on crispy wings and pillowy breasts

You may want to run out and grab a freshly baked baguette from the bakery before we start. You’ll need it later, I promise.

Go on, I’ll wait.

Done? OK then. It might be foolish and much too late at this point to stand up and declare that life is full of surprising twists and turns. That cliche is done and done, smoked and overcooked.

But it’s a wispy summer’s evening here and I couldn’t find a better way to start with you.

Others may sing odes to their love stories when it comes to the unpredictability of life. My friend met her Mr. Right on a 9-hour plane journey. Sigh. My flatmate realized that her childhood friend was The One, when she left to work in a different country. My other flatmate met her match when he moved in to the apartment they ended up sharing. All that changed their lives. Then there are some who may dedicate the twists of life to career. We are surrounded here by people whose lives took turns for the best when they changed careers. High-flying banker to music producer. Corporate lawyer to bakery owner. Science post-grad to wedding planner. Brave men and women who step out of what they know and restart life in a new direction. Many of you may be thinking of doing the same thing right now. So you get the picture.

I have an almost similar life story. Almost.

At least as far as roast chicken is involved.

I had plans for my life when I moved to Nottingham, and awfully good ones too. I was going to get a Masters degree in Architecture and finally learn how to bake a proper chocolate cake instead of the college-version – in a mug and fresh out of the microwave. I looked forward to snow-laden winters, tweed overcoats and Boxing Day sales.

But you can nary do a thing when fate’s already made other plans for you. Plans that include you sweating through an oversized T-shirt while running around barefeet in a wintry kitchen, mitten-handed and struggling with a hot-as-hell roasting tin. It was Christmas of 2009 and I was helping Hana, my Vietnamese flatmate, make a proper honest-to-goodness  roast chicken. With all the traditional trimmings.

In our excitement, we ‘d almost forgotten to dress appropriately considering the kitchen was at a bone-chilling 36 °F at the time. We burnt the potatoes, grossly under-cooked the chicken, pulled out deflated Yorkie puds and poured out glasses of strong sherry to rejoice in our achievements.

That was the first twist.

Since then there have been twelve more twists and turns, wherein I’ve roasted chickens like I was born to do it.

I’ve gone Chinese on them. I’ve stuffed them with all-Mexican themed ingredients. I’ve taken them down the classic butter-n-thyme road. And I’ve also dragged the poor chickens through the dusty footpaths of India.

You’ll excuse my obliviousness to the magic of a simply roasted chicken prior to that Christmas. Till that point I was happily sauntering through my life, down roads lined with curries and pav bhajis and occasional grease-laden burgers.

But along came a simple bird. And after coat of butter and a spell of hight heat it transformed itself into what I now call my “go-to”. My parlor trick when called for. It really is. Just the smell of it when you pull out a half-done roast to slather it with honey. [Refer to above photograph for similar visual pleasure of a half-done chicken roast] Or the feel of it when your teeth sinks into the dark of the thighs and you hear the squelch of the juices. Who needs soul-mates when you feel like taking a roast chicken on a 9-hour flight, I say.

I came into my own with roast chicken and I plan to stay nestled between its crispy wings and pillowy breasts till eternity. And the roasted bird shows up everywhere as far as I’m concerned. I roasted chicken for Christmas last year. I did it for the last birthday party I attended. I’ll probably do it when the Queen of England finally decides to come down to my place for lunch. If that ever happens, you’ll be the first to know. I roasted a chicken on my first weekend after moving to London. And I also roasted this one last week, for you.

First step towards the journey to Roast Chicken Heaven is procuring the bird. I take my birds seriously and I like them hefty. Heftier birds such as organic ‘roasters’ roast way better than any other kind. They can take the heat and go crispy-skinned while not shrivelling up. I do however, use ‘broiler’ birds too, like in this case, and they roast up just as well considering that you keep an eye on the temperature and have a piece of aluminium foil at the ready.

The second step to a great roast chicken is, for obvious reasons, flavour. And trust me, when it comes to roasting anything, a purist I am not. So if you are one, I suggest you turn away right now before your nose starts crinkling up. I’ve tried a plethora of combinations on roast chicken and let me tell you how well the bird has done under the pressure of all my experimentation. One of my favourites is a super-quick Chinese sauce of sorts slurried together out of light and dark soy sauces, brown sugar and rice wine vinegar. Pour that over the chicken, bung in garlic and ginger and roast till the skin is caramelized with the sugar and the juices run clear. That paired with steamed sticky rice and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds is again, dear readers, life-changing.

