Friday, August 15, 2014

Surprisingly Easy: Butter Chicken

I'll follow up later with a more detailed post, but let's start with the printer-friendly version of a surprisingly easy recipe that's a great introduction to Indian cooking:

Butter Chicken

Shopping List

  • peanut/avocado/rice bran/vegetable oil
  • olive oil
  • 3 lb boneless skinless chicken thighs
  • 1 jar (basil) marinara sauce
  • 1 ½ cup whole milk
  • 1 ½ cup greek yogurt
  • 1 shallot
  • 1 medium onion
  • 6 tbsp butter
  • 4 tsp garam masala
  • 2 tsp chili powder
  • 3 tsp cumin
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp cayenne
  • 3 tbsp cornstarch
  • Kosher salt

Advance Prep

  • Cut the chicken thighs into bite-sized pieces and remove any bits of tendon. Sprinkle with 2 tsp of garam masala, 1 tsp of cayenne and ½ tsp kosher salt. Mix to combine/coat and set aside. 
  • Chop the onion finely and slice the shallot thinly, and set aside together in a prep bowl. 



  • 1 tbsp peanut/avocado/rice bran/vegetable oil
  • 1 shallot (sliced fine)
  • 1 medium onion (finely chopped)

Pour the oil into a medium (3 qt) saucepan over medium-low heat, and add the shallot and onion. Add kosher salt and sweat (cook until they become translucent, stirring to avoid browning).

  • 6 tbsp butter
  • 2 tsp garam masala
  • 3 tsp chili powder
  • 3 tsp cumin
  • 2 bay leaves

Add the butter to the saucepan. Once melted, add the spices and stir to combine. Allow to become fragrant over the heat (~1 minute).

  • 1 jar tomato sauce
  • 12 oz whole milk
  • 12 oz greek yogurt

Add the tomato sauce, milk and yogurt to the saucepan and stir to combine. Increase heat to medium and bring to a simmer. Decrease the heat, season with salt and pepper and allow to simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Stir occasionally.


  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • Spice-coated chicken

In a nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat and sauté the chicken quickly in three batches. Return the cooked chicken to another bowl to cool. Room-temperature chicken works best for this: try to brown the outside but don’t worry about it cooking all the way through.


Once the chicken has completed cooking and the sauce has simmered, add the chicken (and any juices in the bowl) to the sauce.

  • 3 tbsp cornstarch
  • ¼ cup water

In a sealed jar or Tupperware container, combined the cornstarch and water and shake to create a slurry. Add the slurry to the sauce and allow to simmer 5-10 minutes without boiling. Serve over rice or with naan.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Plants Versus Zombies

Yeah, so I know I said I wasn't going to have the energy to post anything today, but then I went over to Soren Johnson's site and finally commented on a post of his from last month. Said a few things I've been meaning to say about Plants versus Zombies 2:

On the gamer chart, I’d say I’m probably even one step further than Katkoff–not only do I enjoy free games (sorry, Pocket Tactics), but I enjoy them as a normal human being, and not a professional reviewer (sorry, Deconstructor of Fun). I like games a lot but I don’t live up to my neck in them, so I don’t judge games based on the sorts of criteria that professional (reviewers) do.Personally, I think Plants vs. Zombies 2 is a real success as a game (both before and after the recent large update). Compared to many, many other free mobile games I’ve played, the number and types of prompts for making purchases has been extremely tame. There aren’t any obnoxious ads that obscure the game as you play, and though there are quick prompts between maps asking you to buy this or that plant on sale, they really don’t slow down the experience to a noticable degree. Perhaps some people would pay $1.99 – $2.99 for an ads free version, but I’m quite content with what I have.And what I have is, I’m happy to say, a game that’s fun and challenging enough (either Katkoff was playing an earlier version or I’m just terrible at playing games) to keep my interest and let me play when I have some free time on my hands. More important, though (and where it seriously beats Candy Crush Saga) is in the fact that it is player agency and skill that determines how well you do on a map, rather than random chance. Each map is designed and even balanced in a way that CCS (with its randomized color placement) simply isn’t. True, you might reach a level that would be easier to complete (or re-complete for additional stars) if you first earned some new plants on another level first, but I’ve yet to hit the kind of brick wall that I so frequently found with CCS (note, I include the term “brick wall” despite the fact that the designers allow me to avoid it by pestering friends who play for additional lives).I haven’t played completely through PvZ2 yet, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it for what it is–a well-built, well-balanced game that lets me have bouts of fun with a minimum of frustration (and, so far, without having spent a penny on it). It’s not breaking barriers in design or setting new markers for narrative immersion, but it’s been a damned good time for a price of $0.00

