Balti Zafrani Chicken

Even as a non-Muslim, I love Ramadan, and as I’ve been celebrating it with Shan for the last five years I’m starting to feel that it’s my tradition as well. I feel that believers and non-believers alike can appreciate the sentiment of the holy month: to reflect, to be thankful, to avoid negativity. I enjoy the peaceful days and the fun evenings with friends. During this month the evening meal, Iftar, is kind of a big deal, so all month I am cooking exclusively Pakistani.

The meal: It is traditional to open the fast with a date as did the prophet (Shan is very picky and does not like dates, and so opens with salt, also acceptable). Then we have pakoras, which are potatoes or other vegetables battered in besam (chickpea flour) and fried, and watermelon. We have delicious sweet drinks like Rooh Afza or some concoction of peaches, Fanta and milk that our friend Mansoor has been mixing up. Then round two – whatever entree we’ve got going – and finishing up with milk tea.

I have a handful of Pakistani dishes already in my repertoire, but ventured to to learn something new. They have lots of recipes in English, so I chose Balti Zafrani Chicken.

Balti Zafrani Chicken

This is a spiced, rich and stewy chicken dish. It had me at Zafrani – saffron – which I love although I don’t cook with it often ($$$). “Balti” means bucket, and refers to the type of pot that this dish is traditionally cooked in. It’s apparently quite popular in the UK although I have not heard of it here in the US, but Shan and Mansoor seemed to know what it was so I took that as a sign.

I’ll go ahead and rewrite the recipe since I have a couple of different “western” techniques – I don’t know that they are western in particular, but just things I like to do differently. Namely, I salt the onions in the beginning so they sweat as well as adding salt later if I need to (but probably less in the end than your average Pakistani, at least the ones I know). I realize the onions brown better if you don’t salt them, but they also take longer, and I’ve never really noticed much of a difference so really I think you can do whichever you prefer. Also, instead of paste I like to use fresh garlic and ginger, and add the garlic at the same time as the onions so it can cook. Finally, none of the recipes I’ve seen have put an emphasis on browning the meat, but I think by carmelizing it a bit you really get a better flavor than by essentially just boiling the meat.

Recipe: Balti Zafrani Chicken

2 tbsp butter
1/4 c oil – by this point you realize this is not diet food
1 onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
One whole chicken, cut into 1-2 inch pieces – the original recipes calls for one lb of boneless cubes, but we usually get the bone-in variety and this is fine
One inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp red pepper – add more to taste
2 tbsp ground almonds – what a lovely way to thicken the sauce!
3/4 c yogurt
1/2 tsp saffron threads, crumbled
1/2 tsp allspice – a nice alternative to cinnamon!
2 tbsp cream
2 tbsp lemon juice

On high heat, melt the butter in the oil, and fry the onion until translucent and starting to turn golden brown. When the onion is almost done, toss in the garlic so that it can cook and not burn. Add chicken, ginger, black and red pepper, and fry for 5 minutes or so.

Stir it up, cover, and simmer on medium heat until chicken is cooked through, stirring occasionally and especially not letting it stick. In the meantime, warm the cream and combine with the saffron and allspice. When the chicken is cooked through (it should be very tender, almost falling off the bone), add the cream mixture and the lemon juice.

Cook a minute longer, garnish with cilantro and serve.

This turned out delicate and fragrant, really delicious. You can serve it with warm naan or as I did with pulao (lightly spiced rice and onions). I roasted some carrots with cumin as well and we had a very nice Iftar.

Zoeya’s Birthday – the Menu

My darling little baby is now a little girl. I cannot fully express how delightful it has been watching her grow, and each day she amazes me with her intelligence and her sweet nature. She is a talky, naughty, beautiful girl and I feel so lucky to be her mommy. This past Saturday, August 7, 2010, we celebrated her second birthday at home with family and friends. As Ilene Beckerman remembers the events of her life by what she wore, I think I can eventually title my memoirs “Love, Loss, and What We Ate” – and this event was nothing but Love.

Since Zoeya’s birthday falls in the summertime, it is the perfect occasion to grill out. Shan and I are known for our barbecues – he loves to grill up meat, meat, meat, and I like to make a bunch of salads, so it’s perfect for both of us. Zoeya likes dip. That pretty much sums it up.

Mmm dip.


Not exactly for two year olds, but I always make a sangria for our summer parties. I usually go the red route, but this time decided to try out this Ginger Sangria with peaches – and was not disappointed.

So, grilled meat:

We had tandoori chicken but I won’t bother with the “recipe” because I just marinated it in some yogurt, tandoori masala (Shan brand of course), lemon juice and olive oil. It was pretty good, but Shan’s is better.

We also had burgers. Say what you will about Rachael Ray – my opinion is that she is way too crazy and fake to watch, but I actually have a couple of her cookbooks and for the most part love her recipes. She has a whole bunch of burger recipes, and we made the Provençal Chicken Burgers with Pizzaladière Topping – (ground chicken burgers with herbs and fennel, with Swiss cheese, caramelized onions and olives). The first time we made them they were AMAZING, but this time they were a little dry. Still, I really love the herbs de Provence, and the caramelized onions, so this is definitely worth a try.


Of course I tossed some greens with avocado, lime juice, olive oil and octopus, for what is a party without octopus salad?

I turned to Food52 for a couple more ideas, and ended up making:
Creamy Cucumber “Side” (cucumbers, onions, yogurt, dill, Meyer lemon) and Spanish Roasted Potato Salad (roasted potatoes with a garlicky mayo). The cucumbers were pretty good, and even better the next day as leftovers. The potatoes, however, were AWESOME and we had no leftovers.

I also made a fruit salad/dessert – “Mojito” Fruit – that I found the recipe for on the basil packet. I balled a honeydew, tossed in a pint of blueberries, and poured a basil and lime simple syrup over it. It was simple, elegant, and refreshing.

And for the cake.

This was very important. For one thing, Zoeya was very, very excited about the cake. In the weeks leading up to her birthday, whenever anyone asked her about her birthday, no matter if the question was “Who’s having a birthday?” , “How old are you?” , “What do you want for your birthday?” – the answer always ended up at “Cake.” For another thing, Shan tried to convince me again and again to buy a cake. Something about if I messed it up I would get stressed out and cry, which is probably true, but I told him by God I’m making a cake for my daughter and stop mentioning the sheet cakes at Sams because I will not be thwarted.

I made Nigella’s Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake and it came out very nice. Very simple, no bells and whistles, just a few sugar jungle animals on top, but my little Zoeya loved it and that’s all I care about.

Happy Birthday, little Jojo, Mommy and Daddy love you and wish you a beautiful, happy year.