Printed word rituals + sandwich contemplation

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Little by little, shelf by shelf, my house is filling up with magazines. Piles of dogeared, coffee-stained New Yorkers and Atlantics, whole shelves crammed with food and fashion magazines of varying age and condition, and the prized bookbound Kinfolk issues neatly stacked under the coffee table.

There are plenty of books, too, though their numbers have leveled off considerably since I caved and got a Kindle.

My true printed love has always been magazines. Less fleeting than daily news with feature stories that can live far beyond the day or week of their release, though most are easily enough consumed in several minutes. Some stay with you–reflections from the survivor of a strange or cruel trial imbue a weird funk that you can’t shake. A powerful descriptor thrusts an everyday city street, meal or facial feature into the spotlight of an otherwise mundane routine.

Words can of course be as powerful on a screen, but print comes with a mini ritual that forces the reader to engage in a way that dragging a finger over a screen can’t replicate. Turning a page or creasing a newspaper, slipping an old train stub in between pages to serve as a makeshift bookmark. Such printed word rituals were on my mind this week after I watched an older man methodically read his newspaper on the crowded subway. Deft folds between spreads to keep the paper’s real estate to a minimum. A quick, clean rrrrip to remove the stock numbers page of the business section, which he then folded and tucked in his jacket pocket for later. Surpassing the entire “life” section with a “flip” after pinching the snubbed portion between his fingers and thumb.

As everyone else on the train stared down at their smartphones, it was impossible to tell who was reading something aside from that man with his paper.

All this print nostalgia has very little to do with this chicken sandwich, which I made for Sean one evening before meeting a friend for dinner. But like a New Yorker review I just read of Tina Fey’s new Netflix sitcom, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” I contemplated each layer of this sandwich probably way longer than I should have.

To be fair, it is pretty damn complex for a chicken sandwich. The chicken is laced with citrus and warming Indian spices; blistered shishito peppers lend a grassy, smoky flavor brightened by a squirt of fresh lemon juice; the feta adds sharp saltiness; and fresh cilantro heightens the grassy, citrus flavors that permeate this dinner-worthy sandwich.

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Blistered shishito and chicken sandwich
serves 1

Ingredients

    1 chicken breast
    1 lemon, divided
    Extra virgin olive oil
    1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala
    1/8 teaspoon cayenne
    2 cloves garlic, minced
    Salt and pepper
    3 or 4 whole shishito peppers
    1 small shallot
    8-inch piece of crusty bread (ciabatta or a bolillo roll works well)
    Mayonnaise
    2 ounces feta cheese
    1/2 cup baby spinach leaves
    1/4 cup cilantro leaves

Method: Put the chicken breast in a quart-size freezer bag with the juice of half the lemon, 2 teaspoons of olive oil, the garam masala, cayenne, garlic and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Close the bag and massage the marinade into the chicken until evenly coated. Marinate for about 1 hour in the refrigerator.

Meanwhile, heat a medium skillet over high heat. Add a drizzle of olive oil, the shishitos, shallot and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Cook, tossing frequently, until the peppers are blistered on all sides and the shallots are caramelized, about 5 minutes. Squeeze the juice of the other half of the lemon over the vegetables, remove them from the heat and set aside. Wipe the skillet clean.

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Remove the chicken from the marinade bag, and slice it into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Toss it with a bit more salt and pepper. (As you can see, I marinaded three chicken breasts at once–so tripled the marinade amount–because this chicken is effing good in/on everything.)

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Heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in the skillet and add the chicken when the oil slides easily around the pan. Add the chicken and cook for about 5 minutes until just done. Remove, and set aside.

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To build the sandwich, slice the bread in half, and tear out a little of the inside if it seems too bready. Spread each side with a bit of mayo.

Slice the shishitos in half and remove the stems if you prefer. Layer on the chicken, feta, shishitos, shallots, spinach and cilantro leaves.

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Close and shovel in mouth immediately.

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Deadly butter chicken

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I order Indian food at least once a week, toggling among a few different restaurants near my house in Bucktown because I have different favorites at each one. Raj Darbar for palak paneer (spinach and fresh cheese), Rangoli for the fried gobi (cauliflower) appetizer, Cumin for the Nepalese chicken dumplings. With so much lovely Indian food that’s willing to come to my door neatly packaged in a brown bag, I’m admittedly pretty lazy about making it myself.

