12th Mar 2011, by Mary, filed in Home Cooking, Recipe, Spice Rack Challenge

There are definite disadvantages to being the sort of person who is addicted to trying new recipes, chief among them being those times when I find a recipe I just have to try, which then turns out to be a total flop, usually because the recipe was poorly written or poorly tested. (Not that I don’t make mistakes, too—I in particular have this little problem with reading recipes all the way through before I start them, which has led to derailed dinner plans more than a few times.) Last weekend, however, I got sucked into making a recipe I should have known was going to end in disaster, and of course, it did.

It was such a cool-sounding recipe, though. I was searching Epicurious for just the right recipe to make for this month’s Spice Rack Challenge—I decided I didn’t want to do anything sweet, and I wanted something that really highlighted the taste/aroma of cardamom (while there’s no shortage of recipes incorporating cardamom, an awful lot of them just use a tiny amount, mixed in with several other spices). Sifting through dozens of recipes for curries and chai, berbere and braises, I came across one for Shami Kebabs, a Pakistani recipe. Reading through the instructions, two steps caught my eye and made me think “I have to try this”: after combining most of the main ingredients, including ground beef, in a pot, you boil, then simmer them till the beef is thoroughly cooked (which runs against everything I’ve ever heard about cooking ground beef). Then, after that has cooled, you grind the whole mess up in a food processor, to get a sort of lumpy paste.

I really should have known better, especially since one of the reviews of the recipe described major problems getting the paste to form coherent patties that could be fried without crumbling. But I thought I knew what had gone wrong for that reviewer, and I forged ahead, totally seduced by the novelty of the recipe, and convinced I’d get it right. Well, you can pretty much guess what happened. When I hit the food processing part of the recipe, I realized something was really, really wrong with it—I don’t know what kind of food processor the recipe’s author has, but mine can’t simultaneously grind whole spices (whole cloves and cardamom pods, not to mention a whole cinnamon stick!) to edible bits, and grind cooked ground beef to anything but a sticky mess, which even after chilling in the fridge refused to cook up into nice little patties. I suppose the result tasted okay, but it was hardly worth all the work for an ugly pile of browned ground beef.

While I can’t really recommend that recipe to anyone (unless you can figure out how the author got the results she did), I can recommend the following one. It’s not terribly difficult (I managed to put it together even though I was already in the middle of round two of the fight with the virus from hell), and the cardamom definitely makes a major contribution to the flavor.

Cardamom-Scented Chicken with Ginger and Garlic

(from 660 Curries, by Raghavan Iyer)

2 Tbsp ginger paste (I used jarred “chopped” ginger, which is really more of a paste anyway)

1Tbsp garlic paste (again, chopped or pressed would probably be fine; I made Iyer’s garlic paste, which is just a whole lot of peeled garlic cloves (50!) whizzed in a blender with a bit of water)

2 tsp ground cardamom

1 tsp cayenne pepper

1 tsp kosher or coarse sea salt

1/4 tsp ground turmeric

8 chicken drumsticks, skin removed (or a lesser number of other skinless chicken parts—dark meat is best for this, though)

2 Tbsp canola oil

1 medium red onion, cut in half and sliced thinly

4 bay leaves, fresh or dried

2 cinnamon sticks

2 Tbsp chopped cilantro (optional—I left this out because David hates the stuff)

Combine ginger paste, garlic paste, cardamom, cayenne, salt and turmeric to form a wet paste, and smear all over chicken pieces. Cover and refrigerate the chicken at least half an hour (overnight is best, though).

Heat the oil in a large pan (seriously, unless you’ve bought really tiny drumsticks, you’re going to want the biggest frying pan or similar sort of pan you have) over medium heat. Add the chicken parts, and once they’ve started sizzling a bit, strew the onions, bay leaves and cinnamon sticks over top. After about 8 to 10 minutes, when the chicken has browned nicely on the one side, flip it over, mixing things up a bit so that some of the onions and bay and cinnamon are now under the chicken. Continue browning for another 10 minutes or so, until the mixture smells menthol-like (that’s the cardamom).

Pour 1 cup of water into the pan and scrape the browned bits off of the bottom (don’t bother to take the chicken out, just shove it around to get at the bottom of the pan).  Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the pan, and continue to cook another 25 to 30 minutes, spooning the onion mixture over the chicken occasionally. If need be, once you’re done with this step, you can remove the chicken pieces and reduce the sauce over medium-high heat for a few minutes (I didn’t find this necessary, however). Remove the bay leaves and cinnamon sticks (if you can find them—if not, some lucky winner will get a prize! 🙂 ), stir in the cilantro if you’re using it, and serve the chicken with the sauce spooned over it. Iyer also suggests adding 8 oz. of  baby spinach leaves to the sauce while you reduce it, which I didn’t try, but certainly sounds good.


  1. 13/03/2011

    The chicken was pretty good. I actually found the beef dish edible (Mary just kind of turned it into a caserole), but if it somehow worked as written I think it would have been more exciting; a whole stick of cinnamon would definitely have spruced it up, it if wasn’t in the form of pointy shards.

  2. 18/03/2011

    I absolutely love 660 curries. It is one of my favorite cookbooks. I bet I have cooked 50 recipes out of there and they all have turned out amazing. Sorry about your beef patties, I hate when I go against my better judgment in cooking. Sometimes it does pay off those, so I suppose you have to take the risk every now and again.

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