About eight months ago, Doug got a new roommate, Raeshum, and I unexpected got a new friend out of the deal. Rae and I quickly became good friends, partly because we have a ton in common, and partly because she likes to join in my culinary escapades. While Rae doesn’t do a lot of cooking on her own, she’s always down to join me in my current epicurean adventure, be it pluot jam, egg yolk-stuffed ravioli, or infused ice creams—and she makes a great, albeit slightly ADD, sous chef.
I had finally paid a visit to Devon Avenue, Chicago’s own Little India, and stocked up my Indian spice cabinet—and my fridge—with all kinds of goodies, like ghee (Indian version of clarified butter), fenugreek seeds, green and black cardamom pods, and my personal favorite, paneer cheese. But all of this wonderful stuff fell by the wayside over the past couple of weeks as school, work and family took over my life, so when Doug and I decided to stay in Chicago for Memorial Day weekend, I knew I would finally have a chance to practice my Indian food technique with Rae, our resident Indian.
The “client” for my Personal Chef Practicum class is a couple who really enjoys Indian food but never get to make it at home, so I thought that for my final dish for that class I would make an Indian meal. Rae and I decided Chicken Saag would be a great dish to prepare for them because it’s chock full of veggies and flavor, and a little lighter on the cream than many Northern Indian recipes, which is the kind of Indian food Americans are most familiar with. “Saag” basically refers to any curry made with leafy green vegetables; while traditionally spinach is used, mustard greens, kale, or any other leafy green could also be substituted.
If you eat Indian food in the States, most likely the recipes originate from Hyderabad in Central India. As you go south in India, the food gets lighter because of the weather, but the presence of meat also dwindles. As I’ve mentioned before, Doug demands meat at dinnertime, so vegetarian Indian food was not an option
So Rae and I made a practice batch of Chicken Saag this past weekend, and damn was it good. We added chiles for spice and a little cream for richness, but these are both ingredients you can skip if you’d like. I’ll probably leave out one or two of the chiles when I make this dish again for my Personal Chef final next week, but other than that, I wouldn’t change a thing.
One Year Ago: An Unbelievable One-Pot Meal: Roman-Style Chicken
This recipe is adapted from one by Madhur Jaffrey. It serves 6. You can substitute paneer cheese for chicken to make this a vegetarian meal. The red chiles give this dish a nice spicy kick—just make sure to remove them before serving. Click here to download a printable PDF copy of this recipe.
2 medium onions, peeled
3/4 c. peanut oil or ghee
2 cloves garlic, chopped
2.5 cm piece of ginger, chopped
1 (14 oz. can) fire-roasted tomatoes or 1 large tomato, peeled and chopped
4 small red dried chiles, optional
1 cinnamon stick
1½ tsp. ground cardamom or 4 pods whole green cardamom
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons Greek style yogurt
8 oz. spinach, chopped into large pieces
1.5 lb boneless, skinless chicken thighs (cut into chunks)
¼ c. heavy cream or water
Make crispy onions. Cut 1 of the onions in half, then into thin slices. Pour the oil into a large frying pan and heat over a medium temperature. When hot, add the sliced onions let them sizzle for 1-2 minutes then turn the temperature down to medium low. Sizzle gently stirring occasionally for 4-5 minutes until they turn light brown. Turn the temperature down to low and let the onions sizzle for another 10-12 minutes. The onions will turn an orange/brown color. Be careful not to let them burn as this will ruin the taste of your curry. Drain the onions (making sure to keep the oil!). Spread out the crispy onions on waiting paper towels and pat off any excess oil. Leave to cool.
Make garlic-ginger paste. Chop the remaining onion very coarsely and add them to a food processor with the garlic and ginger with 4 tablespoons of water and puree into a paste. Pour into a bowl and set aside.
Cook spinach. Arrange the spinach in a medium pan. Cover with ¼ c. water and bring to a boil. Cover and cook for 2-3 minutes until wilted. Drain and cool slightly, then add to the food processor. Blend into a rough paste, and spoon into a bowl. Set aside.
Make the saag. In a large pan, heat 4 tablespoons of the reserved onion oil over a moderate heat. Add the cardamom, cinnamon, and chiles if using, and fry briefly.
Add the onion paste and fry for 4-5 minutes until golden brown. Add the cumin, coriander and cayenne pepper and fry for 1 minute.
Now add the chicken, season it with salt and pepper, then add the tomatoes and fry them together for 4 minutes. As you do this, gradually add the yogurt tablespoon by tablespoon.
Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium/low and gently simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Add more cream if necessary. The saag will be coffee-colored when it’s ready. Remove the cinnamon sticks and the chiles. Stir in half of the crispy onions. Season the saag to taste with salt and pepper. Move the saag to a serving dish, top with the rest of the crispy onions, and serve with rice and bread. Jaffrey suggests sprinkling the saag with fresh coriander and fresh chopped tomatoes.