Cooking as a Hobby

Friday, October 16, 2009

Admin Note: From some time this evening until as late as Wednesday morning, I may occasionally lack Internet access. Blogging, comment moderation, and email correspondence may be slow or sporadic.


Some time ago, my wife and I realized that we had fallen into something of a rut. Both of us being busy, we had fallen into the habit of eating out frequently, or throwing together something like Hamburger Helper or Zatarain's at home. She didn't really cook at all and, although I'd come up with a few really good recipes over the years, I had a somewhat limited repertoire, about half of which she didn't like.

We were spending too much money on food, not enjoying it as much as we could, and not really saving time anyway. Along with the decluttering opportunity afforded by our recent relocation came the added incentive of saving money by eating at home more often. Boston is generally more expensive than Houston, dining out included. We decided that we would start normally having dinner at home, and without Hamburger's "help."

The task of making our own home an attractive dining option fell mainly to me, as I noted a few weeks ago. Happily, what I had initially dreaded as a huge amount of extra work has become instead a very satisfying activity that I enjoy even more than my few flirtations with cooking during grad school. What's interesting to me is looking back at how it came about that, as we now joke, my wife has a "live-in gourmet chef."

Having a time-consuming profession as I do, and liking to write (which is also time-consuming), my initial focus was on finding things my wife and I both liked that did not take too long to make. For example, my wife likes a meat-and potatoes dish called shepherd's pie. Although we are both foodies, we are slightly different kinds of foodies. I like hot spices and seafood more than she does, and she likes things that I regard as bland. Shepherd's pie, for example, is a favorite of hers, but it is not something I would bother to make, left to my own devices.

Initially, I regarded shepherd's pie as something my wife would like and I would just tolerate, so I searched the Internet for recipes to test. I found and tried two of these, and noticed that the more complex recipe was far tastier, and yet, after I simplified a few steps (and did things in parallel when I could), it took only ten more minutes to make. In the process of this early, somewhat trial-and-error effort, I noticed that I was approaching the problem in the wrong way: I was, as a favorite author of mine might have put it, too concerned with avoiding punishment (read: losing time) and not concerned enough about pursuing rewards.

So early on, my mindset changed, and things really started taking off after that. True, I had a limited repertoire, but I had experimented very successfully in the kitchen before. I had developed an intuitive "feel" for what would make a good dish and what would not. I had used the Internet and the techniques of "distributied cognition" for many other purposes, and now I could use them for this.

The fact that I could leverage my earlier knowledge made me able to search efficiently for good recipes, and the fact that I had a system in place to keep track of things I found meant that whatever time I did spend on this research would not be lost. (For example, there's a Moroccan lamb stew with my name on it that I once randomly found sitting in a file folder on my desktop.) I was also becoming more familiar with where my tastes and my wife's intersected, which made me more open to her suggestions than I had been at first.

It has been interesting to look back at how the pursuit of values and mental integration work synergistically. Six months later, I now have a couple dozen new, good recipes in my bag of tricks, and it takes no time to find something new to try, and tweak it so I'm not in the kitchen all day. Usually, even the mistakes are fine for dinner, and most of the time, I'll know what to change or my wife will make a good suggestion.

With that, I present the latest addition to the menu Chez Van Horn: Chicken Tikka Masala. Making this was my wife's idea. We went out for Indian one weekend, and my wife ordered it. "Try to make this some time," she suggested at one point during the meal. Indian cuisine was uncharted territory for me, but one day, I felt adventurous. After a quick web search and some editing for clarity, I made a stop at the grocer and tried Grace Parisi's recipe from Food and Wine.

Here it is below: Aside from my usual practice of breaking things down into ridiculously simple steps, my changes were to: come up with my own garam masala, use light cream, and add green peas to the sauce. I use an old coffee grinder I almost tossed out to grind the almonds and the spices. Both of us really enjoyed it the second time I made this, this past Wednesday.


-- CAV

PS: One last thing just popped into my mind from a conversation I had with a friend up here recently who also enjoys cooking: For someone whose work involves lots of projects that take ages to complete, the sense of accomplishment that comes from starting and finishing something (and doing it well) over a short period of time is a very pleasant side-benefit to this hobby.