For today, I have a broiler chicken snug with a layer of butter, aromatic with garlic cloves and lemon, musky with spices and fruity pomegranate seeds. It may sound like a whole lot of flavours, completely opposite to what thoughts of roast chicken provoke. But go with me on this one and you’ll know what I mean. And don’t forget the baguette that you bought.

And I don’t actually need to mention this, but squeezing the soft roasted garlic out of their skins and on to a warm baguette is a culinary orgasm by itself.

Spice Roasted Chicken

Note on roasting times: I usually allow 20 minutes of roasting time for every pound of chicken. SO basically for 1.2 kilos  I appointed a roasting time of 55-60 minutes. Here’s a fantastic guide to roasting chicken.

Note on pomegranate: Dried pomegranate seeds are readily available in Indian food stores. If you don’t find any you can use about 3 tbsps of pomegranate syrup (like POM) or pomegranate molasses in place of honey.

Note on adding veggies: The veggies are optional. But if you do add any, add 15 minutes more to the roasting time.

1 broiler chicken – mine was about 1.2 kg
100gm of butter, softened at room temperature
2 tsps olive oil + more as needed
2 tsps of ground turmeric
2 tsps of ground coriander
1 tsps of dried fenugreek
2-3 tbsp of dried pomegranate seeds [see head note]
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 whole garlic heads, separate the cloves but do not peel off the skins
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsps of runny honey or 3-4 tbsps of pomegranate molasses [see head note]
New potatoes and carrots, optional [see head note]

Pre-heat the oven to 200 °C. Prepare a large roasting tin by coating it with a thin layer of olive oil. Plop the chicken in the centre of the tin. Use half the butter to coat the entire chicken evenly. Divide the rest of the butter equally and stuff each half between the skin and flesh of the chicken breasts. Try and pry the skin apart from the flesh with your index finger.

Mix 2 tsp of olive oil along with turmeric, coriander and fenugreek to make a paste. Apply this mixture evenly all over the chicken. Sprinkle the pomegranate seeds [if using any] on top. Add the veggies [if using any] around the chicken and drizzle a generous glug of olive oil over them.

Sprinkle the zest of lemon on top of chicken. Cut the lemon in half and juice both halves out over the the chicken and veggies. Tuck one of the halves into the cavity of the chicken. Scatter the garlic cloves over and around the chicken. Sprinkle everything with salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste.

For a roaster: Pop the tin into the oven and roast at 200 °C for 15 minutes. Turn the oven down to 180 °C and roast for 30 minutes. Pull out the tin and with a pastry brush, brush the honey [or pomegranate syrup/molasses] generously all over the chicken breasts, thighs and wings. Put the tin back into the oven and roast at 180 °C for 15 minutes or till the juices run clear when you pierce a thigh with a skewer.

For a broiler: Wrap the chicken up butter, spices, lemon and all with aluminium foil and pop it back in the centre of the tin. Roast for 15 minutes at 200 °C. Remove foil and lower the oven temperature to 180 °C and roast for 30 minutes. To pat on the honey or pom-juice just continue as mentioned above.

If you’ve got veggies in the tin, I would suggest checking if the potatoes are cooked after the total roasting time. If they’re not, simply take a piece of aluminium foil cover the chicken with it, tucking in the edges as much as you can without burning your fingers. And pop the tin back into the oven for a further 10-15 minutes or till the veggies are done.

Rest the chicken for at least 20 minutes covered loosely with a piece of aluminium foil before serving.

Although I don’t prefer it, you could easily whip up a quick sauce from the pan juices to go with the chicken. Heat the juices in a separate pan. Add a tablespoon of flour and stir it in vigorously to get rid of lumps. Add a few drops of Worcestershire sauce and salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the sauce by half and serve.

how light and turmeric-y the curry is

Some days require plain curry and warm rice. And that’s it. You don’t need jewelled bread or cream-crowned cakes.

You turn on the air conditioning, look out at the setting sun and wait for your brother to finish laying the table.

You know it’s going to be good when you see you father making his way towards the table with the TV Guide tucked under his arm. He is excited about tonight’s cricket match. He has already set up the living room for his friends. He sits at the table and immediately he and my brother start having an animated discussion about the best batting lineup in the league.

My mother draws the curtains. Its hot and way too sunny for anyone’s comfort.

And then you dig into lunch.

Its a lunch of steamed rice and yellow chicken curry. It makes you forget about weekend cupcakes and makes you wonder why you ever needed a multi-layered birthday cake.

I chat a little with my family. We talk about summer fruits. My mum says she needs a smoothie a little while later. My brother says he needs fried chicken. Who on earth needs fried chicken when its a 100 degrees outside, I chuckle out loud. But mostly we concentrate on how light and turmeric-y the curry is.

