Sunday morning mess
…especially when the holidays coincide with someone’s birthday. And especially when that birthday happens to be a biggie. What better excuse for a surprise? It took weeks of elaborate planning and cunning artistry (I’m a bit disturbed to discover how well I can lie). The stories involved sick cats, holiday recipes and neighbors who needed a ride to the airport—only to pick up their parked car and enjoy the afternoon in town. The birthday man was surprised, indeed. He literally fell in the doorway to the greeting of friends hiding in every corner.
We all ate heartily on Saturday night. That part involved his sister’s ingenious idea to cover the kitchen table in dishes he’s loved through the ages: mac-n-cheese as a toddler, pork chops as a teen, enchiladas in his 20s and Indian curry thereafter. Add to that spinach-feta pasta, Burmese golden rice, overflowing cheese plates, piles of olives and grapes, mountains of hummus (yes, with garlic!), chips and crackers, homemade fudge and Indian barfi for dessert. Don’t even get me started on libations…. Every guest had a hand or two in the celebratory kitchen.
But I must tell you in detail about the curry: Velvet Butter Chicken (Makhani Murgh). The recipe comes from a $2 gem I found a few months ago in a used bookstore: Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking. My kitchen hasn’t been the same since. “This chicken preparation is a classic example of the true flair and skill of Indian cooks,” Sahni writes. Well put.
Here’s what you do: you make tandoori chicken in your oven. Not just one, but two. You chop the little birds and rub the meat with tenderizer and lemon. Then you marinate the chicken for many hours in a mixture of garlic, ginger, roasted cumin, ground cardamom, red pepper, paprika and yogurt. When ready, you brush the birds with ghee and bake them in a hot oven, at least 500 degrees.
Much later, you cut the chicken into many pieces. You blend together tomatoes, green chiles and ginger. Then you essentially make ghee, using a whole stick of butter, which is used to brown the chicken pieces. Add cumin and paprika to the remaining butter, then pour in the tomato puree and thicken. THEN you add the chicken, salt and 1 1/2 cups of heavy cream (this is NOT a light recipe). Add MORE butter and plenty of garam masala (she’s got a good recipe, heavy on the cardamom, plus cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, cumin and coriander). When it’s all cooked, top with cilantro and you’ll taste it: you’ve created a little pot of heaven. It is simply a divine party dish, for any occasion. But the heavy cream, generous butter and roasted spices make it perfect, I think, for this festive winter season.
Happy holidays. May every kitchen be so richly blessed. And may every kitchen shelf contain a copy of Julie Sahni’s classic book.