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COOKING LOCAL Chana Masala

November 11, 2011

    Welcome back to the kitchen. The clocks have changed and we are officially

entering into the dark and cold times. If you are someone who gets up in the dark, works all day, and returns home

in the dark once again, this time of year can sometimes start to feel a bit oppressive.
    Of

course when snow falls and ski mountains open, winter takes on a whole new joy. But I also think there are foods

we can eat to brighten these dark days and transport us, albeit mentally, to sunnier climes.

/>    I am a huge fan of Indian food. I spent 6 months in India in 2005, and an amazing array of

new food experiences was certainly one of many highlights. In my experience, by and large the Indian food we get

here is richer and milder, perhaps dumbed down and fattened up for American taste.
    And we

eat far more meat dishes in our Indian food here than I did while I was actually traveling the continent. Now, I

love meat. But Indian cuisine is one of those that have refined vegetarian cooking to a high and exciting art

form. There are many vegetarians in India, and vegetarian dishes are popular even among those who sometimes eat

meat. There is so much variety among Indian dishes that skipping the meat really doesn’t feel like going

without at all.
    I should note here that I feel a bit silly talking about Indian food as

if it could be classified as one cuisine. India is a nation of over 1 billion people, with hundreds of spoken

languages and many distinct ethnic, cultural, and religious groups. Bengali food is very different from Tamil food

which is very different from Punjabi food. In fact, the Wikipedia article on various Indian cuisines lists 33

distinct regional cuisines throughout the country!
    Fresh and dried spices play an

important role in many Indian dishes, and it is important to add flavors at various stages to get a true depth of

flavor. Tossing in some old curry powder at the end just won’t cut it, I’m afraid.

/>    And this leads me to an important note on spices. When looking at authentic Indian recipes it

can be intimidating to consider buying all those different spices. But it is totally worth it. For one thing, this

will be your only major expense. Today we are going to cook a popular Punjabi dish made up mostly of chickpeas,

which are very cheap. And if having a pantry full of wonderful spices inspires you to cook up a slew of exotic and

delicious dishes, all the better!
    Fresher spices are always better, because even when

dried they do lose their potency over time. So try finding a spot that sells spices in bulk, buy smaller

quantities, and store them in airtight containers in a cool, dark place. But enough talk, let’s get to

cooking!
    Today we are going to make a classic northern Indian dish that has become popular

all over the world. It is called chana masala, or sometimes chole channa. It is basically chickpeas (known as

chana) stewed with tomatoes, onions, and lots and lots of delicious spices. It is often served with a puffy fried

bread called puri, or roti or naan (other Indian breads), or even over rice.
    For local

ingredients we can definitely make use of chickpeas grown in the Palouse region of our state, which also grows

great lentils and beans. Local onions and garlic also store very well, so hopefully you have a stash of these. For

spices, we have no choice but to import some of the more exotic flavors. The search for new and delicious spices

is an ancient quest, launching many explores into the unknown.
    Now, you can use canned

chickpeas for this dish, but it will be definitely lacking in flavor and consistency. So before we go any further,

let’s take a bag of chickpeas and soak them in cold water overnight, or for at least six hours. For best

results, you really can’t avoid this soaking step, so we will just have to plan ahead.

/>    Here is an interesting chickpea (and other dried soaking bean) tip I recently learned: add in

a bit of baking soda, say a half teaspoon or so, both when soaking and cooking your garbanzo beans. This creates

an alkaline environment that allows more water to penetrate, so they will soften faster and cook softer and more

delicious.
    When your chickpeas have soaked overnight, drain off the water and put them in

a medium pot. Cover over with cold water once again and add a bit more baking soda. Bring to a boil and them

simmer for about an hour or so, or until they are completely tender but not mushy and falling apart. One Indian

recipe I found suggested adding a teabag when cooking the garbanzo beans, to add a nice color. This is totally

optional. Another way to cook chickpeas much more quickly, and a method common in India, is to use a pressure

cooker.
    In any case, I’m going to assume you have already soaked and cooked your

chickpeas, and we can get started with this richly spiced, somewhat tangy, and thoroughly delicious chana

masala.
    We will need:

-about 4 cups of cooked chickpeas (I actually use a bit

more), soaked overnight and boiled until tender (reserve some of the cooking liquid)
-2 large or 4 smaller

tomatoes (at least 2 cups), roughly chopped (some recipes call for canned tomato, but I think this leads to a

tomato sauce like taste, so I prefer fresh)
-2 medium onions, finely chopped
-2 tbsp finely chopped or

grated ginger
-4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced or finely crushed
-about ½ bunch fresh chopped

cilantro leaves (called coriander in some parts of the world)
-1-2 fresh hot green chilies, finely chopped