But then I got my hands on the most recent novel in the Vish Puri series by Tarquin Hall. And I had to make the butter chicken recipe in the back of the book before I even finished reading it.

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If you aren’t familiar with butter chicken, it’s a rich, warming North Indian dish of yogurt-marinated chicken cooked in a thick sauce of tomato, ginger, ground almonds, tart citrus juice, spices and chiles that’s finished with cream, and yes, butter.

If you aren’t familiar with Tarquin Hall, you should get him into your life immediately. He’s a British writer living in India who has written a charming series of mystery novels following the sleuthing, chubby Vish Puri, who refers to himself as India’s Most Private Investigator. My dad, sister and I have been passing the books around among the three of us since the first one came out four-odd years ago. Aside from being really fun to read, these books will conjure a massive hankering for Indian street food–especially the fried, syrup-soaked or creamy kind, which also happen to be Puri’s weakness to the ire of his wife Rumpi.

Like so many other great novels, Hall’s descriptions of the food–from the shattering crunch of pakoras to the perfumey aroma of cardamom and tamarind to the sticky sweetness of sugar syrup-soaked gulab jamun (dessert dumplings)–have a way of transporting us to the muggy, traffic-clogged streets of Dehli. Here’s a little sample for you from his first book, The Case of the Missing Servant:

“Vish Puri, founder and managing director of Most Private Investigators Ltd., sat alone in a room in a guesthouse in Defence Colony, south Delhi, devouring a dozen green chili pakoras from a greasy takeout box.

Puri was supposed to be keeping off the fried foods and Indian desserts he so loved. Dr. Mohan had ‘intimated’ to him at his last checkup that he could no longer afford to indulge himself with the usual Punjabi staples.

‘Blood pressure is up, so chance of heart attack and diabetes is there. Don’t do obesity,’ he’d advised.

Puri considered the doctor’s stern warning as he sank his teeth into another hot, crispy pakora and his taste buds thrilled to the tang of salty butter, fiery chili and the tangy red chutney in which he had drowned the illicit snack. He derived a perverse sense of satisfaction from defying Dr. Mohan’s orders.”

OK, back to the butter chicken. It’s rich, tangy and deeply aromatic–laced with a veritable laundry list of spices and herbs that I don’t use nearly often enough. I served it over plain basmati rice, though if you only want to dirty one pot, you could also throw a few parboiled potatoes in with the chicken near the end of the cooking process and call it a day. (No one would blame you after all the spice measuring you did.)

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Deadly butter chicken
adapted from Tarquin Hall, serves 4

Ingredients

      2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
      Juice of 1 lime
      Salt, to taste
      1 teaspoon red chile powder
      1 cup plain, whole fat yogurt
      1/4 teaspoon crushed bay leaves
      1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
      1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
      1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
      2 ounces ground almonds, toasted lightly in a small skillet
      1 teaspoon garam masala
      2 teaspoons ground coriander
      1 teaspoon ground cumin
      1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
      4 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
      1 large red onion, chopped
      1 teaspoon grated ginger
      2 tablespoons grated garlic
      1 1/4-ounce can chopped tomatoes
      1 cup chicken stock
      2 tablespoons dried ground fenugreek leaves (substitute with 1 tablespoon mustard powder if you can’t find fenugreek)
      3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
      4 tablespoons cream
      1/2 cup cilantro leaves

Method: Mix the chicken, lime juice, salt and chile powder in a large glass or plastic bowl.

In a separate bowl, mix the yogurt, bay, clove, cinnamon, cardamom, ground almonds, garam masala, ground coriander, cumin and turmeric. Add to the chicken, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and marinate in the fridge for an hour.

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Heat the oil in a deep pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and a sprinkling of salt, and saute until soft and slightly caramelized. Add the ginger and garlic paste, and cook for another 2 minutes, until fragrant and slightly browned.

Scoop the chicken pieces from the marinade and fry until the meat starts to turn white, turning frequently, about five minutes.

Add the tomatoes and the rest of the marinade, and cook for another five minutes. Then add the chicken stock and fenugreek leaves or mustard powder.

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Cook, partially covered, until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce has thickened, about 20 minutes. (If you aren’t sure, pull out a thigh and cut into the thickest part with a paring knife. If the juice runs clear, it’s done.)

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Stir in the soft butter and cream. Add about half the cilantro leaves.

To serve, pile some rice on a serving platter and arrange the chicken thighs on top. Spoon a generous amount of sauce over the top, and sprinkle with the remaining cilantro leaves.