I would never until recently have considered using almonds in a savoury dish.In a pesto yes, but I never dreamed that I would put it in a curry.Read any Spanish cookery book and you will find they use almonds as a thickener for sauces, along with bread and biscuits, and of course as the main player in Ajo blanco, the infusion of garlic milk heavily impregnated with garlic that has a kick like a mule.
Back to the curry though. I took my inspiration from a recipe in Rick Steins book Spain - Chicken in a mildly spiced saffron, pine nut and almond sauce (Pollo en pepitoria).Having just harvested our almonds I thought I would try applying them in a savoury capacity, and curry was the first thing that came to mind.
The Portuguese have a secret passion for curry that goes back to Vasco da Gama´s voyages of discovery when they they opened up trade routes.They brought back new spices and Portugal dominated for the best part of a century.Initially used in small quantities due to cost,curry in modern Portuguese recipes is used with a sprinkling of jolly impulsiveness.
Unlike the usual red, orange and yellow hued Indian curries, this recipe belongs to one of those not so often talked about “korma” or “shahi” curries. Laden with spices, nuts, cream and almond milk this category of recipes have overwhelming influences of the Mughals, who once invaded India and introduced their love for good food and heavy use of nuts and dry fruits in their cooking.
You may think this recipe sounds rich but it is light and relatively easy and quick to make compared to some of its other siblings. The flavours are prominent and pleasing yet subtle and delicate.
Some recipes use a lot of yogurt or coconut milk, or both together. I used none, but cooked this with a whole lot of almonds to make the silky curry base.
The main flavours of the curry come from whole spices toasted in the skillet, lightly browned onions, almonds and very importantly the green hot peppers.If you cannot tolerate the spicy heat, remove the seeds and the membranes of the hot peppers, but please do not compromise on the peppers. The fresh flavors of the peppers, along with the ground almond is vital for this dish. If you want a richer version, feel free to use cream.
Murgh Badami: Curried Chicken in Almond Sauce
(serves 2 generous portions)
Note: Paneer may be used in place of meat or make this a vegetarian dish.
2 lbs skinless chicken breasts, (with or without bones and you can use any kind of chicken part, you choose) – cut into 1.5 -2 inch pieces
2 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoon sour cream or thick Greek yoghurt
1.5 teaspoon garam masala
5 tablespoon ghee or oil
a pinch of sugar
1 -2 large onions; depending on the size – thinly sliced in half moons
6-8 small green cardamom
2 inch cinnamon
2 large fresh bay leaves
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
3/4 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
1/2 cup almond, soaked overnight and peeled
8-10 hot green chili peppers (if you do not like spicy, remove the seeds and membrane; use gloves!. The flavour of the fresh pepper is vital here.Do not skimp.
1/2 cup almond milk (if you want a rich dish, use cream)
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
salt to taste
Fistful of fresh coriander to garnish
Slivered and lightly toasted flaked almond for garnish
Clean, cut and wash chicken. Pat dry with a paper towel.Place chicken in a non reactive bowl. Add the lemon juice, salt and red chili powder and toss well making sure the meat pieces are well coated. Allow it to sit for about half an hour.
Whisk yogurt and garam masala powder. Add it to the chicken in the bowl and toss well. Refrigerate and let it marinate overnight if possible (try a long marination time if you can; it gets the meat tender and reduces cooking time).
Pound the whole spices to break them up. Do not powder them.
Place a large heavy bottomed pan on the stove and add the pounded spices. Allow them to heat up until they get fragrant. You cannot miss the aroma. Add the oil/ghee. The oil/ghee will heat up soon as the pan is already hot. Add the bay leaf. Add the sliced onions and the pinch of sugar; cook at medium to high heat until the onions soften and start to get golden/light brown. It will take about 15 minutes or a little bit more depending on the heat and the water content in the onion.
Now add the ginger and garlic paste. Toss everything and cook for two more minutes.
Remove chicken from the marinade and add to the pan. Add salt.
Save the marinade. Cook the chicken tossing frequently so that it is in contact with the pan. The sides of the chicken should start browning /turning golden in about 15 minutes. The chicken should have a light brown hue on all sides and there should be no liquid left in the pan. The onion and the spice mix will start to stick to the pan. Scrape it off to avoid burning the spice mix. The colour of the spice mix should not be allowed to turn dark brown.
While the chicken browns, peel the almonds and make a paste with the almonds, milk, the saved marinade and green chili pepper.
Once the chicken is browned, add the almond puree and the nutmeg to the pan, toss well for it to combine well with the content in the pan. Add two to three cups of warm/hot water to the pan (or as much as you would need to make more or less sauce), lower the heat and cover it. Allow it to cook/simmer until the chicken softens and the oil/ghee starts to come up on the top and leave the sides of the pan.
Garnish with fresh herbs and almond flakes if you wish. Serve hot with hot buttered Naan/or any flat bread or with steamed basmati rice.
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
Standing/Marination Time: a few hours to overnight
Cooking Time: 1 hour
Level of Difficulty: Moderate