Chicken Curry. Photo by Donna Turner Ruhlman.

My dear old pal Blake, author of two superlative biographies of American authors, Richard Yates and John Cheever, and currently the authorized biography of Philip Roth, ended a recent email with “and send me that damned curry recipe.”

Blake works very hard, both as a writer (he has not one, but two new books coming out, a memoir and a biography of Charles Jackson), and as a teacher at Old Dominion University. His wife, a psychologist, works as well. They have a young daughter, and provided they aren’t flooded out of their home in Virginia and their generator is working (weather tends to follow him—read his Slate stories on being a Katrina victim), one of them will be charged with putting dinner on the table tonight.

Both he and Mary want their meal to be as delicious as possible. Contrary to what the eminent cook and publisher recently told a writer for the New York Times, cooking doesn’t have to be difficult and exacting. It just takes a little planning.

For this recipe, the planning involves upending a package of boneless, skinless chicken thighs onto a sheet pan and roasting them at 425°F for 30 minutes. This can be done the day before, or even 2 or 3 days before, or the day of while you’re reading the newspaper and bundling the young bear off to school. Or when you get home from work.

Then simply cut up an onion and carrot and sauté them till tender. While they’re sautéing, get out some curry powder, turmeric, and cayenne, and cut the meat into bite-size pieces. Put them all together in a pot, add 2½ cups of water, bring to a simmer, and cook for 20 minutes. While it’s simmering, make some basmati rice and steam some green beans or nuke some frozen peas. If you want, thicken the curry with cornstarch at the end, and you’re good to go.

If you’ve had the forethought to buy some cilantro, that adds flavor and color. I had leftover scallions last night, so I used those instead. I love cashews on my curry, but they’re not necessary.

What makes this good? Chicken thighs. They have some fat on them; they’re well-used muscles and so are tasty once they’re tenderized by cooking and cutting. High-quality curry powder (must post about making your own one day, but for now, just make sure it wasn’t purchased 5 years ago). And water (please don’t be tempted to use canned or boxed chicken “broth”—you’ll ruin the clean flavors), the great flavor extractor and melder. That’s it.

Want to kick it up a notch? Make white wine part of the 2½ cups of water you add. Brown 2 tablespoons of butter, then add to it 1 tablespoon each of minced ginger and garlic and stir that into the curry at the last minute. But again, if it’s been a long day: onions, carrots, spices, chicken, water, done.

Easy Curry For Blake

  • 1 package boneless, skinless chicken thighs—8 or so
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 large carrot, chopped
  • Kosher salt as needed
  • 1 tablespoon good-quality curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  1. Dump the chicken thighs onto a foil-covered sheet tray, and roast in a 425°F/218°C oven for 30 minutes. This can be done up to 3 days before serving.
  2. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, heat the oil and add the onion and carrot. Add a 4-finger pinch of salt, about a teaspoon. Cook until tender, about 5 minutes (the longer you cook the onion, the more flavorful the sauce).
  3. Clear away a spot in the pan, add the curry powder, turmeric, and cayenne to the bare spot, and toast the seasonings for about 30 seconds. Then stir to coat the vegetables.
  4. Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces and add them to the pan.
  5. Add 2½ cups of water and bring the curry to a simmer, lower the heat, and cook for at least 20 minutes and up to 30 minutes (then serve, or cover and keep warm till ready to serve).
  6. If you want to thicken the curry, stir the cornstarch into 2 tablespoons of water and add the slurry to the sauce, slowly, until it reaches the thickness you want.

Serves 4 easily, even 6 depending on sides.

Note: This technique of pre-roasting chicken thighs can be turned into a chicken bolognese by omitting curry and using pureed tomatoes for the liquid along with a bay leaf and oregano; or an Asian stir-fry by starting the dish with scallions, ginger, and garlic, adding 2 tablespoons hoisin, 1 tablespoon chili paste with garlic, and soy sauce, followed by the chicken and enough water to make a sauce. It’s infinitely variable.

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© 2012 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2012 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.