Add glamour to chickpeas

Chana Masala | Eric Akis

By Eric Akis, Times Colonist

Visually and otherwise, budget-friendly dried chickpeas are not at all glamorous. But that changes when they are properly soaked and cooked into a dish that’s aromatic and rich with spice and flavour. A tasty example of that is chana masala.

Chana is the Hindi word for chickpea. Masala is a mixture of spices used to flavour such things as Indian-style sauces. Combine the two, mix in a few other ingredients and start simmering your chana masala, and you will soon have a meat-free entrée that is also nutritious.

Chickpeas are an excellent source of protein and fibre, and contain all sorts of other things, such as potassium, calcium, niacin and vitamin B6. Another bonus is that, unlike beans, they have a lower oligosaccharide content, which makes them easier to digest.

When researching recipes for chana masala, it didn’t take long to discover that there are many variations. But many recipes I read saw the chickpeas simmered with such ingredients as onions, ginger, garlic and tomatoes.

Fresh cilantro is often mixed into chana masala, but rather than do that, I served my version of the dish with homemade cilantro chutney — a piquant, smooth, saucy mixture you spoon and drizzle on the chana masala at the table.

You can use canned chickpeas to make chana masala, but using dried ones gives the dish a nicer texture and richer flavour. When using dried chickpeas, just remember to plan ahead, as you’ll need to soak them many hours to plump and soften them, before cooking them and adding them to the chana masala.

Beyond the chutney, I also served the chana masala with steamed basmati rice and naan. You can, of course, buy naan, an Indian-style flatbread, at most supermarkets, but I decided to make my own and you’ll find a recipe for it below.

I flavoured the dough for the naan with tangy yogurt, cumin seeds and coarsely cracked black pepper, creating a bread that went nicely with the chana masala and chutney.

Chana Masala

Serve this nicely spiced, saucy, Indian-style chickpea dish with steamed basmati rice, cilantro chutney and naan bread. It is made with dried chickpeas and you’ll need to soak them many hours before making this dish. Any leftover chana masala will freeze well.

Preparation time: 20 minutes, plus soaking time

Cooking time: 10 to 12 minutes

Makes: four to six servings

1 1/3 cups dried chickpeas (see Note 1 and Eric’s options)

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 large garlic cloves, minced

2 tsp finely grated fresh ginger

1 tsp garam masala, or to taste (see Note 2)

1 tsp medium or hot curry powder, or to taste

1/4 tsp ground turmeric

1 (28 oz./796 ml) can San Marzano plum (roma) tomatoes, crushed (see Note 3)

1/2 cup water

1 Tbsp lemon juice

• salt to taste

• cilantro chutney (see recipe below and Eric’s options)

Place chickpeas and six cups cold water in a large bowl. Let chickpeas soak for eight hours, or overnight.

Drain soaked chickpeas and then set in a medium to large pot. Add six cups of fresh cold water, set pot over medium-high heat and bring chickpeas to a boil. Reduce heat until chickpeas gently simmer. Simmer chickpeas for 60 to 70 minutes, or until they are tender, but still nicely holding their shape. Drain chickpeas well and set aside until needed below.

Place the oil in a large skillet (mine was 12 inches wide) set over medium to medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add the onion and cook until very tender and light golden, about seven minutes. Add the garlic, ginger, garam masala, curry powder and turmeric, and cook two minutes more.

Add the cooked chickpeas, crushed tomatoes, 1/2 cup water and lemon juice. Bring chana masala to a gentle simmer, lowering the heat as needed to maintain that simmer.

Simmer chickpeas for 10 to 12 minutes, season with salt and pepper and serve with the cilantro chutney, for spooning and drizzling on top.

Note 1: Dried chickpeas are sold at some supermarkets, often in the bulk foods section, and at bulk food stores.

Note 2: Garam masala is an Indian-style spice blend sold at some supermarkets and specialty food stores, Indian food stores and Asian markets.

