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Country Captain: An American Curry Goes Native

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moonshine, country captain,bobby flay,scott peacock,mccormick spices,Matt and Ted Lee,Miss Leslie,Miss Leslie's New Cookery Book,curry powder,Mintel,curry,Indian,subcontinent,immigrants

Moonshine still confiscated by US government, circa 1921

It sounds like a whiskey and one that doesn’t leave you feeling very well in the morning.

But Country Captain is actually an American “curry,” a chicken dish made with bell peppers, onions and curry powder. I know — I’d never heard of it either. It’s one of those things where an editor calls and says “Know anything about….”

Here’s the backstory: Country Captain was supposedly brought to the U.S. in the 19th century by a British sea captain who’d served in India, where his ilk were called “country captains.” The dish (again, allegedly) landed in the South — perhaps Charleston, perhaps Savannah (the two cities have been duking it out for 150 years.) But the earliest written record of the dish can be found in a Yankee cookbook, “Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book,” published in Philadelphia in 1857. So….provenance in contention.

But the really cool thing is the way that American immigrant culture has brought the dish full circle. Until about five years ago, recipes called exclusively for pre-packaged curry powder, you know, the bottle of McCormick’s you buy in the supermarket. But the rising influx of Indian immigrants, the proliferation of Indian restaurants (the fastest growing segment of the ethnic food market according to a 2009 survey by market research group Mintel) and the sheer visibility of Indians (Aasif Mandvi? That Pizza Hut commercial with the Indian family? That terrible sitcom Outsourced?) have made Americans more aware of — and more receptive to — genuine Indian flavors.

country captain, chicken curry, bobby flay, matt and ted lee, scott peacock, edna lewis, Miss Leslie, garam masala

photo by Holger Casselmann

In response, many chefs have re-Indianized the dish, applying the spices and techniques of the Subcontinent. Scott Peacock, a protege of Southern cooking doyenne Edna Lewis and an all around good guy, creates a masala of cardamom, cumin, coriander and cloves. Peacock also toasts his spices like a good Indian cook, and tops the dish with crispy fried onions. The brotherly duo Matt and Ted Lee add garam masasla and freshly grated ginger to their version. Even American grillmeister Bobby Flay gets his turmeric on (spiking it, of course, with ground chili de arbol.)

So let’s call Country Captain my new favorite metaphor for the American dream:  it arrives from a distant land, gets shaped by native-born Americans, and finally, is refreshed by the wisdom of the newly arrived.

So, of course you’ll want to try it. Here’s Bobby Flay’s recipe, as offered by foodnetwork.com. Make it on the Fourth of July.

Bobby Flay’s Country Captain

makes 4 servings


Curry Mix:

•                3 tablespoons ancho chili powder

•                2 teaspoons ground cumin

•                2 teaspoons ground coriander

•                2 teaspoons ground fennel

•                2 teaspoons ground turmeric

•                1 teaspoon ground cardamom

•                1 teaspoon ground cloves

•                1 teaspoon ground chili de arbol

•                1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Coconut Rice with Green Onions:

•                1 tablespoon unsalted butter

•                1/4 cup finely diced Spanish onion

•                2 cups long-grain rice

•                1 (13-14 ounce) can unsweetened coconut milk

•                1 cup water

•                1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

•                1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

•                4 green onions, thinly sliced

Country Captain Chicken:

•                2 teaspoons canola oil

•                6 slices bacon, diced

•                2 tablespoons unsalted butter

•                1 tablespoon canola oil

•                1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

•                Salt and freshly ground black pepper

•                8 bone-in chicken thighs, skin removed

•                1 medium Spanish onion, halved and thinly sliced

•                1 large bell pepper, halved, seeded and thinly sliced

•                2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

•                1/2 serrano chile, finely diced

•                2 heaping teaspoons Mesa curry mix, recipe above

•                1 cup dry white wine

•                2 cups homemade chicken stock

•                1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained well and coarsely chopped

•                Scant 1/4 cup currants or raisins

•                1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves

•                Honey

•                1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish

•                Slivered almonds, lightly toasted and chopped

•                Coconut Rice with Green Onions, recipe above


For the curry mix:

•                Combine all the spices in a small bowl.

For the coconut rice with green onions:

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add the onion and cook until soft, about 2 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat the grains in the butter. Add the coconut milk, water, salt and pepper and bring to a boil, stir once, cover the pot, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until tender, about 16 minutes.

Remove from the heat and let the rice sit, covered for 5 minutes. Remove the lid, fluff with a fork and fold in the green onion. Let sit 5 minutes before serving.

For the country captain chicken:

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Heat the oil in a large, high sided saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the bacon and cook until golden brown and crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels. Add the butter and 1 tablespoon of canola to the rendered bacon fat in the pan and heat until it begins to shimmer.

Put the flour in a shallow bowl and season liberally with salt and pepper. Season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper, dredge in the flour and tap off any excess. Sear the chicken on both sides until golden brown. Remove to plate.

Add the onion and bell pepper to the pan, season with salt and pepper and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and the serrano and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the curry powder and cook for 1 minute. Add the wine and cook until reduced by 3/4. Add the chicken stock, bring to a simmer and reduce slightly. Stir in the tomatoes, currants or raisins, thyme, 2 teaspoons of honey and season with a little salt and pepper and bring to a simmer. Nestle the chicken thighs into the pan, cover with a tight fitting lid and bake in the oven for 35 minutes. Remove the lid after 35 minutes and continue to bake an additional 15 minutes.

Remove the chicken to a platter and tent slightly to keep warm. Put the pan and sauce back on the burner over high heat and bring to a boil. Let the sauce reduce slightly, then season with salt, pepper, and honey, to taste. Stir in the parsley. Spoon the sauce over the chicken and top with the bacon, almonds and more parsley. Serve with Coconut Rice with Green Onions.

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