From culinary student, to cook, to whatever the future holds
Madhur Jaffrey is the quintessential mother of indian cooking in the US. Her initial book “An Invitation to Indian Cooking” was first published in 1973. Since then, she has released more than a dozen additional books on a wide range of topics, culinary and otherwise.
Strangely enough, Jaffrey was initially an actress. While studying drama, she corresponded with her mother and received recipes to cook various childhood comfort foods. Through time and happenstance, her acting and cooking careers blossomed concurrently. She ended up in a few movies, and eventually settled into a show on TV on a cooking show via the BBC.
As I’ve professed in countless posts, indian food is easily one of my comfort foods. Toasting and grinding spices for homemade garam masala is like wrapping yourself in warm blanket. Seeing the bright contrast of bright yellow turmeric, vibrant green cilantro, and red bell peppers is a visual feast. Plus, you just feel good after eating indian food. The combination of spices (especially turmeric), cooling foods, ginger, garlic, lean proteins, nuts, and tons of veggies leaves you full but not painfully so. You take your mouth on a mini exotic vacation without leaving your kitchen. And Madhur Jaffrey is like my own personal indian grandmother. I feel as if her recipes excuse my clearly scandanavian appearance, take my hand, and allow my love of spicy, salt, sour, and fishy to come alive.
So last night, in the face of this warm but gray cloud cover, I pulled out my own copy of “An Invitation to Indian Cooking” and thumbed through the pages.
I had chicken breast, yogurt, and a cabinet full of spices at my disposal. I mixed together the marinade for tandoori chicken and assessed my options for cooking. Traditionally, tandoori chicken is cooked in a tandoor. This is a clay oven in which a fire or charcoal are lit in the bottom
Because of the bell shape, the heat rises and heats the surface of the stone or clay. Many tandoors can exceed temperatures of 900* F. As you can see from the above picture, naan bread (that delicious, slightly charred flatbread you order at indian restaurants) is cooked simply by slapping the dough along the wall of the tandoor. Proteins are skewered and cooked vertically, as opposed to the traditional horizontal western grills.
Restaurants often utilize industrial metal tandoors that run on gas, as they offer a more consistent and controllable temperature.
Since neither of these things are in my possession, I had to get creative about how to cook my chicken fast and hot without drying it out. Madhur recommends a grill, but alas, another tool that simply won’t fit safely in our tiny apartment. I opted to turn my oven to broil and let it preheat with my cast iron pan in the oven.
I couldn’t very well just let myself eat chicken all lonely on a plate. Something just as aromatic and interesting had to accompany this feast of herbal flavors, and a little pulao was just the dish to do it. Essentially India’s take on pilaf, pulao is basmatic rice cooked with flavored water or broth. Often, herbs are used as the base flavor and other textural contrast ingredients are added later. I had purchased a whole pineapple from work that same day (ah, the temptations of working 7 feet from an organic produce department) and decided that would go wonderfully with fresh cilantro, almonds, and a little ginger.
The best part was being able to utilize the new pottery bowl I had purchased at the Oregon Country Fair this year. Since so many vendors return year after year, I find myself ogling items for several fairs before finally committing. I’m happy with my purchase though, even a little spot to hold a pair of chopsticks!
My only disappointment with the recipe occurred when I learned that that beautiful, striking red color of restaurant tandoori chicken is achieved with commercial food dye. Alas, I couldn’t bring myself to sully such lovely ingredients with something so abhorrent, so my chicken is a boring light orange. I did add a little smoked paprika to try and mimic the color and charred smokiness. It still tasted lovely. I sliced whole boneless skinless breasts in half lengthwise before marinating so they were all no more than 1/2″ thick. This made the cook time shorter. Overall, I was pleased with the end product. It went well over the pulao, didn’t get too terribly waterlogged in the pan, and all the spices bloomed in the warmth of the broiler.
Modified by original recipe by Madhur Jaffrey
1 medium onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic
1 inch piece ginger, peeled and minced or grated
3 Tbsp lemon juice
8 ounces plain yogurt
1/2 Tbsp smoked paprika
1 Tbsp corriander
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp garam masala (stores with bulk sections often sell this spice blend, but I prefer to toast the spices and grind my own. Here’s a good base recipe to start with)
1/4 tsp ground mace
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 ts cinnamon
4 Tbsp olive or vegetable oil
2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 pkg (up to 1.5#) boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Place onions, garlic, ginger, and lemon juice and blend until smooth. Pour into a medium bowl and whisk in spices, yogurt, and oil. Mix chicken pieces in marinade, cover, and refrigerate for at least 24 hours. The next day, preheat the grill or oven. Cook for 15-20 minutes, or until chicken pieces reach 165* F internal temperature. If grilling, baste occasionally with marinate while grilling. If using a cast iron pan in the oven, minimal basting is necessary.
Remove from pan, rest for 2-3 minutes, then slice. Serve hot with pulao or biryani, lemon/lime wedges, and raita.
1 cup basmati rice, rinsed
2 tsp canola oil
Small pinch saffron threads
1/2″ piece ginger, peeled and grated
1.5 cups water
1/2 bunch cilantro, rinsed and finely chopped
1.5 cups fresh pineapple chunks
1/2 cup toasted almonds, chopped
1/2 cup red, orange, or yellow bell pepper, finely chopped
In a medium saucepan, heat oil. add ginger and cook just until fragrant and starting to brown. Add saffron threads and water. Bring to a boil. Add rice, cover, and cook 15-20 minutes (or until rice is just tender). Remove from heat, fluff with a fork, and recover for 5 minutes. Just before serving, fold in pineapple, almonds, cilantro, and adjust seasoning. Serve hot.
Cashews would be the best nuts to go in that pulao, but I only had almonds in my cupboard at the time. The exact mix ins are extremely flexible. I love using pomegranate and cashews in the winter. Diced dried apricots and almonds are another favorite.
All of Madhur Jaffrey’s books are great. I own two, and they are well-loved. This type of food pairs great with “Today’s Special” on Netflix, a movie about a fine-dining cook rediscovering his cultural roots through cooking his native indian cuisine. Jaffrey plays his mom. ❤
Spices, take me away!