Knowing how I swoon at the merest whiff of Indian spices, my mostest bestest dearest friend sent me a cookbook I’d never heard of from a restaurant I’d never heard of. Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey: The Warmth and Ease of Indian Cooking, written by husband and wife team, Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij, who together run two notable restaurants in Vancouver. (Their third cookbook was published earlier this month.) “Relax, Honey”: How irresistible is that sub-title, anyway?
After examining the beautifully designed and gorgeously hued front cover, I flipped to the back flap photograph, and saw a familiar cherubic face: “Dude! I know you! You were on Chopped Canada, eh?” I Googled Vikram Vij and sure enough, he was one of the first judges on that show. The warmly beautiful yet unpretentious-looking woman snuggled in his arms in the same photo is Meeru Dhalwala.
I had other plans for this post, but I was so enticed by the beauty of the book, so intrigued by the innovative recipes, and so drawn in by its generous spirit that I immediately looked for something to cook right now. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, I would at long last find a recipe for the wonderful buttery tomato sauce that comes with Indian butter chicken or murgh makhani in every Indian restaurant (except, as it turns out, at Vij’s). This is a sauce that is often so delicious that I want to lick my plate. At home I have no compunction, but Indian restaurants maintain such high standards in the dignity and formality departments that I fear my naturally indecorous behavior would find me banned for life. A risk not worth taking. When it comes to food, I am not civilized. No, I will eat bacon with my fingers; I will tuck my napkin into my shirt; I will lick my fingers; I will use a hunk of bread to sop up gravy; I will stick my nose right up and into a dish to better identify a mystery ingredient; and I absolutely refuse to leave a little tid-bit on the side of my plate as so many people do out of “politeness.” Frankly, any guest who offends me with such faux-politesse will never be invited back. Yeah, and I don’t do those dainty little dabs with a napkin at the corners of my mouth either: Life is too short!
In looking for that buttery tomato sauce, I hit upon Butter Chicken Schnitzel, and did a double-take: Was I having a Ruth Prawer Jhabvala moment? It reminded me of my fabulous Mittel-European mother’s fabulous Mittel-European Wiener schnitzel. Of course, in those days, we ate veal, because who knew? Although not normally a fan of “fusion,” I read the recipe and was so charmed by the back story (and the prospect of schnitzel) that I had to try it. Spoiler alert: the back story has to do with chicken nuggets, which resonated with me, because when Popeye was a little boy, all he would eat was chicken McNuggets. No matter what I did, he would swallow food only from McDonald’s. There was much Sturm und Drang — his and mine. There were many desperate calls to the pediatrician who finally convinced me that Popeye would live and thrive, and to let him eat at McDonald’s. I did. He did. But my feelings are still hurt.
As for the Butter Chicken Schnitzel recipe, I was bewildered by the fact that there was no butter in the butter sauce’s list of ingredients. What am I missing? I checked my Madhur Jaffrey cookbook, and she uses butter. I sniffed high and low all over the internet like a pig hunting for truffles. I found recipes that smugly boasted of no butter or no cream, no butter and no cream, but I could find no explanation of a butter sauce recipe that doesn’t even mention the fact that it doesn’t contain butter. So, I Googled the restaurant, and sent an e-mail cry for help: “Is this an editing failure or am I just an ignoramus?”
And that, dear reader, is why God invented cyberspace. Help came from none other than Meeru Dhalwala herself:
Butter Chicken refers to a traditional name of a type of chicken curry that is very rich and creamy. . . . The “butter” in the title really refers to cream.
AND NOW WE KNOW.
Buttery Tomato Sauce
¼ cup canola oil
6 to 9 medium garlic cloves, pushed through a press or minced
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
1 tbsp. sweet paprika
2 tsp. garam masala
1 ½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 ½ cups water
2 cups non-fat Half & Half
(Note: In order to spare our arteries, I baked the schnitzel instead of frying it.)
2 lbs. skinless, boneless chicken breasts, sliced in half horizontally, and pounded lightly to uniform thickness with a meat mallet
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs
Canola oil spray
- Heat oven to 350°;
- Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil and spray well with canola oil;
- LIne up three dinner plates in FEB order: Flour, Eggs, Bread crumbs;
- Take the chicken slices, one at a time, and dip into the Flour, then the Eggs, and then the Bread crumbs, shaking off any excess after each dip;
- Lay each slice on the prepared sheet pan;
- Holding the can of canola oil spray a good two feet above the cutlets, spray the cutlets lightly but thoroughly;
- Bake on middle oven rack for 30 to 45 minutes or until golden;
- Turn the cutlets and bake another 15 minutes or until golden;
- Remove and let rest;
- When ready to serve, slice each breast piece crosswise in one-inch slices, or leave whole.
While the chicken is baking, prepare the Buttery Tomato Sauce:
- Heat the canola oil and cook on medium heat for 1 minute;
- Add the garlic and cook until golden, but do not allow the garlic to brown or it will make the sauce harsh and bitter;
- Add the tomato paste, stir and lower the heat;
- Stir in the salt and the spices, keep stirring and cook for 4 minutes;
- Add water and Half & Half, and remove from heat.
Confession: Mr. Darcy liked the sauce but found the spices a little too strong for his palate, so I added a little margarine to his serving to smooth it out. And this time it was he who licked the plate! No doubt had I used the whipping cream called for in the original recipe instead of Half & Half, the “butter” would never have been necessary, but heavy cream has 50 calories a tablespoon as opposed to the 10 calories in non-fat Half & Half. It’s hard to unring that bell!
Chickpeas in Star Anise and Date Masala called to me next. While I am not a big fan of chickpeas, they are healthy, so I eat them. However, I am a very big fan of dates and star anise, and this is an amazing dish. It’s fast and simple to make with subtle and complex sweet and savory flavors. It’s almost a dessert and I imagine it would be delicious over ice cream. It goes well with rice, with lettuce, or just out of the pot. Serve it hot, serve it cold.
Delicious as an appetizer, a side dish, a main dish, or a snack, it’s simply impossible to stop eating these chickpeas. Just ask me; I’ve tried!
There are many restaurant cookbooks that promise restaurant recipes for quality home cooking. Vij’s At Home, or as I like to call it, Relax, Honey, actually lives up to the promise without condescension, without having to buy restaurant equipment, without long lists of recherché ingredients, and without having to hire either a sous-chef, a line-cook, or a dishwasher for mountains of pots and pans. Be warned, though: once you start cooking from Relax Honey, you will not be able to stop. Just ask me; I’ve tried!
Beet Greens Sautéed in Ginger, Lemon and Cumin, anyone?