Saturday, June 25, 2011

Balti spiced chicken with fennel and forbidden rice

Intrigued by the name and description, I recently bought a small jar of Balti Seasoning from Penzeys. According to Alan Davidson’s The Penguin Companion to Food, the term “Balti” refers to both the native cuisine of Baltistan, a region in the far northeast of Pakistan, and a wok-style pan used extensively in the preparation of Balti cuisine. I bought a jar of the spice both because it was something new and different that I had never heard of before, and because it smelled delicious. A quick Internet search suggests that many people have been intrigued by the spice’s magnificent aroma, but – like me – didn’t really know what to do with it (see, for example, "Looking for recipes for Penzeys Balti Seasoning").  One intriguing entry is that from Grace (“Unhelpful bile spewer”), who says, in part:

“I LOVE Indian food, and my absolute favorite dish is Matter Paneer (Peas and Cheese). When I smelled the Balti seasoning at Penzey’s, it smelled just like this dish to me so I had to buy it.”

She goes on to say that she can’t find a recipe for the dish that uses Balti Seasoning, and that she would really like any recipe that uses the spice. Like Grace, I don’t have a recipe, but my wife and I recently made one up that we thought turned out very well, so I have included it at the end of this post.

The seasoning mix itself is described on the Penzeys website, which lists the 18 ingredients that make up the blend. Among other things, this mix includes garlic and fennel, cumin and coriander, cardamom and clove, cilantro, star anise, and charnushka. I’m afraid I wasn’t familiar with this last ingredient, either, but Penzeys also sells this separately, and their catalog entry has this to say about it:

“Tiny, black, smoky flavored seeds found atop Jewish rye bread in New York. Used in Armenia, Lebanon, Israel, and India. Also referred to as black caraway or kalonji, charnushka is used heavily in garam masala.”

Since the Balti Seasoning mix includes both garlic and fennel – and we really like both of these ingredients – it seemed natural to include them in the chicken dish. We made it in a crock pot since we were both busy that day, and that allowed the flavors to blend together quite nicely. We served it with “forbidden rice,” the Chinese black rice that we had seen many times, but had never actually tried – it was a spectacular choice. In Ruth Reichel’s Gourmet Today: More than 1000 All-New Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen, she gives a recipe for “Black Rice with Scallions and Sweet Potatoes” (page 260), where she notes that, “The stunning color of this rice comes from the layers of black bran surrounding the white kernel.”

We also added one more “secret ingredient” to the dish: mushroom powder. This is something we were introduced to at the fabulous mushroom stand at the Saturday morning market in Oerlikon, Switzerland when we lived there.  You never knew what you would find there.  Our standard order was “ein hundert gramm gemischte” - about a quarter of a pound of assorted mushrooms - that might include every color of the rainbow and just about every strange shape you could think of.  One day, the mushroom guy introduced us to mushroom powder, which we came to love as a flavoring ingredient.  For a long time after we returned to the U.S., we couldn't find mushroom powder anywhere, until we took a culinary excursion to New York and discovered Kalustyan's.  They carry an amazing range of edibles, including mushroom powder, which is available on-line (just follow the links from their main page to “Mushrooms” and look down the list for “Mushroom Blend Powder”).   According to The Ultimate Mushroom Book A Complete Guide to Identifying, Picking and Using Mushrooms--A Photographic A-Z of Types and 100 Original Recipes, by Peter Jordan and Steven Wheeler, mushroom powder is made from finely ground dried mushrooms that can be used in soups, stews, and curries, but should be used sparingly.  We used a bit of it in the recipe below to bring out the flavor of the fresh mushrooms.  To serve, we paired the dish with a Pinot Grigio, which Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page recommend in their book, What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea - Even Water - Based on Expert Advice from America's Best Sommeliers with chicken (highly recommended), garlic, fennel, and tomatoes, all of which we had included in our recipe.


2 chicken breasts (i.e., 4 halves)

1 large fennel bulb

1 large leek

4 tomatoes, quartered

1 cup forbidden (black) rice

4 cups chicken stock (2 cups for the rice, 2 cups in the crockpot)

½ pound fresh baby bella mushrooms, sliced

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ teaspoon Penzeys Balti Seasoning (¼ teaspoon to sauté chicken, ¼ teaspoon for the crockpot)

¼ teaspoon mushroom powder ( 1/8 teaspoon to sauté chicken, 1/8 teaspoon for the crockpot)

salt and pepper, to taste


1. Wash and pat dry the chicken breasts and sprinkle with salt, pepper, ¼ teaspoon Balti Seasoning, and 1/8 teaspoon mushroom powder.  Sauté 3 minutes per side.

2. Put the chicken breasts in the bottom of the crockpot.  Roughly chop the fennel, wash and chop the leek, and add to the crockpot, along with the mushrooms and the tomatoes.  Add 2 cups of chicken stock and the minced garlic.  Sprinkle with the remaining ¼ teaspoon Balti Seasoning and the remaining 1/8 teaspoon mushroom powder, cover the crockpot and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours, stirring the ingredients once or twice near the end of the cooking time.

3. During the last 40 minutes of the cooking time, melt the butter in a sauce pan, add the rice and sauté for a few minutes. Add the remaining 2 cups of chicken stock, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes.