Tandoori Therapy

05/12/2015 08:07 am ET | Updated May 12, 2016

During the course of promoting my book, Sweet Survival: Tales of Cooking & Coping, I've been asked the following questions:

1) How many psychiatrists have you seen? (Three or four, depending upon how you count them. Do you count the one I saw senior year in college, who told my mother I was an "attractive young lady" and wanted me to give up my banking job in New York City so I could stay in Boston without a job but see him? Or the one I saw briefly in high school, who was also my parents' marriage counselor, and when he asked how the kids were doing and my parents answered, "Fine," he didn't believe them and called me in?)
2) Why aren't you fatter? (Daily spin and sporadic Pilates.)
3) Are you still married? (Yes. My husband likes how I cook.)
4) What's your favorite food? (Indian.)
5) Did you make any of these recipes up yourself? (No.)

No. To my shame, I did not make up any of the recipes in my book out of whole cloth. I can follow a recipe and I can make substitutions but I have never created a recipe from scratch. I don't have a degree from a culinary institute. What I have is a master's degree in fiction writing, arguably one of the most useless degrees in the world. But I come from food. My mom is a great cook and so is my brother. My father used to go to Zabar's and buy everything in sight. Cooking and eating is what we did for fun as a family. (The fun stopped in the kitchen, but you'll have to read the book to get those stories.) I have never developed my own recipe, unless you count adding chocolate chips to brownies so that if you stick them in the freezer, and they get dried out and covered with freezer frost, they will still taste fudgy and moist. But that's not even something I discovered. I got that from my cousin Charles, who used to own a bakery in Tribeca.

So it was nagging at me that I had never made up a recipe when I opened up the freezer and saw we had four whole chickens. Most of my life is spent trying to figure out how I am going to use the chicken in our freezer. I order 16 pounds of chicken through my friend Terri every two weeks. She places a big order with Goffle Road Poultry Farm, and she has to order at least $150 worth for them to deliver to our part of New Jersey. Terri gets a group together and we all place our orders and pick up at her house. I order two whole chickens, two pounds of bone-in thighs, two pounds of boneless thighs, two pounds of bone-in breasts and two pounds of boneless breasts. But we had been away in March and I been away two weekends doing readings in Nashville and San Francisco, and while I was away, the men in my house lived on pizza, so the chickens piled up. Usually, I roast a whole chicken on Sundays, the one night we sit down to dinner together as a family. But now I had four whole chickens. I had to use those babies up before the next delivery. So I made a plain roast chicken on a Monday night. It was delicious but nothing fancy, just roasted with garlic, butter and onions.

The next day, Junior came over. Junior is a handyman. I needed help cleaning out our basement and garage. My older son is going off to college next year. My younger son is starting high school. It was time to get rid of crap and Junior is a genius at moving things around, telling you what to toss (old carpet remnants, bar mitzvah centerpieces, sticky baseballs) and making everything look better than it should. After we'd cleaned out the basement, he rearranged things on the basement "art table" and chose a "gold" bowl that one of my kids had spray painted to put at the center of the table. The room suddenly looked magical. We made two trips to the dump and put a bunch of stuff into the recycling bin. I felt true love for Junior (and it wasn't just because when he walked by my 22-year-old wedding picture, he laughed, pumped me in the arm and said "You're still a star.") It was time for lunch. I would normally run out and buy him a sandwich but we still had plenty of roast chicken and sweet potatoes from the night before. Roast chicken is always better the next day. The chicken has had time to sit in the buttery garlic and absorb its yummy flavor. I made him a plate, heated it up and went to look for more things to throw out.

The next day, I went to see my therapist. I have been seeing my therapist so long, I don't know if you really could say I'm in therapy anymore. It's more like I like this woman and I'm paying her to like me back and my insurance company has agreed to subsidize the friendship. We both have two sons, wear black when we work and attended women's colleges. I know she likes orchids and hiking; and I'm pretty sure she likes to cook, or else she likes to read about cooking, because she always knows what I'm talking about when I reference a story in The New York Times Food section. I told her how happy it made me to work with Junior and serve him roast chicken for lunch. I described how I had browned the chicken in olive oil and butter, thrown some onions and a handful of unpeeled garlic into the pan, roasted it for an hour, made it up as I went along.

