We’re having Chickie Fish for dinner tonight. “What the heck is Chickie Fish?” you ask. The answer to that question lies locked in the past, more than twenty years ago.
In 1990, Maggie and I lived in Austin, Texas. I could write a huge post talking about all of the disadvantages of Austin in the ’80s and ’90s, but you would undoubtedly get tired of reading it long before I ran out of things to say. For now, let’s just stipulate that, whatever else it was then and whatever it may have become since, Austin was not a great foodie mecca at that time. Worse yet, that was still in the early days of the Internet. Some of you younguns may not believe this, but there was no Yelp or Chowhound back then to help you find good restaurants. Your only choices were newspaper and magazine reviews and word of mouth.
So what were a couple of northern expatriates supposed to do when they got a craving for something that wasn’t Tex-Mex or pizza? We chose the geek’s answer: do it yourself! In particular, we went on a massive Indian food kick. We bought cookbooks, we experimented, and we largely succeeded in managing our cravings. Twenty plus years later, and no longer in Austin, we’ve got a plethora of restaurants at our disposal ranging from “good enough” to “excellent”, so we don’t do much Indian cooking any more, but we still dust off the Chickie Fish recipe periodically.
Chickie Fish is based on a recipe from one of the cookbooks we got back then: Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cookery, which was released to accompany a BBC TV series in 1982. That recipe, “Haddock baked in a yoghurt sauce” (Dahi wali macchi) was easy to assemble, and used only ingredients that we were able to find in Austin. Well, with one exception: haddock was not easy to come by. The recipe looked so promising that we had to give it a try, so we wound up substituting catfish, which was much more available. It worked, more-or-less, but the fish tended to be a bit temperamental, going quickly from undercooked to rubber, especially in our somewhat erratic oven. After some further experiments, we determined that chicken thighs were a more-than-adequate alternative to haddock or catfish. Of course, the recipe did specify “fish”, so we declared chicken an honorary fish, renamed the recipe to “Chicken fish baked in a yogurt* sauce”, and then concealed our crime by nicknaming it “Chickie Fish”.
* Note the change from British to US spelling. Just another part of the effort to confuse the issue.
The recipe has undergone further evolution over the years, becoming more low-fat friendly and even easier to prepare — we’ve eliminated the step of boiling down the sauce and adding butter, as well as tweaking the ingredients a bit.
Here then is the latest incarnation of Chickie Fish as prepared for tonight’s dinner. As written, it feeds us for two nights, sometimes with a bit left over for a lunch.
- 1 medium onion, peeled and sliced. Do not separate the rings. Keep the slices thick (1/4 inch) to ensure they keep some of their flavor and stay a bit crunchy — and to be sure that anyone who doesn’t like onions can easily avoid them.
- 1 1/2 – 2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into bite-sized chunks
- 16 oz fat-free Greek-style yogurt
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin seeds
- 3 tablespoons ground coriander seeds
- 1/4 teaspoon garam masala
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (chipotle makes an interesting alternative)
- 1 teaspoon peeled and finely grated fresh ginger
- 3 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- Preheat the oven to 375F
- In a bowl, combine yogurt, lemon juice, sugar, salt, black pepper, cumin, coriander, garam masala, cayenne pepper, and ginger. Mix well.
- Add the oil and mix again.
- Spread about a quarter of the mixture in the bottom of a large baking dish, and then cover that with the sliced onion.
- Spread another quarter of the mixture over the onions, then add the chicken pieces in a single layer.
- Spread the remaining mixture across the top of the chicken.
- Cover the dish and bake for 30 minutes. The chicken normally clumps together into a single mass; this is not desirable as it will not cook evenly. Break up the mass with a fork, then continue cooking for another 15 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and allow to rest for five minutes.
Serve the Chickie Fish in bowls over rice. Make sure to include plenty of the “juice” in each bowl: the liquid has too much flavor to lose!
To reheat the leftovers, return it to a 250F oven for 20 – 30 minutes. Be careful with microwave reheating: nuke it even a little too hard and the onions will get mushy while the chicken gets rubbery.