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Last weekend my husband and I had a long overdue dinner with our friend E. For years, she and I have been “planning” to go out for Indian food; the truth is that until recently I was intimidated by the idea, unsure of what or how to order and definitely in the dark about what I liked and didn’t like. For the past few years my husband and I have had Indian food a few times; we know naan, and mango lassi, and not much more. Recently I have been trying some recipes at home and becoming more and more comfortable with the flavors, how to combine spices and add a pinch of this and a bit of that until I get the dish to my liking. I checked out a few of Madhur Jaffrey’s books from the library and read through them to see how she combines ingredients; that research was very helpful. My husband has embraced my experiments and encouraged me to try more dishes; he was as excited as I was when I told him that our dinner with E would be at an Indian restaurant. Most of our happiness (at least 90%) was about seeing her, but I think we were both excited, and ready, to try ordering out. In the past, we have let friends steer us, or just order for us. Dinner was good; R’s chicken tikka masala was better than my lamb vindaloo, but the best part of the meal, besides E’s company, was knowing that I could go home and recreate some of the dishes myself. I decided to start with tikka masala.

Though the tikka masala R ordered at the restaurant had chicken in it, we don’t eat chicken very often at home, so I wanted to see if I could make a delicious sauce and add vegetables to it. Though this is by no means an authentic, restaurant-style dish, I am so proud of this tikka masala sauce! It is so yummy. It has the creaminess I love so much, richness from the tomatoes and onions and the depth of flavor that comes from a good blend of spices. The recipe below is exactly how I made (and will continue to make) mine, and rates about a 2 or 3 on the 1-5 star scale of heat. If you are concerned about spiciness, start with half the amount of cayenne pepper and add more to taste. After making the sauce, you can add grilled or baked chicken, tofu or paneer and veggies, like I did. My husband loves paneer and I thought it would give a little more substance and protein to my vegetarian meal. This tikka masala sauce is wonderfully versatile, an important consideration for me when it comes to dishes I will remake.

As I get braver, keep an eye out for more Indian-inspired meals. I will need some research trips to sample flavors that I want to recreate, so anyone hungry for some good Indian food, give me a call…

tikka masala

Tikka Masala with Paneer (sauce adapted from allrecipes.com)

  • 1 T. unsalted butter + 1 T. olive oil (or use 2 T. ghee)
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 14 oz. plain tomato sauce, preferably low-sodium
  • 1 c. cream
  • 2 tsp. paprika
  • 4 oz. paneer, cut into 1″ cubes*
  • 3 – 4 c. cauliflower, in bite-size pieces
  • 1 c. peas, fresh or frozen
  • cilantro or fresh mint to garnish
  • rice or naan to serve

For the tikka masala sauce: In a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat, melt the butter with the olive oil and add the onion; cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion softens, about 5-7 mins. Add the garlic and cook for 1 min., then stir in the cumin, salt, ginger, cayenne pepper (see my notes above), cinnamon and turmeric. Coat the onions completely with spices (the mixture will seem dry) and stir over the heat for a minute or two. Add the tomato sauce and bring the sauce to a boil; lower the heat and simmer for 10 mins. Add the cream and paprika and stir; taste and adjust salt. If you want the sauce spicier, add more cayenne, a pinch at a time; be careful, as the heat ramps up quickly. There! You have a wonderful tikka masala sauce. Remove from the heat or turn off the burner but keep the sauce in your large pan.

For the paneer and veggies: In a smaller skillet, heat a small amount of grapeseed or canola oil or ghee (enough to just cover the bottom of your pan) over medium heat; add the cubed paneer. Allow to brown for 3-5 mins., then use a wooden spoon or spatula to turn the paneer. Brown and turn a few more times until the paneer is golden and firm on most sides. Set aside.

Steam, boil or roast the cauliflower until it is about 5 mins. from being cooked through, al dente if you will — it will cook for a few minutes more in the sauce. Add the almost-done cauliflower pieces and the peas, fresh or frozen, to the tikka masala sauce and stir to coat the veggies with sauce. Cook over medium-low heat for 5-7 mins., until everything is warmed through. Add the browned paneer and stir to combine. Serve over rice or with warm naan, or both, and garnish with cilantro or fresh mint. This dish keeps very well in the refrigerator; you can reheat portions and they taste as good as the first night. However, because of the cream in the sauce, I am not sure how it will freeze.

*Paneer is a fresh cheese common in Indian cuisine. It has a very mild flavor and can be heated/toasted without losing its shape. If you can’t find paneer, it can be left out of this dish altogether or replaced with cooked squares of tofu.