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Spice up your life: Chana Masala

Posted By Shiv On October 22, 2009 @ 8:32 am In chickpeas, indian, spicy, vegetarian | 16 Comments

I must have missed a memo.

You know, the one where Mother Nature announced that, owing to budget cutbacks and a shaky economy, we simply couldn’t justify having an autumn this year; that we would be heading straight into winter. I must have missed it, because Holy Good Goddamn, was I not prepared for the sudden nosedive that the temperature took last week.  At all. Nor was I pleased.

I’m not ready for this, you may have heard me shrieking all the way in Iowa. I don’t even know where my sweaters are! Where is my hat?! My anguish rattled the windows and made ceilings collapse. It made small children cower and small dogs cower even more. It made poor Bench’s life a misery, until I made one stunning realization: now that the weather’s cold, I have an even BETTER excuse to spend entire Sundays in front of my stove, brewing up the time-consuming braises, stocks, and other delights that I never, ever have time for during the week. On this last Sunday, it meant I had time to make a real, live pot of chana masala–something I’ve been meaning to do for ages.

Ok, I know: chana masala does not necessarily require an entire day of stewing and futzing; unlike many curries, it is possible to build an acceptable depth of flavor in less than an hour. I, however, wanted to see what happened when it received the full treatment. So, I cleared my schedule and started with the spices, frying them in oil over low heat for about 40 minutes to draw out every iota of flavor (seriously–they didn’t even have a smell when I removed them from the oil) and then moved on to the onions, caramelizing them slowly over about three hours before hurling in the tomato paste, chickpeas, and yogurt. Time consuming, but absolutely worth it–the difference between this dish and my usual, weeknight-special chana masala was so pronounced, I’m not sure I have the words to describe it. The spice-infused oil gave the dish a deep savoriness, and the onions added a buttery sweetness–a perfect background for the tangy yogurt and tomato sauce. The flavors actually melded together (as opposed to my usual chana masala, which just kind of remains a collection of flavors as opposed to a cohesive new one), and it was utterly irresistible. Plus, it made the house smell AMAZING.

So, while I would never be so foolish as to invite Mother Nature to bring on more weather-related heartbreak, if this dish is an indication of things to come…maybe I’ll make it through another one of these winters with my sanity intact. Maybe.

Chana Masala

3-4 whole star anise
2-3 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp whole cloves
1 tsp mustardseed
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
3-4 black cardamom pods (regular cardamom would also be perfectly acceptable)

1/4c canola oil

6 medium-sized onions, roughly sliced
1/4c tomato paste
1c water or stock
1/2-3/4c plain yogurt
2×15-oz cans chickpeas
1 tsp garam masala

  1. In a large dutch oven, heat the spices (except the garam masala) and oil over low heat. Leave them there, stirring occasionally, for a half hour to 45 minutes–basically, until the mustard seed looks like it might be about to turn into ash. Using a slotted spoon, remove as many of the spices as you can–you want to avoid chewing on them in the finished product.
  2. Add the onions, go grab a book or some other indulgent pursuit. Stay nearby and stir the onions occasionally for the next 2-3 hours, until they’re a gorgeous cinnamon color and nearly liquid. Read your book.
  3. Add the tomato paste and the water/stock and let it simmer for a few minutes
  4. Add the chickpeas, let stew for a bit.
  5. Add the yogurt and the garam masala. Simmer about ten minutes more.
  6. Try not to eat the whole pot before it gets to the table. You would not believe how difficult that is.

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