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Spicing up butter chicken with chipotle chiles: Chandra Ram offers modern take on Indian Instant Pot cooking
CULINARY WORLD TOUR: INDIA

Spicing up butter chicken with chipotle chiles: Chandra Ram offers modern take on Indian Instant Pot cooking

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Peer pressure led Chandra Ram to get an Instant Pot, but she didn't expect it would lead her to explore her relationship with Indian food - and to publish a new cookbook. (Amazon/TNS)

CHICAGO — Like a lot of people, Chandra Ram got an Instant Pot because of peer pressure. “I’m not a gadget person by any stretch of the imagination,” says Ram. “I live in Chicago, so I don’t have room for a bunch of things.” But friends kept telling her how useful the device was, and she eventually relented.

Ram already knew how to cook. She graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, worked as a restaurant consultant for years and currently serves as the editor of the food magazine Plate. She even recently co-authored the cookbook “Korean BBQ” with chef Bill Kim. But because she was so busy all the time, she felt her home cooking had slacked off a bit. “I would often come home from work, and I felt like I was half- — -ing it,” says Ram. “I was just throwing canned things together.”

When she got the Instant Pot, the first recipe she tried was the butter chicken recipe from Urvashi Pitre’s extremely popular, and Tribune-approved, “Indian Instant Pot Cookbook.” “I took one bite and said, ‘This really does taste like it has been cooking all day,’” says Ram. In other words, she was hooked.

What she wasn’t expecting was that the Instant Pot would help her connect with the food of her father. Ram is a first-generation American, born to an Indian father and an Irish mother. She was raised in Lexington, Ky., where she always felt slightly out of step. “We didn’t grow up in a 100 percent Indian household,” explains Ram. “So I couldn’t hang out with all the Indian kids, because I didn’t speak the language. But I wasn’t white enough to hang with the other kids.”

Though her mother learned to cook Indian food at home, including making her own yogurt, Ram didn’t learn that much. “I never felt like I had the handle on Indian food that I should have,” Ram says. While she would visit India every year for a couple of weeks at a time, she was an outsider there too. “We were the American cousins,” she says. “Everything was different and unfamiliar.”

The Instant Pot gave her the ability to finally explore. Dishes that would have taken many hours or daylong soaks were suddenly within reach. “The Instant Pot makes Indian food so approachable,” says Ram, “so I thought, ‘Oh wait, I can do this!’ Once I jumped in, I went all in.”

The result is “The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook.” Despite what the name implies, don’t expect an introduction to Indian cuisine. “I’m not the person to write the super-traditional Indian cookbook,” says Ram. “Instead, I wanted to expand the idea of what Indian food is.” That means including some dishes that initially look more Middle Eastern than Indian. As Ram explains, Bombay (now Mumbai) was a main port during the spice trade, so there was a lot of influence from other cultures. “I have a lot of memories in Bombay, and I could see the port where the Indian spice ships came in,” says Ram.

Sure, you can find recipes for classics like saag paneer and chana masala, but you’ll also find many nontraditional ones, including aloo gobi chowder and Assam duck risotto.

And yes, that means a butter chicken recipe with chipotle chiles in it. “I was never a huge butter chicken person,” admits Ram. “My mother never made it.” When a friend asked her to make a version, she looked for a way to add more depth to each bite. “I did the most Indian thing,” says Ram. “I nosed around the fridge until I found some leftover jar of chipotle chiles.” While not traditional, the chiles add a fascinating smokiness and a subdued spiciness to each bite.

You might need to look beyond your local grocery store for some of the ingredients. “There’s always a push to make everything as accessible as possible,” says Ram, but she felt some dishes would lose their identity without certain ingredients. “There’s no substitute for curry leaves,” she says. Fortunately, it’s easier to find many of the ingredients at international markets and on Amazon.com.

Thanks to books like Ram’s “The Complete Indian Instant Pot Cookbook,” it’s never been easier to immerse yourself into Indian food at home.

Butter Chicken with Spiced Cashews

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: 35 minutes

  • 2 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil
  • 2 cups finely diced onions
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 3 teaspoons Kashmiri chili powder, divided
  • 1 teaspoon garam masala
  • 2 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, pureed or finely chopped
  • 1 cup of water
  • 1 can (14 ounces) diced tomatoes (with juice)
  • 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup raw cashew pieces
  • 3/4 cup heavy or whipping cream
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

Using the sauté function on high, heat the ghee in the inner pot for about 1 minute, until shimmering. Add the onions and salt; cook, stirring occasionally, for about 4 minutes, until the onions are softened.

Add the ginger, garlic, turmeric, 2 teaspoons chili powder, garam masala and tomato paste; cook, stirring constantly, for about 1 minute, until fragrant. Stir in the chipotles in adobo sauce, water, tomatoes (with juice) and chicken. Secure the lid and cook on high pressure for 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, toast the cashews in a small, dry skillet over medium heat, for 3 minutes, tossing the pan frequently, until lightly browned. Transfer to a medium bowl. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon chili powder and toss to coat. Set aside.

Once the chicken is cooked, let the pressure release naturally for 10 minutes, then quick-release the remaining pressure.

Remove the lid. If the sauce is watery, use the saute function on high to simmer the mixture for 5 minutes, until the sauce is reduced to the desired consistency. Stir in the cream and 1/4 cup cilantro. Transfer the chicken and sauce to a serving dish, garnish with the remaining cilantro and cashews, and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 435 calories, 28 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 184 mg cholesterol, 14 g carbohydrates, 7 g sugar, 30 g protein, 719 mg sodium, 3 g fiber

Nick Kindelsperger is a food writer for the Chicago Tribune. Email him at nkindelsperger@chicagotribune.com

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