Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Welcome to My World

Lately I have been making a real effort to bring my cooking to the next level. As with anything, you can never really grow unless you push yourself outside of your comfort zone while casting aside all fears of failure, rejection or disappointment. For a chef this means a constant struggle to learn new techniques, combine ingredients and the everlasting reinvention of yourself. The task can be a grind, but in the end it's like climbing a mountain and looking back every now and then, amazed to see how far you've come.

I've been spending a lot of time at the funky downtown Seattle Public Library checking out books by famous chefs and obscure authors alike, building a new base to draw inspiration from now that I am a executive chef on my own. I mostly seek out books that I can use to enhance my current style, but I also make a point to check out at least two books each time that will help fill the gaps of my culinary weak points, the most intriguing of which to me right now is the cuisine of India.

In studying books of the more popular cuisines of Asia I obviously came across a lot of Indian references, due to the common geography, though I always ignorantly separated the two. Despite some similar ingredients and shared borders, India is a world apart. Sure, I have toyed around with curry powders, but the true gem of the food is the personal touch of toasting and blending of your own spice mixtures. With that in mind, I decided to tackle a dish that many Americans are now familiar with: Chicken Masala.

My version is similar to what is more commonly known as Chicken Tikka Masala, but tikka refers to "chunks" of meat, typically in the style of a stew, whereas I wanted to use perfect portions of the whole thigh. Since there is no standard recipe for tikka masala I drew from a combination of recipes from some credible sources and even a show on the Cooking Channel (the Spice Goddess herself), along with, of course, some interpretation of my own.

Indian food is all about building flavors. They are simple looking dishes that are comprised of many ingredients; a case in point that the sum is truly greater than its parts. I first softly cooked onions and sliced garlic in a healthy portion of ghee, or clarified butter, before adding my own version of spice mixture with peppercorns, bay leaves, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and cloves known as garam masala or "warm spice mix". I continued with the traditional flavors by adding fenugreek seed, paprika and tomatoes that I simmered in stock before finishing with a little smoky spice from chipotle powder.

To askew the flavors with my own twist I finished the sauce with a good dose of cocoa powder that automatically seemed a natural companion to the warm spices of the garam masala ingredients, giving it even more complexity and depth of flavor than it had before. I strained the blended sauce to refine and smooth its presence on the palate before using it to slowly stew meticulously prepared chicken thighs in the oven until they were perfectly cooked and moist.

Many recipes called for the sauce to be enriched with coconut milk, but I opted instead to pull it aside and combine it with the classic accompaniment of basmati rice by first adding the milk to the cooking liquid, giving it a rich flavor without it becoming mushy, and then tossing in finely grated, unsweetened coconut meat to order.

Traditionally speaking the dish is complete, but I found that it was in need of some added texture and flavor, so I came up with these little fritters made in the style of falafel, but instead of dried chickpeas I used spilt peas pureed with onions and garlic and omitted the usual spices that are already in the sauce and added plenty of fresh mint instead. The mint compliments both the traditional spices and the cocoa that is in the sauce as well as the finely shaved bittersweet chocolate that acts as a final note to the dish.

Many people mistakenly think that a rich and spicy dish requires a very bold red wine to cut through it, like a hearty steak, but actually the best pairing is found at the other end of the spectrum with an off dry or semi-sweet white wine like our half bottle of Kiona Late Harvest Riesling, which happens to be one of my favorite styles of wine. The natural stone fruit flavors compliment the spices of the masala while the sweetness helps tame the heat from the chile, but if you're looking for a truly unique pairing, then I have concocted just the thing for you... 

In the same way that I peruse the farmer's market or specialty stores I was surveying the bar supply for interesting combinations when I came across several bottles that, as I spoke them in my head, reminded me of the popular Long Island Iced Tea drink, and then I knew that I was onto something.

Keeping with the typical tall (or "Long") aspect of the cocktail I filled a pint glass with ice and poured over equal parts of guava rum, vanilla vodka and mango tequila that is then topped off with a Jamaican style ginger beer and a little club soda to cut down on the sweetness.
Please allow me to introduce you to the Tropical Iced Tea!!!

Taste buds - You're welcome!!

With Love,