Saturday, September 4, 2010

Kicking off the training wheels

Usually when I come to stay with Dumb and Dumber, I survive on a mixture of takeout and things that can be thrown in the microwave -- stuff from the frozen food section of the store or containers that I have stored away in my own freezer. As I sat at work on Thursday making my shopping list, an idea struck. I could actually cook something. I know that part of my trepidation in the past was the idea of an unfamiliar kitchen. But really now. I've been doing this dogsitting thing for at least four years now. I know their kitchen. (What I realized later is that I was unfamiliar with the lighting and so spent much longer trying to take a photo than I would have in my own kitchen.)

Deciding to cook was the easy part; what to cook was a tad more difficult. I feel like it's been months since I've really cooked anything. Suddenly Butter Chicken came to mind. Perhaps since it's been quite some time since I've made it seeing as it's not exactly a low calorie dish. But you've gotta live some times. And so it was decided.

Then a new panic took hold. I had had no intention of returning home and my cookbook was at home. How was I going to swing this? And then I realized just how lost I had become. Even when I use a recipe, I never measure things exactly. Yes, even when baking because I have learned that you can fudge a little in baking. But just a little. I have been cooking Indian food for years. I am comfortable with the spices and can tell when something needs perhaps a little more cardamom. Or cumin. I did cheat by looking at a few recipes online but none were really like the one upon which I have relied all these years. And so here goes.

When I first started making Butter Chicken, it was because I had heard of it on one of those wedding reality shows. Really wish I could tell you which but they have a way of melting together in one's mind. I have yet to find a restaurant in Berkeley that has Butter Chicken on the menu; when I do get it from a restaurant now, it's from a place in Hayward. I like the sauce in theirs but it's kind of close to the Chicken Tikka Masala -- and mine never reminds me of that dish.

What I noticed in the recipes was that most call for breast meat. I always use thigh meat. Why? Because there have been too many times in which I am enjoying a dish in a restaurant and bite into the meat only to discover that it is rather dry. I find the juxtaposition of a tasty sauce with meh meat to be jarring. So thigh meat because it's much more difficult to dry out.

Of course the whole preparation thing might explain that dryness as well. Many of the recipes had you throwing the meat immediately into the pan to cook. I thought, "Umm. Didn't you miss a step?" To me the crucial step is to marinate the meat overnight in whole milk yogurt. That's right. Whole milk. When it's time, the meat and marinade hit the hot pan together. Oh, and that stuff in the pan? Butter. I figured it's called Butter Chicken because of the high levels of dairy fat going on.

Other than this, it's just some sauteed onions, diced tomatoes, crushed cashews, heavy cream, and spices. That was another thing. A lot of the recipes called for garam masala. I almost never buy spice blends like garam masala or curry powder. It seems silly to me as I always have the individual spices that make up these blends on hand anyway. So I use a blend of cinnamon, ginger, cumin, coriander and cardamom. Sometimes some turmeric. But only if I am wearing dark colors. I have made the mistake of getting some stray turmeric on light-colored clothing in the past. Only have to make that mistake once.

When I was a kid, I had a hot pink bike. One evening upon returning home, my father, who had been in the driveway watching me ride, announced that it was time to take the training wheels off of my bike. I was terrified but he assured me it would be OK. Apparently I had been riding so fast -- I was going downhill -- that the training wheels had not even been touching the ground. I thought I could only do it if I had the wheels but they were really more like the stuffed animal that I hugged at night to keep the monsters in the closet at bay.

So the wheels are off and I'm trying to head back into the kitchen. But there are some things I need to do before that really happens. I realized that I need to go out to eat more often -- at places that are not necessarily about churning out the same stuff day after day for those with unadventurous palates or perhaps lack of imagination. I need to start hitting the farmers' markets again. I need to start leafing through the magazines that show up in my mailbox a bit more regularly. Heck. I can't even remember the last time I perused the Epicurious website. I just haven't been feeling surprised or inspired lately. It's been a never ending march of sameness. Well, I'm tired of this ride; it's time to get back on the roller coaster.


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