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A Brush Stroke of India,
and a Satiny Dessert

by Nigella Lawson

At its most elemental, cooking is about temperament. A person who has to get to the station well in advance of his train's departure is going to want to busy himself in the kitchen in entirely a different way from the person who only feels happy boarding the train just as it is leaving the platform.

And of course all cooks have repertories, and methods that are close to the heart. On the whole, this is a very good thing it keeps cooking honest.

But sometimes, in the kitchen, as in the rest of life, it can feel good to break out of the mold. Most days, for example, my kind of cooking involves roasting or grilling, the sort of cooking that seals in flavor with a minimum of input and add-on ingredients. Indeed, I find that the simpler and more direct a recipe is, the more likely I am to return to it. Tried and tested methods are what make cooking manageable, but it can feel surprisingly good to go beyond them.

Do not panic. I am not about to suggest launching into dishes that require days of elaborate preparation. It is just that we all need to feel we are not restricted by our past or our predilections or our personalities.

So, for a change, I suggest a menu that, at least for the main course, uses neither oven nor grill: a fresh-tasting, aromatic chicken masala with caramelized onion and lentil pilaf. This I would follow with some sharp, lusciously textured lemon and lime creams.

I love curry, but on the whole I am not interested in cooking that involves too much spice-grinding or many-layered processes. Thus this chicken masala is my version of a curry: it demands little effort and delivers a huge amount of flavor.

I know a recipe requiring a spice paste is off-putting, but mine involves no more than a few spices and some minced ginger and garlic. I promise you it is not much harder than opening a tub of store-bought masala and dolloping that in instead. And the pure warmth rather than acrid heat you get makes the resulting dish bounce with freshness and summery-light flavor.

After the paste, all you need are some onions, some chicken thighs (better flavor and texture than breasts, in my opinion, but if you feel happier with the latter, be my guest), tomatoes and a cup of dried apricots. (These last need to be soaked in water overnight, but that's scarcely demanding.) Fruit with meat is not to everyone's taste, but there is nothing invasive about the apricots here. Rather, their fragrant sweetness is the perfect complement to the mellow heat of the light sauce.

The masala has all the impact you need, so you could freely consider serving no more than a bowlful of rice alongside it.

But I feel I must make a case for my caramelized onion and lentil pilaf as an accompaniment: the sweet smokiness of scorched onion and the depth of spicing you get from cumin, coriander and cloves more than balances out the rich texture of the rice studded with lentils and mustard seeds. This dish is robust and earthy ballast. I might even have it by itself for supper, with no more than a salad of diced cucumber, dressed with yogurt and dried mint, on the side.

To turn supper into dinner, you need dessert in this case something simple, sharp and light, something that can hold its own. These lemon-lime creams are the surest way to go. It is best to think of them as the satin-textured filling of a lemon tart without the trouble of making the pie crust, and with added lime to up the ante.

They are ease itself to make. I prefer to let the cream, eggs, zest and juices of the fruits steep with sugar in a jug in the fridge for a day or so to let all that sharp, fragrant flavor develop, but it is not obligatory. Remember that if you have left the cream mixture in the fridge it will take longer to cook than if you just mix it up, pour it into the little dishes and stick them straight in the oven.

This dessert is best eaten when it has just cooled down to room temperature all that voluptuous silkiness of texture is maintained that way but there is always room for compromise. So if you need to, cook the dessert in advance, let it cool and chill it in the fridge. Then make sure to take it out so that it can get back to room temperature before serving.

Recipe: Chicken and Apricot Masala
Recipe: Caramelized Onion and Lentil Pilaf
Recipe: Lemon-Lime Satin Creams


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