If you're looking for a fun little free mobile game (which, by the way, does require both hands--not something to be played while you're holding a baby in one arm), I'd highly recommend.

Real Stock

Busy week, light posting, but been busy in the kitchen. Working on a recap, but for now you'll have to make due with the sight of real stock after a night in the fridge:

Yeah. It's that good.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Who to Watch: Alton Brown

I've often said that there are moments when I learned to cook--specific moments in time where I remember having some epiphany or significant event after which my time in the kitchen made far more sense than it did before. Without question, it's clear to me that if you needed to partition my life in the kitchen into two parts, it would have to be "Before Good Eats" and "After Good Eats."

Starring this brilliant man. 
I haven't been a big TV watcher in a while (save for Netflix and other streaming services), and I haven't really been able to properly channel surf in more than a decade (thank you very much, overabundance of content from cable providers!), so for a long time, all I knew of Alton Brown was seen in tiny snippets late at night on Iron Chef America or the occasional Welsh's commercial.

I didn't care for him.

It's not his fault, really--I was turned off by the speed and energy he brought to the show, which was much more than I had seen in the Japanese original. He was like listening to a South American Futbol announcer.

It all ended when I encountered a link to a clip of Good Eats featuring him making his own ceramic smoker for barbecue out of a couple of ceramic planters (total cost: under $50). Gone was the non-stop, super-high energy I had seen before. This guy was more relaxed, speaking at a pace considered normal by most humans, and had devised an ingenious way to save you some money making great barbecue.

But while that initial clip broke the ice, it wasn't until I made another magical (now, regrettably, lost) discovery: every episode of Good Eats was on Youtube. Oh yes. Every. Single. One. Some enterprising viewer had used up countless space on his DVR and slowly uploaded the episodes to Youtube, somehow evading the various copyright demons out there (unfortunately, it seems that they have finally caught up with them--I can't find any of them on Youtube anymore).

I don't remember what, exactly, prompted me to look, but somehow I came upon "Tender is the Loin (Part 1)", the first episode of a pair to focus on the beef tenderloin. Sitting down at my computer to watch it, I was absolutely transfixed. I had seen countless other television cooks show you how to prepare various cuts of meat, but never before had I laid eyes upon the simple brilliance of Good Eats: he was explaining why it is you do the things you do.

Yep--just like that. 
It's such a simple thing, and yet so many people in so many parts of life seem to not understand it: if you want someone to really understand why they should do something, you need to explain to them why they should do it. To explain something to someone without telling them why is to say "You should do what I say because I'm telling you." It really isn't the most effective way to make a point stick.

And yet, that's what so many television cooks do: Do what I say because I'm telling you. Add 1/2 tsp of salt. Let the oil heat up before adding the meat. Cut the chicken into medallions. 


Because I'm telling you to do it that way. 

Not helpful.

Do you know the three types of proteins that make up connective tissue? They're elastin, collagen, and reticulum. While collagon will break down into (delicious) gelatin given enough time, elastin never, ever will. Not only will it never break down, but it makes up a major proportion of silverskin--that sleek, shiny, vaguely silvery stuff you see on various cuts of meat (especially tenderloin). Since it never, ever breaks down under cooking methods, you need to remove it from cuts of meat, unless you want your guests to be picking long strands of it out of their teeth.

I don't know all of that because I'm a professional cook, or have a degree in chemistry--I know it because Alton Brown took the time to explain it to me on an episode of his show that I watched more than two years ago, and it's far from the only thing I've learned from him.

