There used to be a wonderful Indian restaurant in Ghirardelli Square on the wharf in San Francisco, where my friends and I would gather after a hard week of work. Filling our bellies with exotic fare and enjoying the luxurious surroundings, we would relax, laugh, and tell stories. This is where I discovered the tandoori method of cooking.
Even if you think you hate Indian food, I will lay odds that you will love Tandoori! This is not curry, it isn’t very spicy, and it has flavors that you will find in many other cuisines. Friends who swear they can’t stand Indian food ask me for this recipe!
Tandoori cooking is actually named for the Tandoor Oven that is used to cook in. It is essentially a clay oven large enough to hold a very hot fire then marinated meats on long metal skewers are lowered into the heat for cooking. You wind up with a slightly smoky, tender, and moist meat, perfectly cooked and always delicious.
A big part of the flavor comes from the marinade. Marinating is an ancient method of infusing flavors into meats. You can do this with a wet or dry technique. Traditional marinades are wet, but more recently dry rubs have become the rage. In tandoori cooking, the meats are marinated in a seasoned yogurt which is thick enough to stick to the meat and the flavors migrate into the interior. The natural acid in the yogurt also acts as a mild meat tenderizer. If you have had tandoori at Indian restaurants, you probably are used to seeing bright red meats. If you want to do the same, you can add red food coloring to the marinade. I prefer the natural yellow from the saffron and turmeric.
Since Tandoor ovens are hard to find, you can use your outdoor barbecue just as effectively. Build as hot a fire as you can and keep the lid on to trap the heat. To mimic the heat source of the oven, bank your hardwood charcoal fire on one side of the barbecue (or heat only one side of an electric grill) creating a 2-tiered fire. This allows you to sear the meat over the direct heat and finish cooking over indirect heat. It is much easier to control the cooking by moving your food around and turning it often. Use a chimney starter to light your charcoal so you can avoid using lighter fluid. It makes your food taste foul and is unhealthy for the environment!
If you prefer, you can also make this with boneless meats (chicken, turkey, pork, beef, or fish are all great) threaded onto metal skewers. Cut up the meat, marinate it, and then thread it onto the skewers. Place the skewers on a baking sheet and cover with plastic. Hold them in the refrigerator until ready to cook. When they are done cooking, slide them off the skewers and serve on a pile of saffron rice.
So take a leap of faith and try this method of marinating and cooking. Add more heat if you like spicy food or leave it fairly mild. Serve it with the cooling Cucumber Yogurt sauce and you’ll have the traditional flavors of Indian tandoori foods. And once you discover how much you love this chicken, you’ll know exactly what to order the next time your friends want to go to dinner at an Indian restaurant!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
When grilling chicken, always leave the skin on. It helps protect the meat from drying out and burning. If you are watching your weight, you can remove it before serving. You will lose some of the flavor, but the benefits far outweigh cooking the chicken skinless.
Kitchen Skill: Marinating Meats
Why: To infuse flavors and moisture into meats
How: Combine seasonings and aromatics in either a wet or dry application. Wet marinades often combine an acid (wine, vinegar, or lemon juice for example) with a neutral liquid (water, chicken stock, etc.) and seasonings. A dry marinade is also known as a dry rub. In both cases the meat is immersed or rubbed with the marinade, covered, and kept in the refrigerator. Depending on the type of protein, this can take 10 minutes to several days. The end result is a fully flavored protein that is tender, moist, and better able to withstand the rigors of cooking without becoming dry.
- 12 chicken thighs, bone-in, skin on
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 1 large onion, grated
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp grated fresh ginger
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
- 2 tsp paprika
- 3 tsp ground turmeric
- Pinch saffron threads, crushed
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp chipotle powder
- Juice of 2 lemons
- Cucumber Yogurt Sauce
- 2 cups plain yogurt
- 1 tsp salt
- 6 to 8 fresh mint leaves, finely minced
- 1 cucumber, seeded, grated, and squeezed to remove as much liquid as possible
- Squeeze of fresh lemon juice, if desired
- Grilled Vegetables
- Thickly sliced onions, zucchini, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, asparagus, bell peppers, etc.
- Olive oil
- Rinse chicken and pat dry with paper towels. Place in a very large plastic zip-top bag.
- Marinate Chicken: In a medium bowl, mix yogurt with all marinade ingredients. When smooth, pour over chicken in plastic bag. Seal, pressing out as much air as possible. Massage chicken to make sure marinade completely coats chicken pieces. Marinate chicken for at least 4 hours in the refrigerator, turning occasionally. Recipe can be made to this point up to a day ahead.
- Make the Yogurt Sauce: In a bowl, combine the yogurt with salt, mint, squeezed cucumber, and lemon juice. Cover and refrigerate. Taste and adjust seasoning before serving. Will hold in the refrigerator up to a week.
- When ready to cook, drain chicken, discarding marinade. Brush sliced vegetables with the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Grill alongside chicken just until barely tender. Allow residual heat to finish cooking off the heat.
- Build a 2-tiered charcoal fire in your barbecue or heat one side of a gas grill to high. Barbecue chicken pieces approximately 13 to 18 minutes or until tender, starting them on the hot side of the grill to sear and get grill marks, and then finishing them on the cooler side of the grill. Note: frequent turning helps prevent burning. If the fire starts to flame up, cover with the lid to extinguish. Try not to spray with water - that just puts the fire out entirely and makes cooking difficult.
- Serve with saffron rice and grilled vegetables. Pass Cucumber Yogurt Sauce at the table.
- 2 cups white Basmati or jasmine rice
- 3-1/2 cups rich chicken stock
- 4 to 5 drops Sriracha hot sauce, or as desired (optional if you want mild rice)
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1/4 tsp ground coriander
- Generous pinch of saffron threads
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/2 cup frozen peas, optional
- Pour stock into a medium-size pot (you will also need a tight-fitting lid). Place pot on the stove over medium-high heat. Stir in remaining rice ingredients. When stock is boiling, stir in the rice. Return to a boil, cover tightly, and reduce heat to low.
- Cook 12 to 15 minutes (or according to package directions*) or until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Without stirring, turn off the heat and, with the lid on, leave the pot on the burner another 5 to 10 minutes. The residual heat will finish cooking the rice. You can keep the rice warm for an hour or more if you need to hold it. Stir in peas if using.
- Before serving, fluff with two forks. Adjust seasonings, adding a little salt or another squeeze of lemon juice if needed.
- Yield: about 4 generous servings
- * Some types of rice may take more or less time. Adjust accordingly.