Brandon Pettit’s Chana Masala

Chana MasalaI came across this recipe in Molly Wizenburg’s excellent book, A Homemade Life, which I devoured in two days over Christmas break a few years ago. I hadn’t heard of Molly’s blog back then, but my mom had, since she’s always ahead of the curve. The writing in that book is so searingly and deliciously honest. I laughed, I cried, and I wished I had the courage to spill it all out in such a breathtakingly beautiful way. Molly’s kind of a hero of mine. This recipe comes from her husband, Brandon, with whom she owns Delancey in Seattle (where I have had the supreme pleasure of dining). It’s a small world, as they say, and I was intrigued to read that Brandon went to Oberlin at around the same time as I did. When I finished the book, I looked him up, and recognition dawned on me: I knew that guy! I used to sit at the same round table as him at Talcott dining hall, slurping my black bean soup. He was a friend of a friend (that friend also appears in the book!), but I never knew him personally, and I am sure he would not recognize me. But still, it was lovely to find that memory again, and I made sure to thank him personally as we left Delancey.

Chana MasalaBut anyway, the food! I have tried my hand at Indian food. I dabble in aloo mattar and mushroom bhaji and baingan bharta. I’ve tried kormas and curries. I will never give up because Indian is probably my favorite food on the planet (and it is probably my only real pregnancy craving), but this is the only Indian dish I have ever made that really tastes right. It is astoundingly good. I think it’s the cardamom pods and garam masala, or maybe it’s the charring of the onions or the slow cooking to concentrate the flavor. I’m no expert. But this chana masala is a dream. And I’m pretty sure I’ll be making it until I can’t hold a knife anymore.

Brandon Pettit’s Chana Masala
From Orangette (also in A Homemade Life)

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; 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.

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