Book Club · Cooking · Freezer Meals · Main Dishes

Book Club – The Toss of a Lemon

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Ever since I read The Toss of a Lemon*  for the first time a few years ago, I’ve been eager to have some people to discuss it with. Not surprisingly, I’ve suggested to the book club a few times, and I was happy to learn it was this month’s selection.

The book deals with complex themes relating to social and political issues in India in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Topics include slowly changing legislation about child brides, attitudes regarding British rule, and the religious and social constraints placed on women, particularly widows. It’s a clash between generations and cultures, progress and traditions, with a dash of magical realism, and I found it absolutely fascinating. I’d like to think the world is a much different place today, but stories like this one about Brahmin widows celebrating Holi make me think that many traditions and social restrictions are still in place.

While the reason for a book club is to discuss the book, naturally, it’s also a really great excuse to make food inspired by the book. My selection was butter chicken, which is a departure from the vegetarian meals featured throughout the book. However, it’s one of my favorite Indian recipes to make, and I didn’t want to try out a new recipe at the last minute.

I use Gordon Ramsay’s Butter Chicken as the base for my recipe. It’s an easy and tasty recipe that gets rave reviews every time I make it. It’s even better the next day, and can be adapted to a freezer recipe.

First you marinate the chicken in yogurt mixed with lemon juice, garlic, ginger, garam masala, turmeric, cumin, and chili powder.

The Toss of a Lemon Menu - Marinade
Yogurt, lemon juice, and spices for the marinade.

Next the chicken is broiled before being added to the sauce. At this point you basically have tandoori chicken, which is wonderful on its own.

The Toss of a Lemon Menu - Tandoori Chicken
Tender tandoori chicken, fresh from the broiler.

More spices are sautéed in butter before being blended with tomato sauce, butter, and cream to make a rich and savory sauce for the chicken.

Garam masala, coriander, cardamom, turmeric, cloves, ginger, chili powder, garlic, and of course – butter!

My version has a bit more tomato sauce and cream than the original, mostly so I don’t have to figure out what to do with a partial can of sauce. I also add the juices from the chicken to the sauce, to thin it out and add additional flavor. It’s slightly different every time I make it, since I rarely measure exactly, but it’s always delicious.

Butter Chicken

Adapted from Gordon Ramsay

Ingredients for the chicken:

  • 1″ ginger, peeled and finely grated
  • 1/2 tsp fine sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp hot chili powder
  • 1 1/2 tbs lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 tsp garam masala*
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 2lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 2″ pieces

Ingredients for the sauce:

  • 1 1/2 tbs ghee or melted butter
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped, or 1/4 tsp asafetida
  • 1 cardamom pod, seeds lightly crushed
  • 2 cloves
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp garam masala*
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp hot chili powder, or to taste
  • 1/2 tsp ground fenugreek
  • 15 oz can tomato sauce
  • 1 tbs lemon juice, or to taste
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 3/4 cup heavy cream
  • chopped cilantro, to garnish

To Make the Chicken:

  1. Mix together all the marinade ingredients.
  2. Add chicken and mix, making sure that each piece is well coated. Cover and chill for 3-4 hours.
  3. Place the chicken pieces on a broiler pain or a rack set on a baking tray.  Place under the broiler at a low setting, and cook for 8-10 minutes.
  4. Turn the chicken over and broil for another 10-12 minutes, or until cooked through and the temperature is 165 F at the thickest point. If needed, brush the chicken pieces with a little oil to keep them moist.

To Make the Sauce:

  1. Heat the ghee or butter in a pan and add the garlic and ginger. Sauté for 1-2 minutes.
  2. Add the cardamom, cloves, coriander, garam masala, turmeric, fenugreek and chili powder. Stir well and sauté another 1-2 minutes, until fragrant.
  3. Stir in the tomato sauce and lemon juice and simmer for 3-5 minutes.
  4. Add the cooked chicken to the sauce and stir well to coat. You can use broth/drippings from the cooked chicken to thin out the sauce, if desired.
  5. Turn the heat to low. Add the butter and cream and stir continuously until the butter has melted and the sauce is smooth. Do not overheat the sauce after this point, or the delicate emulsion of sauce and butter will break, resulting in an oily sauce rather than a silky one.
  6. Taste and adjust the seasoning. It may need salt to enhance overall flavors, lemon juice to add brightness, chili powder for heat, cream to reduce the heat, or butter for the mouthfeel and silky texture.
  7. Serve hot, garnished with chopped cilantro. This is good over basmati rice or cauliflower rice, or with naan on the side.

To make ahead:

This can be made 1-2 days in advance and gently reheated. The flavors are better the second day, if you can stand to wait that long.

To freeze:

  1. Make the yogurt marinade and add the raw cubed chicken. Mix well.
  2. Portion the chicken into freezer bags.
  3. Make the sauce as directed, omitting the step where you add the cooked chicken.
  4. Portion the sauce into freezer bags.
  5. When ready to cook, defrost the marinated raw chicken and the finished sauce.
  6. Reheat sauce gently while you broil the chicken as directed above.
  7. Add cooked chicken to the sauce and stir well to coat. Add juices from the cooked chicken to thin the sauce, if desired.
  8. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Since I had extra yogurt after marinating the chicken, I decided to make a small batch of cucumber raita to go with it. This was a new recipe for me, and one I’ll definitely make again. The cool cucumbers and yogurt provided a pleasant contrast to the spices of the butter chicken, while the similar ingredients in both dishes complemented one another.

Cucumber Raita

Adapted from Epicurious.

  • 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped seeded cucumber
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 teaspoons chopped green onions
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
  • salt, to taste
  • lemon juice, to taste

Mix together yogurt, cucumber, cilantro, green onion, and spices. Season to taste with salt and lemon juice. Cover and chill until ready to serve. –

I had to try a little of each to make sure it was good enough to take to book club (it was), and also dropped off a portion to Wade for lunch. The rest disappeared at book club, as I suspected it would.

In addition to the butter chicken, we also had a spiced basmati rice, a spicy red lentil daal with chickpeas and onions, a simple cucumber raita, yellow pea daal with roasted eggplant and onions, and saffron rice. There was also a selection of Indian sweets, including laddu (balls of toasted chickpea flour and ghee flavored with cardamom and sweet spices), which was featured throughout the book. We ate way too much, because it was all delicious.

The Toss of a Lemon Menu -  Full meal

Admittedly, this is usually more drinking and social club than book club, but we actually discussed the book quite a bit this time! It met with mixed reviews, because some people felt the overall themes of tragedy and the confines of such strict moral and social expectations were too depressing to be enjoyable. While I would never call it an uplifting book, I did find it enlightening.

I would place it in the category of books like Cry, the Beloved Country or Like Water for Chocolate. These stories are complex and often tragic, but give a glimpse into a different time and culture. I find them interesting and moving, and I find myself rereading them every so often, because I get new things from them each time. If you like those types of books, I’d highly recommend it.

Hopefully the next book club selection will be more to everyone’s tastes. If nothing else, it sounds like we’re picking a Greek themed book so we can have Greek food. Maybe I was a little too enticing with my tales of Easter dinner?

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