Indian cooking adventure

Contrary to popular belief, Mike and I do cook food on a somewhat regular basis. We often divide up a recipe so that I measure and mix while Mike chops (or otherwise prepares ingredients to be measured and mixed). I do triage cleanup on the fly and Mike tackles the dishes after we eat.

Ever since we visited India last summer, we’ve been keenly interested in making anything vaguely resembling authentic Indian food. For Christmas this year, we received a couple of great Indian cookbooks, and dove right in. We figured we’d start with something we really wanted to eat, and our very first attempt at Chicken Tikka Masala was a success!

So, of course, we made it again, and doubled the recipe this time. I also decided to photograph the process and blog about it. (Thanks to David and Karen over at Twenty-Fingered Cooking for food-blogging inspiration.) The end result is darn close to what you might get in a restaurant. Not exactly the same, but most definitely recognizable, and indisputably worth eating. It does call for a few specialty ingredients, but it is 100% worth your time to make and/or find them. Trust me… I’m lazy about stuff like this. Just do it.

Chicken Tikka Masala
adapted from 660 Curries
makes about four servings, but it’s worth doubling the recipe for leftovers!

  1. Mix the following in a large bowl.
    • 1/2 cup plain yogurt (ideally full-fat)
    • 2 Tbsp ginger paste (puree ginger with water in the ratio of 8 oz. ginger to 1/2 cup water… or be lazy and buy a tube of ginger paste if you can find one)
    • 2 Tbsp garlic paste (puree garlic with water in the ratio of 50 cloves to 1/2 cup… or be lazy and (a) buy a tube of garlic paste or (b) press a few cloves of garlic)
    • 2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro
    • 2 tsp ground coriander
    • 1 tsp ground cumin
    • 1/2 tsp ground cayenne pepper
    • 1 1/2 tsp paprika
    • 1 1/2 tsp sea salt
    • 1/2 tsp garam masala (if I can find this spice blend in a store, so can you)
    • 1/2 tsp ground turmeric
  2. Cut 1 1/2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts into skewer-friendly pieces. Try to find that happy medium between “I can put this on a skewer without hating my life” and “this is a ridiculously massive piece of chicken.” I’ll note that one could easily substitute extra-firm tofu, or the god of all cheeses, paneer (if you can find some).
  3. Immerse chicken in the marinade, cover, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
  4. While the chicken marinates, prepare the following.
    • 1 small red onion, chopped, mixed with
    • 1 small red bell pepper, seeded and chopped,
    • 1/4 cup sliced or slivered almonds, and
    • 1/4 cup golden raisins (no whining – they sell these at stores, I promise)

    • 3ish tomatoes, chopped (end goal is 1 cup – some liquid OK)

    • 1/4 heavy cream, mixed with
    • 1/2 tsp sea salt,
    • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper, and
    • 1/4 tsp garam masala (you need this twice, so go buy some already)

    • Chop another 2 Tbsp fresh cilantro, for garnish.
    • Cook some basmati rice. Do it now. Don’t forget until later like I always do.
  5. Assemble the amazing crack-sauce.
    • Heat 2 Tbsp ghee (or butter, I guess) in a small saucepan.
    • Add the onion / bell pepper / almonds / golden raisins. Cook over medium-high heat for 10-12 minutes until veggies are soft with golden brown spots.
    • Add the tomatoes and stir until mixed and heated through. Remove from heat.
    • Add the cream / salt / cayenne / garam masala.
    • BLEND IT UP! Use a food processor, blender, whatever. Try not to drink the sauce straight from your blending appliance of choice. And remember that blending hot things makes blender lids explode off of blenders.
    • Transfer the sauce back to the saucepan over low heat until serving time.
  6. If you’re like me, plenty more than 30 minutes will have passed by now, so you can broil or grill the chicken. We improvised a broiling rack using a cookie sheet and a cooling rack with legs. However you do this, use a high temperature and rotate the chicken occasionally as it cooks. Also be sure it is done before you serve it on beds of rice (er, not that we would ever make this mistake).
  7. Serve and enjoy! First put rice, then chicken, then sauce, and finally cilantro garnish.



A week and a nest

I don’t think 9am will ever stop feeling early. I realize this is rather pathetic, and that many traditional jobs require one to start at 8am or earlier. Perhaps my strong aversion to mornings will dissipate as I get older, but at the moment, I stand by John Scalzi’s motto from his 20s and 30s: “AM is what happens to other people.”