Chicken Tikka Masala (adapted from Grace Parisi)

Preparation Time is overnight for the marinade plus 10 minutes prep on Day 1 and about an hour of cooking on Day 2.

Ingredients (List: ctm)

Masala Marinade

plain yogurt, 1 cup
minced garlic, 2 tsp
ginger paste, 1/4 tsp
cumin, 1 1/2 tsp
coriander, 1 1/2 tsp
cardamom, 1/4 tsp
cayenne pepper, 1/4 tsp
turmeric, 1/4 tsp
black pepper to taste
salt to taste

Garam Masala -- This can be varied. Grind freshly when possible.

cloves, 5
cinnamon, 1 tsp
cardamom, 1/8 tsp
mace, 1/4 tsp
nutmeg, 1/2 tsp
black peppercorns, 1/2 tsp


chicken breasts, boneless, skinless, and trimmed of fat, 2 lb.
large onion
minced garlic, 2 tsp
ginger paste, 1/4 tsp
black pepper
olive oil, 2 tbsp plus 1 tsp
blanched almonds, 1/4 cup
chili powder, 1 1/2 tsp
cayenne pepper, 1/3 tsp
diced tomatoes, 35 oz can
rice, 1 cup
sugar, pinch
cream, light, 1 cup
green peas, frozen, 3/4 cup


Day 1

1. Prepare the masala marinade by combining those ingredients and mixing them in the marinade bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste.

2. Using a sharp knife, make a few shallow slashes in each piece of chicken.

3. Add the chicken to the marinade, turn to coat and refrigerate sealed overnight.

Day 2

4. Adjust broiler rack to 6-8 inches from the top of the oven and turn the broiler to high.

5. Chop the onion and set aside in a bowl with the garlic and ginger paste.

6. Remove the chicken from the marinade, scraping off as much of the marinade as possible. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and spread the pieces on a baking sheet.

7. In parallel with the next step, broil the chicken, turning once or twice, until just cooked through and browned in spots, about 12 minutes.

8. Toast the almonds.
  • Heat 1 tsp olive oil in a small skillet.
  • Add almonds, and cook over moderate heat while stirring constantly, until golden brown (about 5 minutes).
  • Transfer the almonds to a plate and allow them to cool.
9. Transfer the cooked chicken to a cutting board and cut it into 2 inch pieces. Set aside.

10. In a large, nonreactive pot, heat 2 tbsp olive oil until shimmering.

11. In parallel with the next two steps, cook the onion, garlic, and ginger paste in the pot over moderate heat until tender (about 8 minutes).

12. In a food processor or coffee grinder, pulse the almonds until finely ground. Set aside.

13. Prepare the garam masala by combining its component spices in a food processor or coffee grinder and pulse until all ingredients are finely ground.

14. Add the chile powder, cayenne, and garam masala to the pot and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

15. Add the tomatoes (with juice) and the sugar to the pot. Season with salt and pepper.

16. In parallel with the next step, cover partially and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is slightly thickened (about 20 minutes).

17. About ten minutes after starting the previous step, bring 2 cups water and a dash of oil to a boil, add 1 cup rice. Cook on low heat for 25-30 minutes.

18. Add the cream and ground almonds and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until thickened, about 10 minutes.

19. Stir in chicken and peas. Simmer gently for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

20. Serve over rice.


1. Variations: The marinade and sauce here are also delicious with shrimp, lamb and vegetables.
2. Also recommended: Use basmati rice or rice pilaf. Serve with warm nan.


Lynne said...


I'm going to print this out for my gourmet live-in chef.

Shouldn't everyone have one of those? Maybe that should be the administration's next campaign: the people's right to gourmet live-in chefs. It's only fair.

Moroccan lamb stew sounds delightful, too.

Gus Van Horn said...

Good to hear from you as it just happens to be that the PS was about a conversation I had with your chef!

I'm eager to hear how you like it and whether he comes up with any suggestions.

Martin Lindeskog said...