I was hoping to tell you to do what I did: go to Youtube, type in "Good Eats" and find for yourself a whole new world of understanding of what to do in the kitchen. Unfortunately, it does appear that the copyright demons have finally caught up with them, and many episodes have been removed. However, there do seem to be a fair number of episodes available for free on, and if you're a member of Amazon Prime, you can watch the entire 14 season run for free. I'd also highly recommend any number of his books, not the least of which are the three massive volumes detailing the content of his show.

I really can say that I wouldn't be anywhere near the cook I am today without him. Thanks, AB.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Important Update: Chicken Soup with Rice

Not what it looked like right out of the pot, but we're just finishing off the leftovers now:

Oh, yeah. 
For the record, the soup I made yesterday was with two quarts of stock and half a pound (8.00 ounces to the dot on my digital scale) of Orzo, which may have been a little excessive. Though, of course, not as excessive as using your fork to break up a leftover meatball and mixing it in the soup to make an impromptu Italian Wedding Soup.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Something Simple: Chicken Soup with Rice

Ok, it's not actually rice. It's Orzo, but Abby and Michael love the book "Chicken Soup with Rice," and since Orzo does look quite a bit like rice, that's what we call it. But that's not the point.

The point is that there are some things you should make at home, just like there are some things you should buy at the store. Chicken stock is one of those things that, to whatever extent possible, you should make at home and store for use. We've found a few decent enough brands of store-made stuff (Trader Joe's Organic Free Range is a definite contender), but really, nothing compares to the stuff that you make at home.

Don't have all day to spend slaving over a massive simmering pot of stock (especially in the warm summer months)? Well, neither do I--since this is the 21st century, I make mine with science.

Although, actually, since I made that post, I've gotten even more frugal with my stock (and yet continue to yield impressive results). Instead of buying thighs or drumsticks, I'll save the carcasses of two whole chickens after I've carved them up (either raw, or after I roasted the bird whole). I put them in the freezer (sometimes two to a bag, depending on my prep schedule) and they come out to a little more than 3 pounds of meat and bone. I generally don't have any leeks around, but toss in an extra onion (still sliced very thin or even with a mandoline) and sometimes a bay leaf. The results are always amazing--thick, rich stock loaded with gelatin, which gives that amazing silky mouthfeel you want in a soup. Also makes for outstanding risotto.

Don't have a pressure cooker? Take the same chicken carcass (or two) and put it in a big pot--one of the ones whose lid you still have lying around. Toss in some quartered, chopped, or sliced onions and carrot; some herbs (whatever you have around--a tablespoon of dried stuff if that's all), a few garlic cloves, some black pepper corns, and a bay leaf. Fill it with filtered water (Really? Yes, really.) and put it on the stove to bring to a boil. Give it a few minutes to simmer and skim off any nasty foam on the top, tossing it out in the garbage. Put the lid on and stick it in the oven at 225 degrees for a few hours (or overnight if you feel like it)--unless the pot lid is made of plastic that can't handle boiling temperatures (get yourself a new pot), it should be fine. When it's done, pour the stock out through a strainer or some cheese cloth into another container. There, you've got stock better than anything you'll find in the store.

But back to the soup. I had to leave the house for most of the day today, and wanted to leave Sharon something good to eat for lunch. Last week I made a batch of chicken soup from the last of the brined chicken breasts in the fridge, as well as some vegetables. I wasn't so lucky today to have solid pieces of chicken, but there's more than enough chicken (both in flavor and nutrition) in the two quarts of stock I had sitting in the fridge, so I got to work.

One day when I grow up and leave IT, every morning will look this good. 
Way too often, people think that they need to cook from a recipe. You don't. Well, maybe you do right now, but the more you practice and pay attention to what you're doing, the more you'll notice a lot of clear trends between recipes, and you'll start to rely on them less. In the fridge this morning, I saw that I had chicken stock, carrots, celery, and onions (ok, not in the fridge, but you get the idea). Those, along with some salt and pepper are all I really need for soup. Of course, the fact that I'm using good homemade stock means that I'm going to have a big advantage over someone using something like Swanson's (really, guys, nothing against them, but give one of the home recipes a try and tell me it isn't light years ahead of most stuff you get at the store).

