Coconut milk smooths, sweetens chicken thigh curry

Coconut milk smooths, sweetens chicken thigh curry


When housebound, I bake and I cook. And because I’m not going anywhere, I have the time to try my hand at recipes that take a bit more effort. I like mealtime dishes on the spicy side but not spicy-hot. Spices wake up my taste buds and help to liven familiar ingredients. In this case, chicken.

While traveling this winter, I picked up a kit of spices designed for the classic Indian dish, Chicken Tikka Masala. I put the package in the cupboard thinking I’d make the included recipe when I had more time. Well, that day has come. The kit’s recipe served as my starting point. It called for chicken breasts, but I’m a fan of chicken thighs, so I bought a package labeled skinless and boneless. The chicken gets marinated in a most interesting pasty concoction of spices and yogurt. After a stint in the fridge, the cold chicken and marinade bake until fork tender. The marinade liquefies in the oven’s heat, and all those spices penetrate into the chicken’s flesh, flavoring it. Ingenious! With its job done, you refrigerate the marinade for another use.

The actual sauce you make for this dish then becomes a typical curry with cumin, ginger, turmeric, garlic, chiles and onions. I also added tomato paste and canned tomatoes as the recipe specified, but I felt the sauce needed more richness and flavor. But what? Aha! Coconut milk. That should do it. And indeed it did. The coconut milk gave the sauce a velvety smoothness, and its sweetness tamed the heat from the chiles. Some frozen peas added color and a tad more sweetness. But I also wanted some tang. Lime juice to the rescue!

Curries are often served with green onions and peanuts. A sprinkle of both adds color and crunch. This is a fun dish to make and simply scrumptious to eat. Be sure to serve it with hot rice.

Chicken Thigh Curry with Coconut Milk

Makes 6 servings

This recipe calls for a lot of spices. I recommend buying them in small quantities in markets that sell them in bulk. Keep them in a cool, dark place, where their potency will last for a few months. Here’s a game plan for making this dish: Prep the chicken and marinade. Mix them together and refrigerate. Then prep all the remaining ingredients, including the toppings. Preheat the oven and bake the cold chicken. Once the chicken’s done, start cooking the rice, then move on to the curry sauce. Both the sauce and rice will be done at about the same time and dinner will be ready to serve.

The Chicken

1 1/2 to 2 pounds boneless and skinless chicken thighs

Marinade Ingredients

2 teaspoons garam masala

4 teaspoons sweet paprika or 2 teaspoons smoked paprika and 2 teaspoons sweet paprika

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon table salt

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1 teaspoon ground coriander

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup plain yogurt, any percentage fat

3 tablespoons milk, any percentage fat

Sauce Ingredients

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons cumin seeds

2 cups diced yellow onion

2 tablespoons chopped garlic

1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger

2 jalapeño or Serrano chiles, seeded and finely chopped

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes

1/4 cup water

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon table salt

1 can (13 ounces ) coconut milk, full-fat or low-fat

1 cup frozen peas


Chopped peanuts

Sliced green onion

Cilantro leaves (optional)

For serving

Cooked rice

Lime Wedges

1. Cut off excess patches of fat from the chicken, and cut each thigh in half.

2. For the marinade, whisk together the spices in a medium bowl. Stir in the yogurt, oil and milk to make a thick paste. Add the chicken and mix well to coat all the pieces. Cover and refrigerate.

3. Make the sauce. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet (12-inch) over medium heat. When hot, stir in the cumin seeds and cook, stirring, until the seeds are lightly toasted and aromatic, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the onion. Stir and cook until the onion softens and becomes translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic, ginger, and chiles, and cook until the onion begins to brown, about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook 2 to 3 minutes, stirring, until it takes on a deeper red color. Add the tomatoes with their juice, the water, turmeric, and salt. Stir and cook 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk and bring the sauce to an active simmer. Taste carefully and adjust seasoning with more salt, if necessary. Simmer over low heat for 5 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and cook the chicken.

4. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Arrange the cold chicken pieces and marinade in a single layer in a 9-inch square baking pan. Cover tightly with foil and bake about 45 minutes, until chicken is completely cooked and easily pierced with a sharp knife. The marinade will have become liquid.

5. Transfer the chicken pieces to the skillet with the sauce. Stir in the frozen peas. At this point you can either proceed to serving or refrigerate the skillet, covered loosely with foil, until serving time. You can also refrigerate the liquefied marinade. When completely cold, remove the surface fat and use the liquid to flavor a soup or to cook rice.

6. When ready to serve, cook up enough long grain rice to serve six. I like Basmati rice and prepare 1 1/2 cups according to package directions. Be sure to rinse the rice well with several changes of cool tap water. Get your toppings ready and have them in small bowls. Cilantro is optional. Cut 2 limes into wedges and put them onto a small plate. Set the toppings and limes on the dinner table.

7. Serving. Reheat the chicken and sauce on the stovetop over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until piping hot. Place generous spoonfuls of rice into heated pasta bowls or onto dinner plates. Top with the chicken and sauce, and bring to the table. Each diner should squeeze a wedge of lime onto the chicken and sprinkle their portion with green onion and peanuts.

Greg Patent is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author for “Baking in America,” a food journalist, blogger, and radio co-host for “The Food Guys” on Montana Public Radio. Please visit his blog,, and follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.


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