It doesn’t help that, this semester, I am carpooling with a fellow grad student who has the irritating preference of not only being on time for an 8:55am class, but actually being early.
Some day I will live in an urban utopia where I can open my door and walk someplace useful within ten minutes. But I will probably still find a way to be late.

Mornings aside, though, after the first full week of class, this semester looks to be a good one. Two interesting classes, diving into some semi-serious research, and TAing for a class called “life in the universe.”

Mike is ready for dune sledding

Mike and I had an awesome if full weekend, too. His parents came to visit, so we used this as an excuse to eat at a number of tasty restaurants. We also visited White Sands National Monument on Saturday. We enjoyed a picnic lunch with croissants that traveled all the way from Seattle, went sledding on the dunes, and walked all around. It is an otherworldly “must see” place for anyone in the area!

Mike's parents on a hike

Today, we went on a somewhat less novel hike in Soledad Canyon, a bit east of town. This is the perfect time of year to go hiking around Las Cruces, because the temperatures are in the mid 50s to 60s and the sun is out. Mike and I are going to try to take advantage of this more before it gets hot. The trail we took was about a 3 or 4 mile loop with gorgeous rock formations and great views of town. We ended the day with a wine tasting at St. Clair’s Winery and Bistro and a pizza back at home.

The other adventure this weekend was completely unrelated to our visitors. A few months ago, I heard about a cool thing called a nest. It’s a thermostat – a really shiny thermostat; one that learns your daily patterns and programs itself to save energy. Of course, this was a brand new product and you couldn’t just order one online. So, I entered my email address to be notified when I could order one, and in early January, I did! (Mike supported this purchase because it’s an energy saving gadget, and in particular an apartment-friendly one we can take with us when we move.)

Our new lopsided nest

Our new nest arrived on Friday. I convinced Mike to help me install it on Saturday evening. When we removed our old thermostat from the wall, we discovered a gaping hole nearly large enough for a light switch or electrical outlet… and much larger than the nest’s sleek footprint. Thankfully, it comes with an optional mounting kit, but even the wall plate’s screw locations were too close together to work. We came up with a temporary solution: one screw in the mounting plate, and one screw through the nest into the wall. But it is basically hanging from the wall at this point. Mike is going to mount a piece of wood in the wall hole this week so we have something to drill the nest into.

All this was well and good. We told the nest how to find our wifi, and we created an account to access the thermostat remotely in a browser or iPhone app. I went so far as to set up a rough weekly schedule, even though you don’t have to. And we went to sleep.

The next morning, just as directed, the nest kicked on to warm our apartment up to 68. But the heat kept running. After a bit, I checked it on my phone. Target temp: 68. Current temp: 63. I nudged the target down to 65 since we’d be leaving for church soon anyway. After Mike got out of the shower, the heat was still on. I finally got out of bed and was surprised to find the house very cold. Target temp: 65. Current temp: 59. Wait a second… the darn thing was trying its hardest to heat our apartment with the A/C! So much for saving energy.

We flipped the breakers off and went to church. We had a great afternoon and evening with Mike’s parents, and tonight I set down to fix things. It turns out that heat pumps can either heat or cool via the settings O and B (for “obnoxious” and “buttcats” respectively). Our old thermostat had a wire going to O, but the nest has a single “O/B” terminal. The default heat pump setting for the nest is supposed to be O, but for some reason it was B. As a result, it cooled when it was supposed to heat, and vice versa. The More You Know.

Anyway, I changed the setting within the nest software, and all is well with the world. Except, well, the darn thing is still falling off the wall. One day at a time.

Happy 2012!

For the last several years, I have made a habit of attending the American Astronomical Society meeting held the second week of January. It is a great way to dive into a new year. In addition to presenting a poster about whatever research I have done recently, I also get to attend talks about dozens of interesting topics. Each winter meeting is a chance to see friends and colleagues from years past – Mudd, San Diego, a summer here, an adviser there. The conference is traditionally held in one of four cities, on a rotating basis: Austin, Long Beach, Washington DC, and Seattle. This year’s meeting was particularly special for me because it was in Austin, as was the first meeting I attended back in 2008!

Since I live in Las Cruces, one of the highlights anytime I visit a big city is eating food. Thai food, Indian food, whatever flavor of Mexican food is there… so imagine my surprise when I began searching for restaurants to visit and stumbled across one called Casa Chapala.

Mom and me at Casa Chapala for my 17th birthday

You see, while growing up in Richland, my favorite restaurant was unquestionably Casa Chapala, in neighboring Kennewick. A bean burrito, or sometimes chicken! With rice and beans on the side! This was the best. For pretty much every birthday between 1990 and 2003, you could find me at Casa Chapala, wearing a goofy sombrero and eating complementary fried ice cream for dessert.