The point is not to get too hung up on the specifics--If I had a leek or maybe some fennel in the fridge, I could throw that in the soup and it would be good. Hell, even if you have a bag of salad greens (not the crisp ones like romaine, though), you can throw them in for some texture and even more nutrition. That's what's great about soup--you can make it with all sorts of things you have on hand.

Put the pot on the heat, let it warm up a bit before adding a couple tablespoons of olive oil and then tossing in the carrots with some salt to help the sweat.

I did the carrots first mostly because I was in a hurry, but also because they take longer to soften on the heat. Of course, if I wanted them to soften faster (as we do in some other soups), I could slice them thinner or mince them. But for a soup like this (that is, one meant for my wife to eat), we're going to want nice thick slices of carrot to enjoy.

And then the celery.

Can't tell you how good this smells. 

When I was a kid, I somehow always thought of celery as being a flavorless kind of vegetable. Possibly because of the white, dull ones that we would sometimes get as a snack at lunch in school. Of course, now I know how much flavor there is in there (either raw or cooked), and I love adding them to a soup like this. Four stalks cut down the middle and then sliced together gave me just the size I wanted for the soup.

And then... hmm... hey, you do know how to chop an onion, right? I mean, you're an educated adult, of course you must know how to do it. Well, just in case we have any younger readers who are still a little fuzzy on how to do this, allow me to demonstrate. First things first: slice it straight through the stem.

See? Easy. Now peel off the tight brown skin. See? More easiness--way better than trying to do it when it's all wrapped around the onion in one big piece. Then you're left with this.

Oh, you sexy thing. 

Here's where you might think I get a little gimmicky, but in truth, this is the fastest way to get nice, even, consistent chopped onions (and without spraying a fine mist of onion juice into your eyes). You want to slice off the brown end...

Just like that. 

And then make a series of slices along the long axis of the onion, dividing it into wedges.

It's called a "fan cut." Just ask my two-year-old. No, seriously. 

The important thing is to keep the knife moving while you do this--don't just press it directly against the onion. Put the middle of the blade against the side of the onion and slowly slice down while you bring the point closer in towards the stem (but don't cut the stem). With your other hand, make sure you get a good hold of the onion, and keep your fingertips pulled inwards so that the side of the blade only touches your knuckles--trust me, it's much safer.

This is where I give you the life lesson: you're going to be bad at this the first time you try it, and that's ok. You'll probably cut too shallow (and end up with some pieces that are too big) or too deep (and cut the thing apart). The most important thing is to keep a good solid grip on your knife and keep it moving. Seriously, it's going to blow your mind when you realize how much better your knife works when you are using it to slice rather than chop like an ax. Just keep at it and remember: onions are cheap to practice on.

Just let your significant other know you're going to be practicing. 

Once you have the fan cut done, turn it and (still keeping your free hand's fingertips pulled in), you can quickly chop through the other slices you've made, leaving you with evenly-sized pieces of onion.

Note the little bit of stem at the bottom--that's the one piece that we throw away; the rest of it gets seasoned and thrown into the pot with the carrot and celery. We sweat them at a good medium-low temperature, stirring every few minutes and making sure that nothing browns--the point of the sweat is to gently cook them, pulling out some moisture and bringing out flavors without full-on browning. But you know what? If you happen to walk away for a few minutes and come back to a few brown pieces of vegetable in your pot?

That's ok.

First of all, it's ok because browned (heartily cooked) is different from black (burnt). Give it a good stir--when you add the chicken stock, you'll be able to scrape up the brown bits and they'll add a little more flavor to the broth.

But more important--it's ok because we're not cooking for the flippin' queen here, are we? We're throwing together a quick soup out of stuff we found in the fridge, and we're not going to let a little something like overly-brown vegetables ruin our day.

Now, before we add our stock (you put it in a saucepan to heat up while the vegetables are sweating, right? Because that will save you a ton of time), there's one more thing we want to add, and I have to admit, it's a bit of a confession of mine.

Pictured above: the hand of a very bad person. 

There are a lot of times when I'm more than happy to peel, chop, mince, crush, and otherwise prepare garlic. But not on a day when I have some of this lying around. Note once again that not all brands are created equal--Trader Joe's is preserved with Vitamin C and nothing else. It's very good stuff, and it saves me a lot of hassle in the kitchen being able to toss a quick teaspoon or two into a dish.