My therapist nodded. "I have a friend," she said. "She did a big renovation, bigger than mine, and every day, she roasted a chicken for the construction crew. I didn't do that. But it's something to think about." I suddenly had a million questions. Where had she done a renovation, her apartment or her country house? How much had it cost her and why didn't she roast a chicken for her crew? Then she yanked me out of my reverie. "There's something there," she said. My therapist never says, Do this, stop that. She offers observations, throws out subtle nudges that mean, Think about that back in Jersey. I wasn't sure what she thought was there, but I knew I was supposed to look for it.

The following night, I did a reading at Bloomingdale's. You might not have realized that Bloomingdale's brings in authors to read from their books. They do. Someone was going to cook four recipes from my book, I was going to read some essays and the audience members would eat, ask questions and buy pots and pans. Bloomies had bought a pile of my books. It was a great gig. When I arrived at Bloomingdale's, the place smelled like cinnamon. A beautiful Indian woman named Sajal was standing behind a stove. She had bright blue eye shadow and her hair pulled up in a chignon. She was busy making Singapore chicken, chocolate chip pound cake covered with cinnamon and shrimp with cumin. All I had to do was make the buttered coffee. While we waited for the coffee to brew, we discussed Indian food. There are no Indian restaurants where I live. I asked her where she went out to eat. She mentioned Morristown and Edison, which has a big Indian population and a zillion Indian restaurants. Both towns are half an hour from my house. She'd given me an idea. She was making my food, I would make hers. I would roast chicken, with coconut milk and tandoori spices.

As it happens, there is a recipe for roast chicken braised in milk, sage and cinnamon sticks in my book. I got it from Stacey Snacks, who got it from Jamie Oliver. The next day, I substituted coconut oil and coconut oil for olive oil and regular milk, left out the sage, and measured out equal parts cardamom, cayenne pepper, cloves coriander, cumin, ginger, nutmeg, and turmeric, then covered the chicken with it. The chicken was wonderful, that night and the next. Oh, the joy of playing with an old idea and uncovering a new one. We'll discuss this next session.

Tandoori Chicken
(adapted from Sweet Survival: Tales of Cooking & Coping)

One chicken, 3-4 pounds
2-tablespoon coconut oil (one to melt and pour over chicken the day before, one for braising)
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups coconut milk
Zest of two lemons
Ten garlic cloves, unpeeled
Two teaspoons tandoori seasoning (If you want to make your own, use equal parts cardamom, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, ginger, nutmeg and turmeric. Store whatever you have left over.)
1 teaspoon kosher salt

The day before you plan to make the chicken, wash chicken and pat dry. Put chicken in big glass bowl or on plate. Melt one tablespoon of coconut oil in microwave for 45 seconds. Pour coconut oil over chicken. Sprinkle one teaspoon salt and two teaspoons tandoori seasoning over chicken. Cover with plastic wrap and put in fridge (you can also place the seasoned chicken in a big ziplock bag if you don't have a glass bowl.)

The day you plan to make chicken, bring chicken to room temperature and heat oven to 375 degrees.

Heat a heavy, oven-proof pot on the stove (make sure it has a tight-fitting lid; I used my mother's old yellow Dutch oven). Add butter and coconut oil. Brown chicken all over, for about 10 minutes, until all sides are golden brown.

Sprinkle chicken with lemon zest and add garlic cloves and coconut milk. Cover and bake in oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes. Remove lid and cook for another 15 minutes, so an hour and a half altogether.

The chicken will be falling off the bone by the end. Remove the bones and save for stock. Remove garlic from their shells. Voila. You are done, and everyone you hand this to will be deliriously happy.

Laura Zinn Fromm is the author of Sweet Survival: Tales of Cooking & Coping, published by Greenpoint Press, available from Amazon, BN.Com, Words Bookstore, Watchung Booksellers, Parnassus, Bookworm, Book Passage, Bloomingdale's and Canyon Ranch.

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