, but okay.)

While this recipe has several steps, don't think of it as a big production. Some of the steps can be done in advance – like marinating the chicken, which you could do before leaving the house in the morning.  And others can be done at the same time — like you should grill the chicken while the sauce is simmering. Thus, this dish is easy enough for the home cook, even on a weeknight. I like to serve the chicken over Basmati rice or with Indian bread, such as naan. Trader Joe's has a surprisingly good frozen version of naan that cooks in just a few minutes.

Chicken Tikka Masala

Serves four

For the chicken:
2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 cups plain yogurt
Zest and juice of one lemon
1 TB curry powder
Salt and pepper
For the sauce:
2 TB butter or ghee*
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
1 tsp. each cumin and coriander
½ tsp. turmeric
Pinch cayenne pepper
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 tsp. sugar
¼ cup heavy cream
Chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, lemon zest and juice, curry powder and salt and pepper. Place chicken breasts in a shallow glass baking pan. Cover with yogurt mixture and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least four hours.

To make sauce, melt butter in a large deep sauce pan. Saute onion, garlic and ginger over medium-low heat until they begin to brown, about 15 minutes. Add spices plus salt and pepper and sauté for a few more minutes until fragrant. Add crushed tomatoes and sugar. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until sauce begins to thicken, about fifteen minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat a grill pan or your broiler until hot. Remove chicken from marinade and scrape off excess. Discard remaining marinade. Cook chicken on grill or broiler pan for 6-7 minutes per side until cooked through. Cut chicken into chunks and stir into sauce. Serve.

*Ghee is Indian clarified butter. It is time-consuming to make but you can find commercial versions in the ethnic food aisle of better grocery stores. Using ghee will add to the authenticity of your Indian-inspired dishes.

In the Chicago area? You can have all the necessary ingredients to make this dish delivered to your home from (Please don't be alarmed by the total for the ingredient list – many of the ingredients are spices that you may already have in your pantry. Feel free to remove those from your shopping cart.) In the interest of full disclosure, please note that I receive store credit from Artizone in exchange for the recipes I develop for them and additional credit when customers order from the lists I create. 

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