The curry in question is your typical Indian chicken curry, except that it’s softened with yogurt and doesn’t have the resonant smokiness of garam masala. It also has one of my favourite ingredients – fenugreek. I cannot tell you enough about the magic of fenugreek, seeds or leaves or ground or anything.

You know how one of the best things in the world is the sound of bacon sizzling in the pan? The sound when it hits the hot pan? And then the second best thing is the smell of sizzling bacon reaching your nostrils?

Well, cooking with fenugreek is like one of those things. It looks unassuming. Not homely like spinach or surly like kale. It’s not as sharp as rocket or versatile like basil. But it’s a small piece of heaven alright. It hits your curry and then after a few seconds you get this really strong urge to dunk your head into the boiling curry just so you can take in all of its aroma.

Instead, you raise our nose, take a loooong breath and wait for lunch.

Yellow Chicken Curry with Fenugreek

500gm chicken breast pieces, or 4 chicken breast cut up in 1-inch cubes
3/4 cup of natural yogurt
1 tbsp ghee or vegetable oil
2 small onions
1 tbsp of garlic paste
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tsp of turmeric powder
1/2 tsp of red chili powder [more, if like us, you can handle the heat]
1 tbsp tomato puree
2 tsp dried fenugreek leaves
Salt, to taste
Chopped coriander leaves or parsley leaves, to garnish

In a large bowl, mix the chicken well with the yogurt. Make sure all the pieces are coated well with yogurt. Cover with cling film and rest in the refrigerator for 2-12 hours. Quarter the onions and blitz them in a blender along with a tablespoon of water, till it turns into a paste. You might need more water than a tablespoon.

Heat ghee/oil in a skillet. Add the onion, garlic and ginger in and stir on high-heat for about 3-4 minutes or till the mixture starts to turn colour. Add in the turmeric and chili and stir for a couple of minutes more. Lower the heat to medium. Add the chicken along with its yogurt-marinade and tomato puree. Cover and cook for 10-12 minutes or till you cut open the biggest piece of chicken and it’s all white in the center. If the curry looks too dry, add a few tablespoons of water to i and let it cook for 2 minutes more. Add the fenugreek leaves and season with salt. Stir for a minute and take it off heat. Garnish with leafage and serve with steamed rice.

caramelized in ghee

I’m a woman of my Word. Well, most of the time.

There are times when my Word falters a bit. And then there are those times when it just trips and falls flat on its face. These usually include times when either one of the following are involved: chocolate, broken china, last slices of cake, scratches on my dad’s car and remembering to share recipes.

But I come here today to redeem myself. Armed with not one but two recipes. Two, people. Two infuriatingly easies that have been previously tried and tested at least a million times in all my kitchens. All 12 of them.

The first one is something I’ve promised to you before – a pile of something that looks very questionable on a plate. Caramelized onions. The other jam. The almost-condiment that sweetens a tart and adds depth to a soup. The second one is an application of the first. A heavily hybrid dish that kept me well-fed during my student years.

As much as I would like to rhapsodize about the kind of pleasure you can get from slowly cooking the pungency out of onions, I simply cannot. I’m sleep-deprived, facing a long day at work and I’ve already had a bit of a hard time getting here today. And as much as I would like to spend quality time with you teaching you about  how to feel like a grown-up spreading this onion jam on your sandwich bread instead of mayonnaise – believe me, that’s what I want more than anything right now – I must keep it short today.

caramelized onions in ghee and braised chicken

Onions Caramelized in Ghee and Braised Chicken

Note on ghee: Good-quality ghee can be found in the ‘Indian’ aisle of any supermarket or in Indian grocery shops. The ghee is what’s special about these caramelized onions, but if you can’t find it at all, you can substitute it with unsalted butter.
Note on wine: It’s not like there are no caramelized onions without port or anything. But I find the use of Tawny port here adds a considerable amount of mellowness to the onions. I used a cheap Ramos-Pinto but I’m flexible on the brand or type of port that you want to use. For a much lighter flavour try Rosé wine. Here’s a great discussion on port wines.
Note on saltiness: The braised chicken dish already used soy sauce and fish sauce which add saltiness, hence the use of salt to season the dish at the end is completely optional and up to taste.
Note on cooking time and consistency: Secondly, the amount of stock you add initially (1 cup) is the liquid the chicken cooks in. The end result of this dish can be manipulated by adding more stock. If you want the gravy to be broth-like I suggest adding a cup more of stock. In which case, add the stock and cook for 5 more minutes. If you want the gravy to be sticky and thick, boil off the juices on high heat in the end, after the chicken pieces are fully cooked.

