Friday 11 April 2008

Quick oven-baked chicken breasts in a spicy yoghurt-coconut sauce

Try these tender, fragrant chicken breast fillets when you're in the mood for something spicy, but can't face an unctuous and complex curry (or don't have the energy to make one).

This is one of those happy-accident recipes: I'd come home with a stash of lovely fresh spices (I am a complete sucker for spice shops) and a large packet of beautiful organic deboned chicken breasts. My idea was to marinate them for an hour or two in a subtle yoghurty mixture, cut them into strips and cook them quickly on a ridged griddle, but I ran out of time, so I tipped the whole breasts, still coated in their marinade, into a ceramic dish and chucked them in a very hot oven for 20 minutes. The result was just sublime: the combination of quick cooking in a cold marinade and the tenderising effect of yoghurt made the chicken so buttery and soft that I could cut it with a fork the next day (I had the leftovers for breakfast the next morning, on toast).

Only the freshest, sparkiest spices will do for this dish. If your stash of powdered cumin or coriander is more than two months old, or smells a bit dusty, chuck the lot in the bin and buy two dirt-cheap little fresh packets from your local greengrocer. A whiff of freshly ground cumin should deliver a good smack to the nostrils.

Quick oven-baked chicken breasts in a spicy yoghurt-coconut sauce

For the marinade:

3 small cloves fresh garlic, skinned
1 T (15 ml) grated or chopped fresh ginger
1 T (15 ml) powdered cumin
2 t (10 ml) powdered coriander
1 tsp (5 ml) turmeric
1 tsp (5 ml) cayenne pepper or chilli powder (to taste; leave this out if you are feeding heat-sensitive kids. One or two depipped, finely shredded fresh green chillies will also do the trick)
juice of 1 lemon
1 cup (250 ml) thick fresh white yoghurt (Bulgarian, Greek or whatever looks fresh)
1 cup (250 ml) tinned coconut cream
salt and milled black pepper

For the dish:

8 deboned, skinned chicken breasts
5 thin slices of lemon, with peel
a few fresh curry leaves (optional)

For the garnish:
a handful of fresh coriander (cilantro), finely chopped

Put all the ingredients for the marinade into a food processor or liquidiser. Give the mixture a blitz at high speed, so that all the ingredients are thoroughly blended. Put the chicken breasts, lemon slices and curry leaves into an ovenproof ceramic dish and aggressively prick the chicken pieces, top and bottom, with a fork.

Pour the marinade ingredients over the chicken breasts and, using your hands, toss and turn the chicken and the lemon slices to that everything is thoroughly coated in marinade. Cover the dish with a piece of cling film and set aside in a cool place for an hour or two. (If you're going to marinate them for longer than two hours, put them in the fridge, and increase the cooking time - given below - by 8 or so minutes).

About 35 minutes before you're ready to eat, turn the oven on high (200°C) and allow to preheat for 15 minutes. Remove the clingfilm and the lemon slices from the dish and put it into the oven.

Cook for 20-25 minutes, or until the marinade is bubbling gently. Remove the dish from the oven and make a deep cut through the thickest part of the biggest fillet. If there is no pinkness in the flesh, remove the dish from the oven. If there is a little rosiness, return the dish the oven and cook for another five minutes (but not a second more). The chicken should be just cooked.

Just before serving, sprinkle the chopped fresh coriander all over the breasts.

Serve with spicy rice, or a green salad, or on its own.

Good on toast the next morning.

Serves 4 - 6
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