Chana Masala: In which I owe Indian food an apology…

the beginning of a beautiful thing.

When I was experimenting with law school, which would ultimately become a very expensive mistake, I had FIVE roommates (a word of advice, if you are considering law school, DO NOT try to save money by living with five strangers. Law school is fraught with stress, emotion, lack of sleep and a lot of hard work. More personalities does not make it easier. And I liked my roommates.) One of these lovely ladies had an adoration for those sweet/spicy curries with coconut milk, and I have no idea what else she put in there, but even now, the memory of the smell makes me ill. With that impression burned in my mind, and no historical data to pull from, I wrote off Indian food as one of the few things I wouldn’t eat. It was a broad statement, but I didn’t know enough about it to read an Indian food menu and know what I would like and I couldn’t risk coming face to face with one of those scary curries.

That is, until I heard rumblings of a certain something called Chana Masala. I don’t know where this first came to my attention, perhaps in a dream. It is spicy, vegetarian and contains chickpeas, three things (until the free week chick pea encounter) typically made me run the other way, rather than get stuck in my head and haunt me until I made it, but I couldn’t help myself. I was intrigued. And then I was reading A Homemade Life and Molly did a chapter on a Chana Masala that her future husband made, and included a recipe. I figured it was a sign. I stocked up on the requisite ingredients (including a bunch of gorgeous spices from the Asian grocery store) and awaited the perfect opportunity to make it. A couple of weeks ago, the chance was upon me. That day was January 28th, which happened to also be the day of roasted chicken, and my first attempt at no-knead bread. Thinking back on it, that was a very busy day. So I made myself Chana Masala for lunch, and it was delicious. And I took all sorts of pictures, and then because I am me, I didn’t share it with you right away. And then this happened. My first thought was that great minds thought alike, and my second thought was that if someone read both blogs, and if, god forbid, Deb happened upon my blog, it would appear that I was a big fat copy cat. So I didn’t post, and I kicked myself for procrastinating. And then a serious dose of reality hit and I remembered that I have approximately 6 readers and Deb is a busy and much more established blogger, and probably wouldn’t notice the amateur wannabe that just happened to be posting about the same thing. So here I am, posting away.

One of the crucial ingredients of Chana Masala is garam masala. An Indian spice blend that, like ras al-hanout, has both a devout following and a million variations. Unlike ras al-hanout, garam masala is not terribly difficult to find in the grocery store. Because I am me, I decided to make it myself anyway. I had all my whole spices from the Asian market, and I found a fairly easy straight forward recipe for garam masala online. It said it came from Julie Sahni, a well-known and very well-regarded Indian cooking teacher in NYC. It sounded good to me. The components were black pepper, cardamom, coriander, cloves, a cinnamon stick, cumin, nutmeg and saffron if you like it. I toasted everything but the nutmeg and saffron over low heat in a dry cast iron pan, like so.

toasting

Once they are toasty, I took them off the heat, let them cool, and then ran them through my lovely little grinder that I got for Christmas. I added freshly grated nutmeg and the saffron, and my garam masala was complete. It smelled delightful.

garam masala

Once I had completed the spice blend it was time to get down and dirty. It starts with this.

the requirements.

If you want a rundown, that would be chickpeas, canned whole tomatoes, an onion, garlic, garam masala, coriander, green cardamom pods, red pepper flakes, ground ginger, cumin, cilantro, and anything else you see in that picture that I might have forgotten to mention.

It starts with a very browned and caramelized onion. Like so.

toasty.

Then you add the garlic and all the spices except the red pepper. One being ground coriander, which I broke out the mortar and pestle to take care of. I could have done it in my spice grinder, but it was just a small amount, and I like the way stuff looks in the mortar and pestle.

so artistic

It all goes into the pot with the onions and gets nice and toasty. Then you add just a little bit of water to scrape up the brown bits on the bottom of the pan.

spicy

Once the water has completely evaporated, it’s time for the tomatoes. First you add the juice, and then you crush the tomatoes with your hands as you add them to the pot.

beware the claw.

The whole thing simmers for awhile, and then you add the cilantro and the red pepper flakes (or cayenne.) Usually I avoid cilantro, as you might have heard, but in this case, I figured I would go with it.

delicious, in spite of it.

This simmers for awhile and thickens, and then you add the chickpeas.

the main event.

You are pretty much done at this point. You add a little water a couple of times and let it cook off to concentrate flavor, and then you can choose to serve it either with yogurt stirred in, or with lemon on the side.

with yogurt

My anticipation did not go unrewarded. This was delicious. Filling but not heavy, tomato-y, spicy but not overly so. And great the next day. So there you go. Turns out I like Indian food. What’s next?

Happy Valentine’s Day, and Happy SAD, if you are one of the privileged that celebrates Single’s Awareness Day. Make this for someone you love.

Chana Masala (serves 4)

from Molly at Orangette

Good-quality olive oil

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

2 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp cumin seeds

½ tsp ground coriander

¼ tsp ground ginger

1 tsp garam masala

3 cardamom pods, lightly crushed

1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes

1 tsp kosher salt, or to taste

1 Tbs cilantro leaves, roughly torn, plus more for garnish

A pinch of cayenne, or to taste

2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed

6-8 Tbs plain whole-milk yogurt, optional

A few lemon wedges, optional

Film the bottom of a large saucepan or Dutch oven—preferably not nonstick—with olive oil, and place the pan over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until it is deeply caramelized and even charred in some spots. Be patient. The more color, the more full-flavored the final dish will be.

Reduce the heat to low. Add the garlic, stirring, and add a bit more oil if the pan seems dry. Add the cumin seeds, coriander, ginger, garam masala, and cardamom pods, and fry them, stirring constantly, until fragrant and toasty, about 30 seconds. Add ¼ cup water, and stir to scrape up any brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Cook until the water has evaporated away completely. Pour in the juice from can of tomatoes, followed by the tomatoes themselves, using your hands to break them apart as you add them. Add the salt.

Raise the heat to medium, and bring the pot to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, add the cilantro and cayenne, and simmer the sauce gently, stirring occasionally, until it reduces a bit and begins to thicken. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Add the chickpeas, stirring well, and cook over low heat for about five minutes. Add 2 Tbs water, and cook for another five minutes. Add another 2 Tbs water, and cook until the water is absorbed, a few minutes more. This process of adding and cooking off water helps to concentrate the sauce’s flavor and makes the chickpeas more tender and toothsome. Taste, and adjust the seasoning as necessary.

Stir in the yogurt, if you like, or garnish with lemon wedges and cilantro. Serve.

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