Note 3: Canned Italian San Marzano plum tomatoes are sold at Italian food stores and many supermarkets. You can crush them by putting them in a bowl and using your hands or a potato masher to break them into smaller chunks. I like to use them because they have a deep-red colour and rich flavour.

Eric’s options: If it’s too much fuss for you, instead of making and topping this dish with cilantro chutney, you could simply mix chopped fresh cilantro, to taste, into the chana masala just before serving. Also, instead of dried chickpeas, you could use two, well-drained (19 oz/540 ml) cans of chickpeas in this recipe.

Cilantro Chutney

This vibrant green, smooth chutney has a spicy, sour and sweet flavour that will nicely accent the chana masala.

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Cooking time: None

Makes: about one cup

1 cup small sprigs of fresh cilantro, fairly tightly packed

3 small to medium green onions, sliced

1 medium jalapeno pepper, seeds and inner membrane removed, flesh coarsely chopped

1 medium garlic clove, chopped

1/4 cup fresh lime juice

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

2 Tbsp water

1 Tbsp granulated sugar

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp salt

Place all ingredients in a food processor, or in the cup that came with your immersion blender. Pulse until well-combined and smooth chutney is created. Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate until ready to serve with chana masala.

Naan with Cumin and Pepper

This delicious flatbread goes great with saucy Indian-style dishes such as today’s chana masala.

Preparation time: 30 minutes, plus rising time

Cooking time: eight to nine minutes, per batch

Makes: six naan

1 cup lukewarm (not hot) water

1 tsp active dry (traditional) yeast

1/2 tsp granulated sugar

3 Tbsp plain yogurt

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

1 tsp whole cumin seeds

1/2 tsp coarsely cracked black pepper (don't use finely ground pepper)

1 tsp salt

• vegetable oil, for the bowl

1 Tbsp melted butter

In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, combine the water, yeast and sugar. Let mixture stand five minutes to dissolve the yeast. Now mix in the yogurt.

If using a stand mixer, add the 2 1/2 cups of flour, cumin, pepper and salt, and mix on medium speed until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Add a bit more flour if the dough is not pulling away from the sides of the bowl (see Note). Let the machine mix and knead the dough six minutes.

If mixing dough by hand, slowly add two cups of the flour, cumin, pepper and salt and work it into the yeast/water mixture with a spoon until the dough loosely clumps together.

Lightly dust a clean work surface with the remaining 1/2 cup flour. Gather the dough, scraping the sides of the bowl if necessary, and set it on the counter. Dab it lightly in the flour to coat it, then knead for six to eight minutes, until the dough is smooth. Add a bit more flour to the dough, during kneading, if needed (see Note).

Lightly grease a large, deep bowl with oil. Place the kneaded dough in the bowl, cover and allow to rise at warm room temperature until doubled in size, about 60 to 75 minutes.

Transfer the dough back to your lightly floured work surface and cut it in half. Cut each half into three roughly equal pieces. Press each piece of dough into a disc about 1/4-inch thick (discs do not have to be perfectly round). Set the discs, not touching, on a lightly floured work surface or tray. Cover with a kitchen towel until ready to bake. (In this step, we are just letting the dough rest, not rise again. That will occur in the hot oven.)

Place an oven rack in the lower third of the oven. Set an inverted 13-inch by 18-inch baking sheet on the oven rack. Remove any other racks from the oven as this will make it easier to set the naan on the hot baking sheet. Now preheat the oven to 475 F.

Brush the top of each naan lightly with melted butter. Prick each naan several times with a fork. Carefully place three pieces of the naan directly on the inverted baking sheet, spacing them about two inches apart. Bake for six minutes. Turn the oven to broil and cook the naan until rich golden on top, about two to three minutes. Transfer the baked naan to a baking rack. Bake and broil the last three naan as you did the first three.

Note: After kneading, this dough should still be a little sticky, as you’ll be adding more flour to it when shaping it into naan.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Times Colonist’s Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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