(remove seeds if you want it milder)
-1 teaspoon ground channa masala spice powder (if the ingredients list

amchoor, this is dried green mango powder and adds an important sour note. If your chana masala doesn’t have

amchoor, we can add more citrus for the sour notes) You might think of this as just curry powder, and it has SOME

similar ingredients, but see if you can’t specifically find chana masala powder. You can also make it

yourself by roasting the spices needed in a dry pan and grinding in a coffee grinder. I’ll post homemade

chana masala powder recipes online.
-whole masala spices (cinnamon stick, cardamom pods, cloves, bay leaf,

and mace—which is the dried covering of the nutmeg seed and is said to have a similar but milder flavor)

just a couple pieces of each of those spices
-1 teaspoon turmeric powder
-1 tablespoon whole cumin

seeds
-juice of ½ to 1 whole lime (lemon is ok too)
-about ½ teaspoon salt
-2

tablespoons coconut oil or regular cooking oil

    To get started, add your oil to a

large, heavy bottomed pan and heat up to medium high. Add the whole garam masala spices: a few cardamom pods, a

cinnamon stick or two (maybe split up if it is a giant stick), a few cloves, a few pieces of whole mace, and a bay

leaf or two. Next add the cumin seeds.
    This is a classic way of starting many Indian

dishes, and heating these whole spices in the oil before anything else will add an incredible depth and subtlety

of flavor. When the cumin seeds begin to splutter, it is time to add the chopped onions and a pinch of salt. Turn

down the heat to medium and sauté the onions, stirring occasionally, until they brown a bit.

/>    Next add your ginger and garlic, plus the turmeric (the turmeric is optional, I suppose,

because it is also an ingredient in the chana masala powder. And you can maybe get away with skipping a couple of

the other spices, but try to get as many of them in as you can for the real authentic flavor. Some recipes

don’t use the whole masala spices in the beginning, relying instead entirely on the chana masala powder. If

you do this, use plenty and don’t be shy!). I may have been a bit conservative with the amount of ginger and

garlic added. You will have a hard time overdoing it!
    When the garlic and ginger have

cooked a bit, turn the heat down a bit more to medium low and add the chopped tomatoes. While the tomatoes are

cooking, add the chopped green chiles. You want to let the tomatoes cook down fully, until they are pretty much

completely falling apart. Next add the chana masala powder and keep cooking the tomatoes down. Yum, this is

smelling pretty incredible already!
    Your mixture may be getting a little bit dry at this

point, so make sure you cook it on a lower heat until the tomatoes are fully cooked. Next add a splash of the

chickpea cooking liquid, about a cup or so, and mix thoroughly so the tomatoes are completely mashed in.

/>    Now it is time to add all of your chickpeas into the fragrant sauce. You can turn the heat

back up a bit so the sauce bubbles and thickens. Make sure your chickpeas are completely cooked before adding into

the sauce; otherwise it will take forever to cook! But if the garbanzo beans are fully cooked, it won’t take

long to finish this dish at all.
    Now taste your chana masala. It may well need a bit more

salt. Were you too conservative with your chana masala powder? You can add more of that spice mix or just some

cayenne pepper if you want more spiciness. Finish off the dish with plenty of fresh chopped cilantro leaves and a

squeeze of fresh lime juice (use the whole lime if you like it more tart).
    Wow! It may

have seemed a bit complex at first glance, but once you get the hang of it this is actually a very manageable and

very authentic Indian delicacy. It has plenty of protein from the chickpeas, and is packed with both dynamic and

subtle flavors. For simplicity’s sake I’m going to serve this with some steamed basmati rice and not

bother with trying to make homemade flat bread. I’m also going to serve it with a dollop of plain yogurt to

cut the heat (you could also make classic Indian spiced yogurt with cucumbers and onions called raita).

/>    Nice work, this is an absolutely fabulous exotic dish to chase away the cold and dark winter

nights. Give it a try and you will see it is well worth the effort! I’d love to hear your favorite dishes

from foreign lands. Send me any questions or comments to Isaac@kohoradio.com. Cooking local in the KOHO kitchen,

I’m Isaac Kaplan-Woolner.
 

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