In 2004, I began college, and ate there when I came home for winter break. Same story in 2005. Then in 2006… I learned the owners had moved away. To somewhere in Texas. (Because clearly Texas didn’t have enough delicious Mexican food.) I was devastated.

Now, back to 2012. As it turns out, two friends from high school recently moved to Texas in the last six months (thanks, stalkerbook! er, facebook!). One to Austin and another to the Dallas area. So I had the best idea ever: eat lunch with both of them at Casa Chapala.

So after a long conference, brain overloaded with astronomy, I walked two blocks to the restaurant and reunited with two lovely ladies and their significant others over lunch.

Mari, myself, and Laurie: orchestra pals reunited!

As usual, Casa Chapala did it right. Still one of my favorite restaurants.

Mexican Food

There is a spectrum of Mexican food in the western United States. I strongly suspect it exists in the entirety of North America (particularly Mexico, for obvious reasons), but my empirical evidence is somewhat limited.

But wait, how complicated can it be? Tortillas, chips, beans, rice, meat, salsa, cheese, and you’re done. Pretty much all Mexican food is combining these in slightly different ways, and perhaps throwing in some cilantro or chiles or avocados for good measure.

That’s what I thought, too, until I tasted otherwise. I can’t fully explain it, but there is a definite difference between “New Mexican” food, California Mexican food, and Northwest Mexican food. Surprise: all of them are delicious! (We’ll leave chains such as Taco Bell and Chipotle out of the discussion for now, as they are constant across regions, and are arguably a separate genre of food entirely from traditional restaurant-style Mexican.)

Here’s what I’ve observed so far.

Northwest (mostly based on WA): Heavily influenced by tomatoes and tomato paste. Unique way of melting cheddar cheese with tomato-based sauces on/next to entrees. Characterized by smooth rice and refried beans, mild spice, and tomato salsa that is neither too chunky nor too blended. Green tomatillo salsa is an option. Chips are served warm, thin, and crispy. I grew up with this style of Mexican food, so it is my reference.

California (mostly based on southern): Often influenced by fish, and fish tacos in particular. Salsas tend to be “pico de gallo” style, or in other words, chunky with lots of cilantro. Delicious, creamy guacamole is prevalent. Rice and beans are likely to be healthier, and cooked with mild but distinct spices. Jalepenos are the preferred way of adding spice if desired. Chips vary, but are often thicker and salty, to pair with guacamole.

New Mexico (based on Las Cruces): Chile is king – the state question is “red or green?” Everything is smothered in red or green chile sauce, which is often full of meat or cream and melted cheese. Spicy isn’t an option; it’s a requirement. Salsas tend to be watery with some roasted chile chunks and lots of kick. Enchiladas are stacked instead of rolled, and offered with an egg on top. Chips are very deep fried and best eaten with chile con queso.

These three regional variants aren’t enough to define a true spectrum, however. So, when on a road trip from California to Washington, I ate at a Mexican restaurant in Oregon. Darned if it wasn’t an exact mashup of what I classified as “Northwest” and “California” Mexican food! Similarly, when I visited Arizona, I was amazed to find Mexican food that epitomized a crossover of “California” Mexican food and “New Mexican” food.

Clearly this calls for more experimental followup. I’ll get back to you on that.


I am such a good, consistent blogger. (Not.)

I seem to have missed Thanksgiving, but it was awesome, as it usually is. Even just a short trip to Seattle reminds me that the world is bigger than my daily commute and that family is one of the most important things. It is a fitting way to start the Season of Advent.

Oh yes – Happy Advent! The season we all tend to skip over in a rush to have Christmas.

Personally, I enjoy waiting to put up the Christmas decorations until we’re well into December, and I prefer to celebrate Christmas when it is actually Christmas: December 25 – January 5. That puts me in the minority among Christmas-celebrators, but I really don’t think seasons should be rushed. People don’t wish you “happy birthday!” until your actual birthday, or perhaps a few days before. Churches don’t celebrate Easter early, because it’s still Lent. And try as you might, you can’t make it summer in April.

Seasons of all kinds are an invitation to live in the present moment. You simply can’t create them on a whim – the right amount of time must pass first. It’s an adventure, because you aren’t in control. Which of course brings us to the present season: Advent. Adventure.

Whether or not you celebrate Christmas or church seasons, I invite you to take some time and enjoy the many different kinds of seasons you are celebrating, here and now.