For the Caramelized Onions:

2 tbsp of ghee (see head note)
5 medium-sized red onions, sliced
1/4 cup of port wine (see head note)
1 tbsp of white wine vinegar
2 1/2 tbsp of granulated sugar
Salt, to taste

Heat ghee in a pan and wait for it to melt. Add the onions and sauté for a minute. Turn down the heat to low. Cover and cook for 15 minutes. Add wine, vinegar and sugar. Stir to mix. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Check to see if there’s too much liquid in the pan. If there is, keep the lid off and turn up the heat to medium. Season with salt. Keep stirring taking care that the onions don’t stick to the bottom of the pan. They’re done when the mixture sticks together in a loose lump and deep amber in colour.
Caramelized onions are best on galettes and tarts or spread slightly warm on bread. In an airtight container, these will keep for a 8-10 days in the refrigerator.

For the Braised Chicken:

2 tbsp of vegetable oil
500 gms of boneless chicken pieces
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 tbsp minced garlic
3/4 cup of caramelized onions (recipe above)
3 cloves
1 tbsp of fish sauce
1 tbsp of honey
3 tbsp of dark soy sauce
1 cup (240ml) of chicken stock + more, if needed [if unavailable, substitute with plain water]
Chopped coriander or red chillies, to garnish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste (optional, see head note)

Heat the oil in a pan and saute the minced ginger and garlic for a minute just to take the rawness out of them. Add the chicken pieces and saute on medium-high heat till the edges start to colour. Stir in the caramelized onions, cloves, fish sauce, soy sauce, honey and stock. Stir to combine. Cover and cook on medium-low heat for about 15 minutes.
After 15 minutes, uncover the pan and cut the biggest piece of chicken in half. If it’s cooked – no sign of pink in the centre –  then take the pan off heat and season with salt and pepper. If not, then return the chicken to the pan, add more stock if needed – you don’t want  the bottom of the pan to be burnt – and cook for 5-10 more minutes or till the chicken has cooked through. Season with salt and black pepper. Keep in mind that the soy sauce and fish sauce has already made the dish salty. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves or red chillies and serve over steamed rice.

 

chili-crusted chicken or how to juice up a breast

Alright. Grab your coffee and pull up a chair because we need to talk about this chicken.

This chicken is hot property. In fact, I can still hear the two leftover pieces sizzling in the baking dish in the kitchen. And its been at least three hours since I’ve had dinner.

Every time I roast whole chickens, I whip up a concoction of ginger-garlic paste, soya sauce, white sugar and Xiaoxing wine and pour it over the chicken and under its skin. And I’ve always served it with roasted red peppers and cucumber salad.

I’ve always felt that as an Indian I should automatically tip towards khichdi or daal as comfort food. But as much as I hate to admit it, it is true — roast chicken calms me down.

If my mother’s reading this, then we’ll have a lot to talk about very soon.

And yes, coming to the subject of breasts and thighs; I’m a thigh-person through and through. I go straight for the dark meat. No apologies. Besides, what is it with all the oohing over chicken breasts? Unless cooked sous vide or doused in sauce, those breasts usually have a tough time staying plump and juicy. I worry about that.

And that is exactly the reason I winced when I read a recipe of black-pepper crusted chicken breasts. I wanted to try making something “crusted” and the recipe seemed appropriate. Except those breasts. They loomed before me with a sneer in their faces.

In the end I settled for smoky chili and garlic instead of black pepper. And to keep the breasts moist, some orange juice. That’s right. You heard me. Orange juice.

Kind of a botched very-weak poulet version of duck a l’orange.

P.S. – If you’re wondering about the strawberries swimming in cream….well, as an homage to my grandmothers who moved to England 70 years back at the tender age of 16 or 17, I decided to have their favourite dessert for breakfast. And also, I had a ton of strawberries lying lonely in the fridge.

Chili-garlic crusted chicken

4 chicken breasts
1-2 tsp of unsalted butter
1-2 tbsp of olive sauce
2 tbsp of minced red chili (leave the seeds in, if like me you like it hot. For a milder taste, remove the seeds)
1 tbsp of dried chili flakes
2 tbsp of minced garlic
1 cup of orange juice (with pulp)
Salt and pepper, to taste

Pre-heat the oven to 160 deg C. Prepare a baking tray by greasing it.
Make diagonal cuts on the skin-side of the breasts; each cut just about quarter of an inch deep. Rub in the garlic, chili flakes, minced chili and butter into the cuts. Drizzle orange juice and olive oil over the breasts after placing them in the tray. Add salt and freshly ground pepper. Roast for about 30-40 minutes, or till the juices run clear.

In the picture I’ve served it alongside a watercress and arugula salad dressed in a mint-pecorino dressing.