I enjoy reading your "good eats" (to use Alton Brown's wording) posts. I haven't been able to find an ongoing carnival of recipes lately and I wanted to participate now and then in this kind of blogging. Maybe it is time to start a Good Life (#GoodThing on Twitter) blog series with recipes? For inspiration, read my post, Food Trip.

Gus Van Horn said...


I also miss the old Carnival of the Recipes.

If you decide to start a "Good Life type of carnival, I may be interested in participating, although I will say up front that I will not promote nutritional advice (such as the "Paleo" diet you mention or its variants) that I have not fully evaluated and which I currently have no interest in adopting for myself.

But do let me know if you intend to start something like this. I'm not at all ruling out joining in.


Lynne said...

Just a little follow-up: Stephen made the chicken tikka masala last night and it was terrific! I think he held back a little on the cayenne (which was unnecessary) and I thought I'd like a tiny bit more tomato taste. We'll be having it again. Thanks.

Gus Van Horn said...

Good to hear!

We went through our first round of Marrakesh lamb stew earlier in the week and I happen to be making it again with several tweaks tonight.

The first round was bland at the table, but was dramatically better as leftovers. Weird.

If it's good at the table AND as leftovers on this attempt, I'll post it, too.

Tenure said...

Hey Gus, thanks for the recipe.

Three questions:

1) Is there meant to be so much marinade? I have roughly 200 grams of yoghurt here, which the interwebs tells me is equal to one cup.

2) Is the marinade supposed to be still rather pale even with the spices added?

3) Do I just chuck the marinade afterwards?

Gus Van Horn said...


1. Yes. In my experience, it just covers all the meat.

2. Yes. The spices added less color than I expected them to.

3. Yes. I just scrape most of it off over the disposal side of the sink.

Let me know how you like it!


Tenure said...

It's in the last ten minutes now, and I have to say... I mean, I'm sorry to say that I'm actually really disappointed with it. I don't know if I've done something wrong, but it just doesn't have very much flavour to it.
I eat Indian a fair bit, and I love the curries I get at the restaurants, but this one is barely up to par. I'm sure I must have made some mistake, judging by the success you and others have had. I'm gonna try reducing it down further, to make the flavour more concentrated.

Gus Van Horn said...

I'm sorry to hear you were disappointed. In my hands, this has compared favorably to restaurant versions of the dish that I have had, but perhaps this gets prepared differently in the US than in the UK.

Based on your comments, it sounds like you may enjoy hotter spices than this has (and than I am accustomed to getting in this dish at restaurants), in which case I'd recommend changing the composition of the garam masala, perhaps in addition to reducing the sauce or even starting out with less liquid.

Hope this works better for you next time or, better yet, that you save this batch.

What I like about this one is the balance between the flavor of the meat and that of the sauce.

Tenure said...

Reducing the sauce has improved the flavour, but has still failed to bring it up to far I'm afraid.

HOWEVER: I know a lot of the blame lays with the chicken, blame which ultimately lays with me. Looking back over the recipe, I notice that in marinading the chicken, you have to make cuts into it. This prevented any flavour really sinking in to the chicken itself.

I will try making this again, however I think I will use only half the amount of tomato, and a bit more cream. I think I'll give the peas a miss too.
I think the ingredients are fine, but I've cocked something up somewhere in getting them to mix properly -- or it could be that I, personally, just don't like the taste of the dish!! :P

Anyway, I ate about 1/4 of what I had cooked, and the rest is in the fridge. I'm gonna see how it tastes tomorrow, after having a nice mellowing in there.

Gus Van Horn said...

Hope the fridge works for you, at least. I know it does with a Moroccan lamb stew I've been making lately.

But definitely slash the chicken and amp up the spices next time. If you're used to hot curries or vindaloo, you won't find this dish measuring up because, as far as I know, it's intended to be spicy, but not hot.

Better luck next time.

Tenure said...

I added some more turmeric, increased the sauce a bit more with some butter and some milk, and added a bit of salt and a pinch more sugar as well. It ended up a LOT better, especially after sitting in the fridge. I look forward to making this again sometime soon.

Gus Van Horn said...

Glad to hear that! Thanks for letting me know how that turned out.