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Lingering Winter days call for Spicy Comfort Food


This winter has been an especially long one for us at the Joy Kitchen. I suppose that’s reassuring… every winter outstays its welcome by early March. Yesterday brought us a picturesque reminder that Spring has yet to come: snow. Despite freezing temperatures all winter long, this is only our second snowfall of the year, and the only one to stick around for any length of time. Well, winter, two can play at this game. Time to ward off the cold and break out the Dutch oven, chilies, and whole spices.

There is something uniquely comforting about Indian food. The heat level, the complexity of flavor, the textures and aroma… For the longest time I could not decide which of these characteristics I found more fulfilling. Long-simmered lamb saag, fragrant pulao, a nicely appointed thali platter, dhosas with sambhar… when prepared well, what do they all have in common? The answer: fried whole spices.

Frying cumin, coriander, and black mustard seed, causes the complexity and character of those spices to change and deepen. While flavors subtly change, the oil becomes infused with the spices, aiding in their dispersal throughout the entire dish.

Fried spices can be added at the beginning or end of the cooking process. When added first, they can be done in the same pan as your curry. Just add them to a few tablespoons of clarified butter or vegetable oil and cook over medium-high heat until they begin to darken and the seeds start popping (approximately one to two minutes). When they are ready, add onions, garlic, ginger, etc. and stir (this stops the spices from scorching) and continue with the recipe. Alternatively, you can always fry the spices in a small skillet and add them in their oil to the dish ten minutes before it is done cooking.

This simple technique enables you to experiment with a large number of dishes. Start by taking some of your favorite curry recipes and adding fried spices in addition to or in lieu of the seasonings called for. Dal, pilaf, biryani, even long-cooking braises can be improved with the delicious, head-scratching complexity of a nice fried-spice blend.

Just in case you can’t think of a dish to apply this technique to, I give you a modified version of the Punjabi classic channa masala (also known as masaledar cholay). This tangy tomato-chickpea curry was the perfect antidote for our last (hopefully) snowy day of the year. Note to meat-eaters: this is very satisfying… do not let the lack of meat keep you from enjoying this as a main course.

Tomato-Chickpea Curry with Whole Spices
serves 4 as a main course

The optional spices can be found at Indian grocers. Anardana are dried pomegranate seeds and amchur powder is made from dried green mango. Either will add a nice, sour-tangy component to the dish, but are not necessary.

Heat in a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high:
     3 tablespoons clarified butter or vegetable oil
Fry, stirring frequently, until browned and beginning to pop (about 1-2 minutes):
     2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
     1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds
     1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
     4 whole dried chilies, seeded and stemmed
     (one sprig of curry leaves, stem discarded)
Add and cook, stirring frequently, for 5-6 minutes:
     2 medium onions, sliced
Stir in:
     One 1x1x2-inch piece of ginger, minced
     1 head of garlic, minced
     1-3 serrano chiles, seeded, stemmed, and minced
Cook for another two minutes and add to the pan:
     One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
     Two 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained or 3 cups cooked chickpeas
     1 cup water
     1 teaspoon salt
     (1 tablespoon ground anardana seeds or 1 teaspoon amchur powder)
Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until the chickpeas are tender about 30-45 minutes. Serve with:
     Basmati Rice, Pita Bread, Naan, or other flatbread
     Chopped Cilantro
     Lime Wedges



Julie 's picture

I believe amchur powder is mango, not papaya. I've done a bit of Indian cooking at shopping at the local Indian grocers and have not heard of anardana seeds. I'm going to go look for those this afternoon and make this tonight! sounds splendid!
john's picture

Your absolutely right! <face palm> I guess my mind was elsewhere... Thailand? I'm changing now... thanks again. Hope you like the chickpeas!

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Pat dry:
     4 center-cut bone-in pork loin chops, 1 inch thick
Season liberally with:
     Salt and freshly-ground black pepper