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Aloo Chana Masala

Aloo Chana Masala

When I was home from college in the summer, I had a job selling peanuts at Cubs games. In retrospect, it was kind of a weird fit for a goth-inclined art student who hated sports but it was a chance to be outside and work on my quads as I went up and down steps for a couple of hours. Yes, I was very ambitious. I made very little money but I had fun. (Except when I had to take the train home with a bunch of drunk-puking-lurching Cubs fans. That was not fun.) One of the perks was a couple of times a month, the guys I would  occasionally carpool with would want to stop on the way home for Indian food on Devon Avenue. (In writing this recipe up, I’ve learned that it’s Devon Avenue, not Devon Street, which is news to me.)

Devon is where you can find Chicago’s Little India, block-after-block of colorful South Asian restaurants and culture. My mother grew up near the neighborhood but a wee farther west, in what was the Jewish enclave of Rogers Park at the time and is still populated with a large Orthodox Jewish community. Today, though, Little India is alive with Indian markets, shops, and restaurants. The smell of curry permeates the air, with Bollywood posters in the shop windows and the jangling sound of Indian pop intermingling with traditional sitar music. When I was hungry after Cubs games, though, what Devon Avenue meant to me was that there was delicious vegetarian food that I could eat.

Finding out about Indian food a few years after I went vegetarian was a change-maker in my life because it meant not only exciting, delicious food but an entire cuisine where meatless food wasn’t such an isolating an experience. In the late 1980s, getting vegetarian food at a restaurant generally meant you’d get a wilted iceberg lettuce salad and maybe a baked potato. On Devon Avenue, I could find whole meals that I could eat without removing anything. Since the first time I ate it, Indian food found a place in my heart and I will never stop being enthralled with its aromatic charms.

Aloo Chana Masala, also known as Aloo Chole, is one of my favorite dishes. Here, I lighten it up by removing the oil and add some peas for color and pop. It is warming, filling, and full of great tangy, complex flavor. Serve it with rice (traditionally basmati) or your favorite grain. I would consider this recipe medium-spicy for most people; if you want more heat, add more peppers or don’t remove all the seeds. If you want less, you can omit the peppers altogether. If you don’t want to make your own garam masala, which is a blend of spices, you can buy it pre-mixed. I encourage you to make it yourself, though, because nothing beats your own fresh blend and it’s pretty affordable if you have a place near you where you can buy spices in bulk. Ah, it smells so good, too. If you want to take your garam masala a step further, consider toasting the whole spices in a dry pan over medium-low heat until fragrant and grind in a spice grinder or dry coffee mill. Here, I make it easier by using already ground spices. For the tangy flavor, you can find tamarind concentrate in Asian grocery stores.

Thank you, Devon Avenue. You will always remind me of summertime, boring baseball games and finally finding food made for someone like me.

Aloo Chana Masala

Serves 6-8

Garam masala spice blend

1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1/2 tablespoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon ground fennel
1 teaspoon ground mustard
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

Mix together in a small bowl or cup and set aside.

1 1/3 cup low-sodium vegetable broth, divided
1 yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. fresh ginger, minced
2 green chiles (I used serranos), seeded and minced
4 Yukon gold potatoes, diced (I didn’t peel mine but it’s up to you)
30 oz. cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained
28 oz. crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 cups frozen peas, defrosted
1 t. tamarind paste or 1/2 fresh lime juice
1 t. salt
Fresh ground pepper
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped (optional)

Heat 1/3 cup vegetable broth over medium heat. Add the diced onion and cook, stirring frequently, for about 8 minutes, adding more stock by the tablespoon if it starts sticking to the pan.  Add the garlic, ginger and chiles, cook another 3 minutes, adding a small amount of stock as needed as you go.

Increase the heat to medium-high and add the diced potatoes. Add broth by the tablespoon as needed, stirring frequently. Cook for about 22 - 25 minutes, until potatoes are softened. Add 2 1/2 tablespoons of garam masala and the chickpeas, stirring until coated. Lower the heat to medium, add the crushed tomatoes, peas, tamarind paste or lime juice and any remaining broth. Cook through for about 5 minutes, stirring often.

Serve with rice or grain of choice and garnish with optional cilantro. Enjoy!

2013, 2014, Vegan Street

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