Butter chicken was Brian’s idea in the first place. I’d never even heard of it. When he was a sophomore at GWU, he described a new Indian dish he’d tried at one of his favorite takeout places. At the time, he was looking for anything quick and low-carb to grab between classes.
The following semester, he had an apartment with a kitchen and asked me to help him figure out how to make his own rendition. He knows his mama, and was confident that setting me this task would not only be successful, but also make me happy. So, I did some research and some cooking. And when Brian came home for break, we tweaked. And I put Butter Chicken on my list of dishes to make for future blog posts.
The opportunity to do just that came up this week when I was texting with Adam about dinner plans. Adam is the son of our dear, cherished friends, Tina and Andy, and the brother of Meg’s BFF, Miriam. They are friends that are in the category of “chosen family.” Adam recently graduated from Cornell and got into medical school at the University of Rochester. Yay, Adam!! We were so proud of him, we wanted to have a meal together and celebrate his accomplishments and our love for him.
It was Adam’s idea to cook together and to make a blog post that he could have to consult when he and his beloved, Linda, are cooking together this fall in their new home upstate. We were texting about all the options and Butter Chicken seemed like the perfect choice. It is savory, filling, easy to prepare, inexpensive, keeps well, and is fairly healthy for busy medical students who are sleep deprived and hungry.
So, Adam came over, and we made Butterless Butter Chicken. As we ate together, we shared news and pictures of recent travels and events. We served Adam’s chicken in the faceted bowl I’d chosen to give him as a graduation gift. And then we all went into the village to join his parents for an outdoor music event starring his talented and beautiful mama, Tina Ross. What a perfect evening!
I bet you’re wondering why this dish is butterless. Traditionally, Butter Chicken is made with both cream and butter. And I’ve made it the traditional way. To my taste, the butter made it a little greasy. The flavor of the spices, tomato, and cream predominate…so I don’t think the butter version tastes especially buttery, anyway. When I use a small amount of oil to sauté the ingredients, I feel that the finished dish tastes rich and creamy, but not overly oily. You have my blessing to use butter if you prefer, but I like it better butterless.
My other modification involves the spices. I don’t like curry blends like garam masala, which include “sweet” spices like cloves and cinnamon. So, I choose the ones I enjoy, which are ginger, turmeric, and cumin. If you like others, by all means, add them!
Butterless Butter Chicken
2 packages boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 3 lbs.)
2 medium or 1 large onion, large dice
2 tbs. neutral oil like peanut or almond
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbs. minced candied ginger
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. hot red pepper flakes
1 tsp. garam masala
1 tsp. turmeric
1 cup canned crushed tomato
1/4 cup cream
salt and pepper to taste
Garnishes: chopped toasted almonds, sliced scallion
Heat the oil in a big pot or saute’ pan over high heat. Add the onion and cook for a minute or so. Add the garlic and ginger and the spices and toss everything around for a few seconds. Add the chicken and a good pinch of salt. Let the chicken cook for a few minutes, moving it around so that some parts can brown a little. Now, clear a spot on the bottom of the pan and add the tomato paste right to the cleared spot. Kind of mash it around with a wooden spoon so it cooks a little and then mix everything so the chicken gets coated with the spices and the paste.
Cook for a few minutes and then add the tomatoes and bring to a boil. Adjust heat so that the liquid is simmering very slowly and put a lid on the pot. Cook for a half hour or so, until the chicken is completely cooked. Turn off the heat. Shred the chicken. The best way to do this is to take it out of the pot and let it cool and use two forks (this was Adam’s job). But if you’re lazy, you can break it up pretty well while it’s still in the pot. Just be careful! Don’t burn yourself!!!
Now, turn it back up to high and add the cream. Cook for a few minutes to thicken. Taste and correct seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed.
Serve with garnishes. If you eat carbs, rice makes a nice bed for all the flavorful sauce. If not, any green vegetable (like broccoli or brussels sprouts, steamed or roasted) is great! And I love some homemade naan. Stay tuned for a recipe soon!