Many years ago, an Indian chef at a hotel in Seattle, chef Balbir Nayyar, taught me to make Butter Chicken. It is a venerable, complex and luxuriant recipe from the Moghul tradition, both rich and piquant — my ideal complex of flavors.
Authentic butter chicken as chef Nayyar made it, involves more than a dozen spices, fresh ginger, bay leaves, lemon juice and vinegar, yogurt, tomato puree, heavy cream, tons of butter (or ghee) and, of course, chicken. It takes hours of prepping, marinating, making of the sauce, baking the chicken and then finishing the cooking in the sauce. And because it’s a hotel recipe, it makes enough to feed a regiment.
I’ve made it maybe five times over the past 30 years. Instead, I’ve cheated by using one of Patek’s sauces (they make a butter chicken sauce but it’s hard to find so I’ve used tandoori sauce) combined with yogurt and lemon juice. Then recently, I began playing with “At Home with Madhur Jaffrey” (Borzoi-Knopf, 2010) by the Indian actress and writer and came across a recipe she encountered once in a restaurant and now uses often at home. It’s butter chicken without the butter or the chicken — she uses fish, instead — and lots fewer ingredients.
I made it. We loved it. Now I’m slathering the sauce on everything. It keeps well in the fridge and is even good on plain jasmine rice.
The hardest part about making it is finding the garam masala that is central to the flavor profile. You have to go to Whole Foods or India Market or someplace like that. You won’t find it on the average spice shelf. Then a friend — I can’t even remember who — gave me their own finely ground Indian spice mixture and I began using that and it worked beautifully. I think you could even go with a curry mixture although it wouldn’t be quite the same.
The core of the recipe is equal parts tomato puree and heavy cream; I’ve tried substituting my own homemade Greek yogurt (plain live culture yogurt, such as Mountain High brand, drained at room temperature for half a day or so — keep the whey and use it in baking). The yogurt worked well. The balance of salt, sugar, lemon juice and spices can be altered to your taste as can the marinade ingredients for the fish. You can heat the sauce with the protein or independently and spoon it over; the sauce doesn’t need much cooking. For vegetarians, this is wonderful with baked tofu.
Here’s the recipe:
Fish in Tomato Cream Sauce
1 1/2 pounds salmon, monchong, opah, mahimahi or whatever, cut into even small fillets — about 6-8
For the rub:
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
For the sauce:
1 cup tomato puree
1 cup heavy cream (or half cream, half Greek yogurt; or substitute nonfat half and half for cream)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon garam masala or other Indian-style spice mixture
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped (optional)
For the cooking:
1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seed
Combine rub spices, rub onto fish and place fish in zippered plastic bag. Refrigerate overnight or for at least 2 hours.
Combine sauce ingredients; mix well and refrigerate.
Heat oil in frying pan over medium heat. When hot, add cumin seed. Sizzle 10 seconds and gently stir in the sauce. Place fish in sauce, spooning it over. Turn fish after 1-2 minutes, lower heat to medium low and cook 3-4 minutes until fish is cooked through.
Serves 4-6, depending on appetites.