Of all the cuisines that Asia has given us, Indian food is by far my favorite. I don’t think I’ve ever had Indian food that didn’t make me want to stuff myself silly with it. Everything about it appeals to me: the incredible spice combinations, the variety of legumes, the vegetables, the rice and the naan, the paneer and the ghee. Even the desserts are marvelous, though I must confess that I remain unflinchingly loyal to one dessert in particular, a cardamom-pistachio ice cream that I had several times at Hema’s Kitchen, an Indian restaurant in Chicago.
You can imagine my delight in knowing that my closest College Station friend is Indian and a fantastic cook. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Amutha, and I’ve had the pleasure of eating with her countless times. I’ve cooked for her, and she’s cooked for me, but until last Friday, we’d never cooked together. It was my suggestion. She found me in the hallway on Friday afternoon and wanted to hang out that evening, and I immediately thought of dinner, because food is always on my mind. I wasn’t really in the mood to go out; I wanted to cook at home. We agreed, and later that evening, Amutha made a dish that I’m starting to think of as her signature, a channa masala of sorts. Of course, like a good Indian cook, the recipe is in her head, so this would be my approximation.
Amutha’s Channa Masala
Neutral-tasting oil, such as canola or a mild olive oil
Other magic Indian spices
Garlic, finely chopped
A small onion, finely chopped
A couple tomatoes, finely chopped
A can of chickpeas (preferably Bush’s—they have the best texture), NOT DRAINED
In a skillet, fry the mustard seeds and chili flakes in oil for a while, until the mustard seeds pop. Add ground cumin and other magic Indian spices along with sea salt, garlic, and onion. Fry…for a while. Add the tomatoes and let everything cook together to make a rich, fragrant sauce of sorts. Add the chickpeas (along with their can broth), and cook…for a while. At the end, you’ll have a delicious dish of chickpeas in this rich, spicy sauce.
Easy, right? I am dying for a real recipe, or at least the chance to watch Amutha make her channa masala so I can take notes. The above is cobbled together from what I remember on Friday night. Amutha made this beautiful mise en place with her onion, tomatoes, and garlic, and she raided my spice rack, which I highly encourage all my kitchen guests to do. But that’s where my memory becomes more of an imagined story than a real one. Magic Indian spices? Cooking times? Yeah, I don’t know. We’re both going to have to wait for this recipe.
In the meantime, I cooked a different Indian recipe, this time from a real, in-print recipe, and it was wonderful. It had been on my to-cook list for a while because it looked easy and delicious, and it serves two, and I am always on the look-out for recipes that won’t force me to eat the leftovers for a week. Vegetarian Times published this recipe for Vegetables Korma, which strikes me as a twist on Amutha’s channa masala. The chickpeas are there, along with the tomato-onion sauce. Vegetables Korma adds a good helping of additional vegetables, and, to make it ridiculously easy on you, this recipe calls for frozen vegetables. Frozen! It’s brilliant. Now, let me be clear: I like fresh vegetables as much as anyone else does, but frozen vegetables can be a lifesaver. They’re a speedy, easy, healthy option, and unlike fresh vegetables, they are patient. They will wait until you need them, or if you’re going out of town like I am in a week, you can stock the freezer with a bag or two of frozen vegetables and feel confident that you’ll have some ingredient options when you return. I like frozen vegetables. These days, you can get super high-quality organic stuff to keep on hand in the freezer, and if that’s not good news, I don’t know what is. Except maybe an Indian recipe that serves two and comes together in about fifteen minutes.
Back to the recipe at hand. The sauce is a quick food-processor job, and from there, it’s mostly a matter of measure-and-simmer. I made a batch of my favorite rice to serve with the Vegetables Korma. The final dish is good, classic Indian food: rich with heat and layers of flavor, a medley of vegetables and chickpeas, and a bed of rice to soak up the sauce (and provide something bland to balance that heat!). This one is going in my file of “What to Cook When Time is Short and Bellies are Grumbling.”
Adapted slightly from Vegetarian Times (February 2010)
Serves 2 (perhaps with a tiny bit left over)
Be forewarned: if you add the pinch of chili flakes, you are in store for some heat! This dish teeters on the edge of my tolerance for heat, but I sort of love it for that reason. I may try a version without the extra chili flakes; for now, I’ll list them as optional.
2 medium tomatoes or 4 small ones, cut into chunks
1/2 small white onion, cut into chunks
1 tbsp. fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1 tbsp. neutral-tasting oil (I used Mezzetta olive oil)
1/2 tsp. garam masala
1/4 + 1/8 tsp. ground cardamom
Pinch of red chili flakes, optional
2 cups frozen mixed vegetables
3/4 cup cooked chickpeas
3 tbsp. heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tbsp. toasted sliced almonds
Cooked rice, for serving
1) In a food processor, buzz the tomatoes, onions, and ginger together until everything is pureed. Set aside.
2) In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garam masala, cardamom, and chili flakes if using, and fry for about 30 seconds or until fragrant, stirring constantly. Add the tomato puree. Simmer for 2-3 minutes to let the sauce thicken slightly.
3) Add the frozen vegetables, chickpeas, and heavy cream. Season liberally with salt and pepper, then cover the skillet and simmer for 7-8 minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Remove the lid. Let everything simmer for another minute or two to thicken the sauce (mine was a little watery here) if you like.
4) Serve over rice and scatter the toasted almonds on top. If you cook this just for yourself, you’ll get to enjoy fabulous leftovers the next day! If not, consider doubling the recipe—it’s a good one.