Kickin’ chicken curry

The strangest way I ever made a friend

Kickin' chicken curry

There was never a more unlikely source for a recipe than my friend Paul. The first time I met this guy, I wanted to drop-kick him into the Seine. The suede elbow patches on his tweed jacket, his moleskin pants, and the tiny round glasses slipping down his nose all belied the cracked and unhinged apartment door where he greeted me : Paul had just been paid a visit by the huissier, or repo-man.

“Rocky Raccoon” blasted from his tiny stereo out into the hallway, and our English-speaking presence earned us curious looks from building residents who were returning home after their long workday. Paul was lit up like the fourteenth of July, and after introducing me to the other revelers in his flat, he insisted on a sing-a-long to “Why don’t we do it in the road ?” Call me inhibited, but would you have joined in singing THAT song with a bunch of people you’d never met, and had all had more wine to drink than you ?

Unlikely heroes

I wanted to edge discreetly back down the stairwell and into the Marais streets, but instead I chose to step onto the crumbling hexagonal tomette tiles in the nearly-empty studio, where I was invited to swill from a plastic bottle of wine bought at ED discount store. That wine gave me the courage to put up with Paul’s gap-toothed grin and the way he flipped his graying mop over to the side of his face when he interrupted me for the third time.

Paul was born in Canada, but he grew up in Paris and in London, where he attended King’s College and became a prominent journalist, editing Decanter and Taste magazines, and then working for the Evening Standard. When I met him, he still dressed the part, but was living in and out of Shakespeare and Company bookstore and sometimes he even slept on the cold stones under the Pont Neuf, right next to the Seine.

Even after thirty-odd years of Parisian life, Paul still has a pronounced British accent when he speaks French - it’s something of a trademark - and yet his perfect deadpan works in English or in French. Time stopped the day Paul met John Lennon. Woody Allen and Austin Powers rank close to the top of his list of idols, as does the Kinkster, a.k.a. Kinky Friedman - another character in Paul’s world of unlikely heroes, punny jokes, and chain-smoking.

Bob’s your uncle

Even though I managed to warm up to Paul’s dry and sometimes corny wit as well as his particular brand of old-world charm long before punting him into the river, the Seine turned out to play an important role in our friendship. One summer, our favorite meal-time activity with other friends was to hold Seine-side merguez sausage barbecues on the quay under the Pont des Arts, accompanied by plenty of red wine.

Since then, Paul and I have become good friends, and our cooking techniques have evolved off of the quais and into actual kitchens. And nowadays I wouldn’t dare barbecue anything under the Pont des Arts anyway, for fear of it collapsing under the weight of all those hideous "love locks". But Paul still pronounces the English quay as [key], and one of his specialties is a good old-fashioned curry. (People who have lived in England learn to appreciate a good curry, don’t they ?)

The recipe below is what I call a quick curry - one that uses the pre-packaged mix of all the spices necessary. When I want an all-out authentic Indian meal, I reach for at least fifteen different spice jars and Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking. Here is Paul’s faster but no less delicious way with chicken, and as he says, “Get those goddamn onions in there, and Bob’s your uncle.”

Paul’s kickin’ chicken curry

ingredients :
- 4 tablespoons Indian ghee or mild vegetable oil
- 3 medium onions, chopped (about 2 cups)
- 2 tablespoons peeled and grated ginger root
- 1 large clove of garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon good-quality curry powder, such as Madras brand
- 4 pieces free-range chicken, any combination (about 1 lb. thighs, breasts, etc.), skinned
- 1 apple, peeled, cored, and diced as small as possible
- 1 tablespoon Indian relish (garlic or lime – Patak’s is good, and easy to find in most stores)
- 2 tablespoons cashew butter (Paul recommends peanut butter, but if you go with his suggestion, make it the natural, organic kind !)
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon lime juice
- 1 ripe banana, diced
- ¼ cup fresh minced cilantro, or more (much more !) to taste
- sliced blanched almonds, lightly toasted (optional)

how to make it :
1. Start with a deep, non-stick medium sauté pan – preferably one with a lid. Heat the ghee or oil over medium-high.
2. Once the fat is hot – you will see the surface of the oil shimmering – add the onion, stirring frequently to prevent burning. You may “cheat” by adding a tablespoon of water if the onions are cooking too fast !
3. After about 4-5 minutes, onions will start turning slightly brown at the edges. Add the ginger and garlic, and continue browning and stirring for about 5 more minutes. At this stage, the onions should look and smell caramelized as they lose the rest of their moisture.
4. Add curry powder and fry the spices in the onion mixture for about 3-4 minutes to fully release fragrance and flavor.
5. Add the chicken and continue cooking for about 2 minutes, stirring a few times as the chicken loses its pink color and turns white.
6. Lower the heat, and then add the diced apple.
7. Continue cooking and stirring until the apple softens, about 3 minutes.
8. Add the relish and cashew butter, and stir to dissolve ingredients and to prevent the cashew butter from sticking to the pan.
9. Finally, add the yogurt and salt, cook for 2 more minutes, then add the lime juice and ¼ cup of hot water.
10. Stir well, reduce heat to low, cover the pan, and let the dish simmer for about 10 minutes of you’ve only used boneless chicken, and 25 minutes if you’ve used thighs.
11. Add the diced banana, and simmer (covered) for 5 more minutes.
12. Right before serving, add the cilantro, stir, and sprinkle the top of the dish with the almonds if you’re using them.
13. Serve with basmati rice and steamed vegetables. Paul likes to serve the curry with a sliced cucumber – or you can grate a cuke into plain yogurt for a cooling, impromptu raita to accompany the dish. For more heat, serve an Indian relish or mango chutney on the table.

3-4 servings accompanied by vegetables and rice

Tags : chicken , curry , spices , Pont des Arts


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