Do I use it in everything? No.

Do I use it when I'm throwing together soup out of what I found in the fridge?

Hell yes, I do.

And in it goes. Note that if we were sauteing with oil at high heat, we would have a very short window in which to cook garlic before it would get very bitter. This is another good reason to keep the heat relatively low--we can draw out some flavor before we add the stock.

Once it's added, bring it to a simmer (which should take no time at all if you heated the stock before putting it into the pot with the vegetables), cover and let slowly simmer for a good half-hour or so. At that point, if you're not too carb-phobic (or are willing to indulge your wife), you might measure out the aforementioned orzo and toss it into the pot.

Another good reason to use the kitchen scale--keep pasta in airtight containers and add just what you need. 

Orzo generally takes 9 minutes, and I'd give it that long to simmer gently before serving. Of course, they'll continue to swell in the broth as the day goes on (whether sitting out or refrigerated), but in the end you'll have something that looks like...


You know, I really do need to get better at remembering to take a picture just before serving.

Oh well--it was just Chicken Soup with Rice.

Update: Pictures of the leftovers have been identified for posterity.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Monday Night Meal: Meatballs

No, it's not Monday, but this is still a Mondaynight meal -- mostly because I usually make it so that I have leftovers to take in with me to work on Tuesdays. Been a long afternoon and my insistence on good kitchen hygiene made any further pictures difficultto procure, so for now lets just call it a night.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Basics: Knives

Knives have a special place in the hearts of cooks (no pun intended). Other cookware has its adherents and die-hard fans, to be sure, but nothing has the power to energize (or offend) like a discussion of knives.

I think it has to do with their symbolism. More than a skillet, or spatula, or a jar of spices, a good knife symbolizes Cooking. Nothing else in the kitchen (no, not even the cutting board) gets as much use or can do as many things as your knives. Whether you're sauteing, deep frying, baking, roasting (slow or otherwise) or grilling, you're probably going to have a knife involved early on to prepare your ingredients. There's nothing else in the kitchen that covers as much ground, and thus is used as often, as your knives.

Which is why, of course, it's so important to get yours right.

I know I talk about being positive rather than negative, but this is important: don't look at someone who has accumulated all the signs and accouterments of success and think that you need all of that to be successful. You might be tempted to do so if you take a look at what's on my kitchen wall:

Pay no attention to the unused phone jack. 

Quite a collection, no? From left to right (links go to the Amazon store):

 - Wusthof 7" Santoku
 - Victorinox 12" Granton Edge Slicing Knife
 - Wusthof 9" Serrated Bread Knife
 - Wusthof 8" Carving Knife
 - Wusthof 6" Boning Knife
 - Wusthof Ikon 6" Chef's Knife
 - Wusthof Classic 8" Chef's Knife
 - Wusthof Classic 10" Chef's Knife
 - Wusthof Classic 3 1/2" Paring Knife
 - Wusthof 3" Drop Point and 2 1/4" Bird's Beak Paring Knives (third knife in set has gone missing, believed thrown away)
 - Shun 4" Paring Knife

In short, a lot of knives. Also quite an investment--rather than buying all of these, you could treat yourself to a new PS4 and an XBox One as well as a game or two. Given their expense, a lot of people will wonder if they could be worth that much, or if you could get them as a set to save money. To answer both questions, I'd recommend you start off with what I did, the Wusthof 8" Chef's Knife and 3 1/2" Paring Knife set.

Granted, your wall won't look quite as grand...

Say it with me: I'm going for function, not form. 

Got it ten Christmases ago, if I recall correctly. Brought it with me to college, back home, then to Korea, back home, and now to Virginia. I keep them in good shape and they have yet to let me down. Both are still very sharp. How sharp?

This sharp. Standard stock printer paper, if you're wondering. 

The year after I got these knives, I got an XBox 360 for Christmas (at the time, around 2 1/2 times the price of the knives). It... has not handled the past decade as well.

Yep. This. More than once, in fact. 

