Last night I invited Diana and Mike, a couple of newlywed friends, over for curry. Diana finishes grad school next month, so they’re on a tight budget. I thought that they would appreciate a free dinner. A free, fragrant, curry-based dinner. They probably incurred some dry cleaning bills from sitting in the curry-laden air for several hours, but otherwise, the dinner was free. And pretty tasty.
I adore America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated, and everything affiliated with it. I mean, who doesn’t love a man in a bow tie? (I’m talking about you, Christopher Kimball. You’re perfect.) If you’ve never read one of their cookbooks or magazines, you’re missing out. Each recipe is preceded by several interesting paragraphs explaining the process of its inception. They have an easy way of explaining, the what, when, and why of a recipe, and they’re science-centric without being boring. The people at America’s Test Kitchen are the Mr. Wizard of cooking.
I’ve always used a store-bought curry paste when starting a dish like this, but in a recipe that I found in Cooking for Two: 2010 by America’s Test Kitchen, I was inspired to leave that jar in the fridge and try toasting curry powder and garam masala in olive oil as the base of this dish, and I’m glad that I did. Both curry powder and garam masala are actually spice blends, each one containing a slew of spices including (but not limited to) turmeric, fenugreek, cardamom, and ginger. Cooking them first coaxes out all of the natural flavors and fragrances of the different spices, making the final dish a flavor powerhouse. The heat index of this red curry was mild, even with the seeded jalapeno. If you enjoy sweating into your food, leave those seeds in, or use the spicier Madras curry powder instead of red. This method was so easy that store-bought curry paste isn’t welcome in my house anymore.
I subbed out some of the veg from the original recipe from cauliflower and peas to acorn squash and baby spinach, because I can. And because dishes like this are great for using up stuff that you already have on hand. What do you like in your curry?
Red Chicken Curry
1 acorn squash
1 can (14.5 oz.) diced tomatoes
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1-1/2 tablespoons red curry powder
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 medium onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into ¼” strips
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
½ cup water
4 boneless skinless chicken breasts, trimmed and pounded to ½” thickness
1 cup fresh baby spinach
½ cup light coconut milk
1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro
Preheat oven to 400°F. Cut squash in half and rub all over with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Place flesh side down on baking sheet. Roast for 25 minutes; remove from oven and set aside to cool.
Pulse canned tomatoes with juice in a food processor until smooth.
Heat remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the curry powder and garam masala and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the onion, red bell pepper, and ½ tablespoon salt; cook until vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic, ginger, jalapeno and tomato paste and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes.
Stir in the liquefied tomatoes and water, scraping up any browned bits at the bottom of the pan. Nestle chicken breasts into the liquid and bring to a simmer. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook until the chicken registers 160 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 12 to 18 minutes, flipping the chicken halfway through.
Peel away the skin of the squash and cut flesh into ½” chunks. Transfer the cooked chicken to a cutting board. When cool enough to handle, use 2 forks to shred the meat into bit size pieces.
Return the chicken and any accumulated juice to the skillet. Stir in the squash chunks and baby spinach and cook until spinach begins to wilt, about 2 minutes. Stir in coconut milk and cilantro and season with additional salt, if desired.
Serve with jasmine or basmati rice to soak up the sauce.