30 November 2010

The way I see it

There comes a time in every person’s life when they totally refuse to accept the dark side of their highly dignified self and wish for a theory to justify their less than a self-flattering behavior. Almost always there is no such thing and an individual just ought to suck it up and admit to being an ass every once in a while (and hopefully not any frequenter).
Not entirely by design, yet not by accident either -- I get greedy for food that I like. Because I couldn’t find any theory to justly explain why I act the way I do, I had to make up my own behavioral theorem. I named it a favorite dish theory (FDT) and it goes something like this. Upon finding his/her favorite dish, a human undergoes two stages of behavior. The initial stage is mostly anti-social and can last at least for the first few days after an individual discovered the recipe. During these days, one is prone to cancel long-awaited appointments, is unable to strike a coherent conversation, develops an appetite that cannot be quelled if the dish isn’t there, and, most importantly, refuses to think about sharing the dish with anybody. The latter can progress to the extent that one is even willing to pick up quibbles with their significant other -- I don’t like your voice when you say my name, don’t talk to me! -- to temporarily ensure a solitary eating experience for one to enjoy the food one so mind-wrecking-ly fell for. Friendships and relationships are running a risk of rupture.

It is only after one starts to want to talk non-stop about the dish with others that the second phase begins. It is, quite contrary to the earlier days, marked by an obsessive wish to share. One now wants to cook the dish for everyone. Friendships and relationships get mended; their shredded parts are sewn together by the food which had torn them before.

The way I see it, the FDT is a brilliant thing. It has this golden property: it saves face for me. Now nobody has rights to think of me as a greedy selfish pig. The FDT explains my bad manners nicely.

Two weeks ago I ran into this recipe for chickpeas in date masala. Since then I’ve been referring people who came in direct contact with my kitchen table to my theory (better than the overrated saying sorry for being inconsiderate).
Chickpeas…I get emotionally scarred when I don’t have a meal that involves chickpeas at least twice a week. That’s surprising, somewhat, seeing that I properly acquainted myself with the beans in question just two years ago, soon after I’d move to Amsterdam (in Russian cuisine, chickpeas are scarcely used). But anyway…I don’t cringe to eat them canned straight from a tin, the lid pulled up and curved. Briefly sautéed with caramelized onions, chickpeas don’t seem to bore me. In the society of mellowed by heat fatty chorizo, the chickpeas win my rambling heart time and again. But no matter how much I like those combinations, they don’t trigger my ill manners. What does, however, is chickpeas dishes of Indian heritage/influence. Those spices, that heat…aww!
I can see I may come off a little bit kooky here, what with my admiration for this edible legume. You ask what’s so good about it. To me, the chickpea is bestowed with a mild taste and decent flavor, it is the most neutral-tasting bean I know of. They accept exotic flavors gladly and with grace, is what I’m saying. Which, after a circuitous roundabout, brings us to the discussion of the afore-mentioned adorable chickpeas in data masala.

No yogurt or tomato sauce goes into making of this dish. It’s solely about chickpeas and spices. To make the stuff, one is required to interchange two actions by the stove; roughly it is heating and adding. First you heat up some vegetable oil and then you add a chopped onion. You cook it until the onion becomes soft and browns up a bit. After that some garlic and tomato paste are added. A minute or so after, chopped dates, cumin, cardamom, cayenne and black peppers dive in. Lastly, some chickpeas along with a splash of water are added. It’s all heated up again. Now it is ready eat. How easy is that?
 Taste-wise, it’s simultaneously sweet (dates) and savory (cumin), the two tastes bridged by the ethereal cardamom, which itself is at once sweet and savory, and when you think you’ve got it all, there is also a swoosh of heat (chilies) catching up with your taste buds, rushing from the tip of your tongue all the way down the throat. Besides the glorious chickpeas that soak all that up, the dates, after swelling from heat and a bit of water, also turn into chewy capsules of taste that can be best described with one word – savourysweet.
 Something tells me I should courteously finish off this post by saying see you later and stuff, but I’ll skip that. I’m in a hurry to my kitchen for another helping of the chickpeas in date masala. Why should I care to be polite when I have my favourite dish theory to excuse the moments when I am not?

Chickpeas in Date Masala
Adapted from The New York Times

The original recipe uses star anise (or alternatively, ground anise) as a finishing touch to the dish. Personally I am not a big admirer of anise’s licorice flavor, so I passed on.

3 * 400-grams (15-ounce) canned chickpeas
2 black cardamom pods (I used green ones)
1/3 cup non-fragrant vegetable oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 ½ Tbsp tomato paste
9 dried dates, potted and roughly chopped
4 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp table salt
1 tsp ground cayenne (you can use fresh chili instead), or to taste
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
2 whole star anise, or 1/3 tsp ground (optionally)

1. Drain and rinse the chickpeas under cold water. Set aside in a bowl.

2. Using a knife, crack the cardamom pods. Discard the shells. Using a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder, crash or grind the seeds. Set aside.

3. In a medium pot, warm the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion – it should sizzle – and cook for 8-10 mins until it has softened and starts to brown. Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute. Dial the fire back to medium and add the tomato paste. Add the cardamom, dates, cumin, salt, cayenne, black pepper, anise (if using) and cook, stirring often, for 2-3 mins.

4. Add the chickpeas and ½ cup or a little bit more of water, just enough to make them less than dry. Warm up the mixture, stirring occasionally, to let the flavors incorporated. Remove from heat. Serve warm. (I ate the stuff plain on its own, but it is not a bad idea at all to accompany it with rice, or flat bread.)