Saturday, February 16, 2013

On family and shared meals

To me, there is no better way to spend time with loved ones than through a shared meal: to put aside distractions, gather around a table, and settle down to eat.  Because when having a meal together, you share not only the food but stories, ideas, and laughter, too.  It's a ritual that always leaves me feeling satiated, belly full and heart content.

Greg and I just returned from spending five days with his dad and step-mom in sunny Orlando.  As it was my first time there, we made the obligatory first-time visit to Disney World, and spent a fun-packed day at Animal Kingdom.  The next day we drove to a wildlife preserve where we saw creatures (mostly winged) of all colors and sizes: lanky ostriches, great blue herons, long-legged limpkins, a pair of stately sandhill cranes, a few menacing (though in our case sleeping) alligators, and even a bald eagle soaring overhead.

Aside from these outdoor adventures, some of the best moments we spent with his dad and step-mom were over shared meals.  The fun part: we all took turns cooking for each other.  His dad, a master at the grill, cooked up burgers and steaks.  But these weren't just any burgers and steaks: they came from cows that he himself raised!  The meat was succulent and flavorful and -- in meeting the grower himself -- it was the closest I've gotten to farm-to-table cuisine!  

I discovered my new favorite fish when Greg's step-mom prepared some perch and walleye.  She and Greg's dad go fishing on a lake near their home in Ohio on a near-weekly basis.  They brought some of their recent catch to Orlando with them.  The fish was lightly battered and deep-fried and served alongside some rice and lemon wedges.  It reminded me how sometimes the simplest dishes are the most delicious.

For our part, Greg and I prepared an Indian meal: chicken cooked in a yogurt-almond sauce. I found the recipe in Madhur Jaffrey's enchanting memoir "Climbing the Mango Trees," where she describes the dish as one of her favorites when entertaining.  There are many flavors that meld together so wonderfully in this dish: the slightly charred taste of the quick-browned onions; the whisked yogurt made tangy with the additions of garam masala, corinder, and cayenne; the sweet-and-savory combination of the blended paste of ginger and garlic which get stirred in with the cinnamon sticks and golden raisins.  (As Greg's dad is on a nut-free diet, we omitted the almonds, but the sauce was thick nonetheless.)  The heady smell of the spices and the complex flavors of the sauce made for an intoxicating meal.  

Chicken Cooked in a Yogurt-Almond Sauce (Murgh Korma)
Recipe adapted from Climbing the Mango Trees, by Madhur Jaffrey

1 2.5inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
4-5 coves garlic, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons blanched, slivered almonds
1 1/2 cups Greek yogurt
1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1/2-1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, to taste
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, peeled, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced into fine half-rings
2 2-inch cinnamon sticks
8 whole cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
3 1/4-pounds whole chicken, cut into 8 pieces, skinned
2 tablespoons golden raisins

Put the ginger, garlic and 1/4 cup water into a blender or food processor.  Blend until you have a smooth paste. Add the almonds and another 2 tablespoons water.  Blend again until you have a smooth paste.

Put the yogurt in a bowl and whisk the garam masala, coriander, cayenne, and salt into it.  Stir well to mix.

Put the oil into a large, preferably nonstick pan and set it over medium heat.  When it is hot, put in the sliced onions.  Stir and fry for 10-12 minutes, until the onions are reddish brown.  Remove the sliced onions with a slotted spoon, leaving as much oil behind as possible.  Spread the onion slices over a paper towel-lined plate.

Put the cinnamon, cardamom, and bay leaves into the same pan over medium heat.  Stir once or twice.  A minute later, put in the chicken pieces, only as many as the pan can hold in a single layer.  Brown the chicken pieces lightly on both sides, removing them to a bowl.  Do all the chicken pieces this way.  

Add the golden raisins to the pan.  Stir a few times, then add in the paste from the blender.  Stir and fry for 2 minutes.  Now put in the contents of the bowl with the chicken, the contents of the yogurt bowl, and the fried onions.  Stir to mix and bring to a simmer, still on medium heat.  Cover, turn the heat to low, and cook gently for 25-30 minutes, stirring gently every now and then, until the chicken pieces are tender.  Serve immediately.

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