A lot of Indian recipes involve toasting spices and/or frying onions in oil or ghee at the end. This gets stirred into the stewed portion of the dish and served immediately. It's very similar to the Latin cooking method of soffrito, in which a mixture of onions, peppers, garlic and spices gets fried in oil at the end of a cooking process and added into, for instance, boiled black beans.
There are two problems with this for how I cook:
1.) It creates another dirty pan.
2.) I burn things way too easily when I do this.
Toasting spices in hot oil and frying onions are fairly delicate operations and putting them at the end of the cooking process, when I'm concerned about getting to the table on time, boiling rice, etc, is just not feasible for me. I need a bit more of a French-style layering approach, where the more labor-intensive portion is at the beginning, and I think I can do this without losing too much.
Or maybe I just haven't had it explained to me why frying spices at the end is better than doing it at the beginning and having the flavors fully incorporated into the final dish. We cook with leftovers in mind, and curry is almost always better the next day anyway, so I don't see a great deal of potential hazard in re-ordering the traditional recipes a bit.
One-pot Chettinad Chicken (or Tofu)
2 lbs fresh tomatoes
1 tsp cumin seed
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
1 tbsp coriander seed
1 tbsp poppy seed
1 tbsp fennel seed
2 green cardamom pods
1/2 a cinnamon stick (or 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon)
3 dried red chilis (available at Indian markets)
1 tsp salt
1 cup plain yogurt
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp minced ginger
Juice of 1 large lime
2 1/2 lbs chicken thighs, chopped into chunks OR packages firm tofu, chopped into chunks
3 tbsp vegetable oil or ghee
1 large or 2 medium onions, sliced thinly
2 sprigs fresh curry leaves (available at many Indian markets)
6 pods dried red chilis
Core tomatoes and score the bottom of each with an X. Put in a large bowl and cover with boiling water for one minute. Run cold water into the bowl until tomatoes are cool enough to handle. Strip off skins, half tomatoes across the equator, and squeeze out seeds. Chop tomatoes coarsely and set aside.
In a dry skillet combine the cumin, coriander, peppercorns, poppy seed, fennel seed, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. Toast over medium heat until fragrant. The cumin seeds will darken first. When they do so, take off heat and allow to cool. Grind to a fine powder with a clean, spice-dedicated coffee grinder.
Combine spice mix in a non-reactive bowl with Aleppo pepper, yogurt, garlic, ginger, salt, lime juice, and chicken. Marinate in the refrigerator for at least two hours, covered.
Heat vegetable oil or ghee in a heavy, non-reactive pot off-heat. Strip curry leaves into the oil, stir. Be careful, it will sputter. When the sputtering subsides, add 6 pods dried red chilis, stir until they darken, about 30 seconds. Then add onions. Cook until translucent.
Add yogurt-spice-chicken/tofu mixture and tomatoes. Bring to boil and simmer uncovered 30 minutes to reduce sauce. If liquid is still thin, you can thicken with a corn starch slurry (2 parts cold water, 1 part corn starch) or by sprinkling on and stirring in Wondra flour.
Serve over basmati rice, garnished with fresh cilantro. It's spicy, so you can try cooling it down with yogurt. (We added Mrs. Ball's chutney from South Africa, which went very well.)