Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Orangette in D.C.; Chana Masala

I guess it's not very "Irish" to make Indian food on St. Patrick's Day... but I'm not very Irish either, so I'm alright with it. Plus, today was a very happy "food nerd" day for me, and not in the corned beef and cabbage sense. Molly Wizenberg, the author of my very favorite food blog, Orangette, was in town to read from her (amazing) first book, "A Homemade Life"!

I absolutely adore Molly's gorgeous writing and her clean, simple recipes. I've made countless dishes from her blog- banana bread with chocolate and candied ginger, fresh mint ice cream, brown buttered corn, French leek and soft-scrambled eggs sandwiches, and of course the infamous sweet and spicy bacon- and can't think of one that disappointed. She has an especially amazing way with humble vegetables, like brussels sprouts or cauliflower, and her recipe index is a perfect resource for trying something new.

Just a quick summary of Molly's story and her fabulous blog, for those unfamiliar- after growing up in an Oklahoma food-loving family, she struggled to meld her love for cooking and food into a sustainable life and career plan (um, sounds familiar!). She sadly lost her father to cancer during her first year of graduate school- warning to those reading the book, I sobbed reading her wrenching and eloquent descriptions of her father's last weeks- and then spent time in Paris, where a friend suggested she start a "blog" about cooking as a way to write more.

A few years later, she has an award-winning and highly influential food blog, a delightful-sounding husband who she met through the blog (possibly the cutest story of all time), and a fantastic book, with hopefully more in the future.

As we waited in Borders today, I paged through the recipe pages I'd bookmarked, looking for the first dish to make from the book. I decided to start with "Brandon's chana masala", in order to accomplish one of my resolutions of cooking Indian food at home for the first time- plus, it sounded delicious and simple.

After purchasing a bottle of garam masala spice, I now have all of the requisite spices and only need canned tomatoes, chickpeas, onion, and garlic in my pantry to make this anytime. Although it's not the quickest of dishes, requiring a lot of stirring and waiting patiently for the water to absorb into the ingredients, it's certainly worth the wait.

The process is simple- browned onions mix with spices and water, then tomatoes and chickpeas join in and cook together. The end result is humble in appearance, but when you dig in, you realize the complex layers of flavor from the spices.

I mixed in some Greek yogurt to finish, and it was the perfect compliment to the cayenne pepper's heat. Molly notes that her husband's preferred serving is to omit the yogurt and squeeze a few lemon wedges over the dish, which I will have to try tomorrow (leftovers!).

So, thank you, Molly and Brandon- for your fantastic blog, your wonderful book, and now, your chana masala recipe!


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
Pinch of cayenne pepper
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; alternatively, add them whole and crush them in the pot with a potato masher. 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.

Yield: About four servings

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