Surprises are a great deal of fun.
Especially when it comes to improvising dinner.
Morganna’s friend Donny was having supper with us on Friday, and I had planned to heat up some of the many leftovers we had from our vegetarian meal the night before: Dal Tarka Methi, Aloo Methi, Mattar Paneer and Sabz Kebab. There was plenty of food for four people, two of whom were growing teenagers.
As I was writing, thinking I should get up and put the rice in the rice cooker, the doorbell rang, and it was our friend Dan.
Whom we had invited to dinner for Saturday.
Except, he thought we had invited him for Friday.
So, of course, I welcomed him inside and told him not to worry–he could have dinner with me two nights in a row.
He only put up a bit of a fuss, trying to refuse, but I would have none of that. He was here, it was time to start supper, so stay he would.
But, of course, what that meant was I would have to improvise.
So I pulled out some chicken breasts from the freezer and started them thawing in the microwave, and then checked the pantry. I had lots of ginger, several mangoes, a red sweet pepper, red chiles, curry leaves, many spices, cilantro and lemons.
“No worries,” I thought to myself. “I will improvise a stir fried chicken with mangoes and ginger.”
Which is what I did.
Considering I had never made it before, and didn’t bother with a recipe, it turned out quite well, as I assumed it would, considering that I put mango chunks in my chicken vindaloo all the time.
I just needed to decide on a masala for the dish: I ended up blending black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, coriander and cardamom into a powder. I refrained from coloring it with turmeric; I wanted the yellow mango and red peppers to contrast with the pale chicken. I also added a small amount of whole cumin and mustard seeds, as I am exceedingly fond of those in combination with curry leaves.
The dish turned out to be very fragrant, and only moderately hot, owing to the only four Thai chiles I added to it. The heat that it did have came from the ginger and black pepper. I always find the heat of ginger to be of a fundamentally different quality than the heat of chiles; while it is quite warming, there is something watery about it, and sweet, which makes it seem almost cooling, in a very paradoxical way.
The ginger bite is tamed by the sweetness of the ripe mango. Mangoes are interesting fruits; to my taste, instead of the sugars being balanced completely with acid, there is also an undercurrent of muskiness to the fruit which gives its flavor a great deal of complexity. This muskiness is enhanced by the strong aroma of the curry leaves, which bring to mind fecund earth after a long, life-giving rain.
All together, the fragrant spices, herbs and fruits twine around the meatiness of the chicken, enveloping it in a harmonious chorus of flavors that sing of the long trail that spices once travelled from East to West.
And, it tastes good, too.
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon cardamom seeds
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons peanut oil
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1″X2 1/2″ piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut jullienne
2-4 red Thai bird chiles, sliced thinly on the diagonal
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 medium sized red bell pepper, cleaned and cut into 1″ cubes
5-15 fresh curry leaves (this is to taste–I went easy myself because I didn’t know if Dan or Donny would like them)
1 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into 3/4″ cubes
2 fresh ripe mangoes, cut into 1/2″ cubes
Juice of three small lemons
large handful roughly chopped cilantro leaves
Toast first four ingredients in a small, heavy-bottomed skillet. When they brown slightly and become fragrant, pour into a spice grinder and allow to cool for several minutes. Grind them into a fine powder, and mix them with the cinnamon. Now you have garam masala.
Heat heavy-bottomed iron skillet or wok over high heat until it smokes. Add peanut oil and heat until it shimmers. Add onion, and stir fry until it turns dark golden. Add ginger, chiles and mustard and cumin. Continue stir frying until the onions are a deep reddish brown, and all are fragrant. (The mustard seeds will be popping like popcorn. Watch out for your eyes.)
Add the sweet pepper, and the curry leaves and stir fry until the leaves release their scent–about thirty seconds. Add the chicken and keep stirring, cooking until most of the pink is gone. Sprinkle with the garam masala, and add the mangoes. Keep cooking and stirring until the mangoes begin to release their juices. At this point, add a bit of water to the pan (no more than 1/4 cup) and let the chicken finish cooking in the liquid.
As soon as the liquid boils away, check the chicken for doneness. If it is done, squeeze the lemon juice into the pan, and sprinkle the cilantro over all, stirring it in until it wilts slightly.
Serve with steamed basmati rice or saffron pillau.
Note: This is really good reheated after it has been in the fridge for a couple of days. You just need to squeeze a bit more lemon juice on after heating it, and stir in some more cilantro. The curry leaf aroma really takes off on reheating.
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