So as we can see, "cost" and "value" are not the same thing.

"But wait!" you say, "I'll get my knives in one of those sets with a big wooden block--they're the same knives that you have, but by getting them all together, I'll save money." Though technically true, I'd still recommend that you start with the 8" Chef's knife and the 3 1/2" paring (though if you're still raising your eyes at the price tag, I'd recommend these from Victorinox).

The reason you shouldn't start with a "full" set of knives is very simple: you don't know what you're going to need yet. There's a great story in Kevin Williamson's "The End is Near and It's Going to Be Awesome" about Dwight Eisenhower:
There is a lovely apocryphal story, generally told about Dwight D. Eisenhower during his time as president of Columbia University: The school was growing, necessitating an expansion of the campus, which produced a very hot dispute between two groups of planners and architects about where the sidewalks should go. One camp insisted that it was obvious -- self-evident! -- that the sidewalks had to be arranged thus, as any rational person could see, while the other camp argued for something very different, with the same appeals to obviously, self-evident, rational evidence. Legend has it that Eisenhower solved the problem by ordering that the sidewalks not be laid down at all for a year: The students would trample paths in the grass, and the builders would then pave over where the students were actually walking. Neither of the plans that had been advocated matched what the students actually did when left to their own devices. 

We all make plans and we all have ideas about what we're going to want, or need, or do (in the kitchen, and elsewhere). The best advice I can give you is to start with a few of the basics, and see where you go from there. With the Chef's knife, you have what I like to call a Big Knife. With the Paring knife, you have what I like to call a Small Knife (these are pretentious industry terms, but it's important to know your stuff). Every knife is either a Big or Small Knife, though more specialized for a specific task. The important thing to remember is that you can use your Chef's or Paring knife to do the same task as these others (though it might not be quite as good).

Let's look at the wall again.

Still gorgeous. 

See the Santoku on the far left? Brought that with me to Korea, too--it's a great knife for chopping vegetables. It's got a very thin blade with little grantons (those little scoops on either side of the blade), which means it quickly slices through an onion or carrot with less chance of them sticking to the blade. The thinness of the blade also lets you mince garlic and shallots as well as a paring knife. Of course, your Chef's knife will also do a great job chopping vegetables. It's a little heavier, and so won't be as fast, but you want that added heft if you're going to cut through chicken bones or cut up heavy root vegetables. It's also better (in part, because it's larger) for slicing through a roast at the table.

That's the basic story of all these knives: the specialized knives are great at one thing, good at a few others, and lousy at still others. The greatness of the Chef's and Paring knives is that they are good at everything.

So what should your next knife be? Well, just like Ike let the students pick the paths of the sidewalks, I'd say let your needs in the kitchen dictate what you get next. Do you find yourself chopping up tons of vegetables? Well maybe your wall should look like this.

You may notice that these three knives are the only Wusthof Classics that have had the red logo sticker worn off from repeated washing. Just saying. 

Do a lot of baking? Find yourself often needing something that can clearly cut through soft cake or breads with tough crusts?

Serrated bread knife, it is!

Find yourself buying a lot of whole chickens and carving them up?

It's really more of a "Medium" knife--which makes sense, since you can de-bone a chicken with either a Chef's or Paring knife. 

The advice I have for knives is the same I have for anything else in the kitchen--start with a few workhorse items that can handle a lot of different duties, and then go practice using them again and again and again. The first thing that will happen is that you'll get really good at using these workhorse items--that's what happens when you use the same knife to cut slices of roast pork and cube potatoes for boiling. Build your skills with the basics, and then buy a new tool to help take you to the next level. Don't buy a boning knife because you want to learn how to de-bone a chicken--buy the boning knife because you already know how, and you do it so often that you want a better knife for the job. Or, better yet, get so good at de-boning a chicken with your existing knives that you realize you don't need a special tool (at least, until you start filleting fish). Save the money and get yourself something else you need. You'll be happier for it.

P.S. Oh, also--would definitely recommend a magnetic wall strip if you have the wall space. Keeps the knifes ready to go, frees up space on your countertop, and is more hygenic (when was the last time you cleaned inside that wooden block? Yeah, I thought so).