A Happy Ending to my Chana Saag-a
Indian food is one of the friendliest cuisines for the gluten-eschewing set, and it happens to be one of my favorites. While it’s true that resisting a basket of piping hot naan bread may be difficult at first, there is no lack of other starchy options that don’t contain wheat from which to choose.
You may recognize Pappadum as the crispy, wafery flatbreads served with a variety of chutneys that are brought to your table while you’re waiting for your food at an Indian restaurant. But perhaps you may not have recognized that they’re made from lentil or chickpea flour and are therefore gluten-free. If you’re eating at a Southern Indian restaurant, you’ll encounter a whole host of additional gluten-free goodness: There are dosas, oversized wheat-free crepes made from rice and lentil flours and
stuffed with all manner of savory fillings. Similarly, the steamed white, flying-saucer-esque cake called idli (or “iddly”) is another rice and lentil flour-based staple coming from Southern India. Idli is has a spongier texture than do dosas, making it a perfect, slightly tangy sauce mopper-upper. And let’s not forget vadai, those savory little donuts made from lentil and rice or potato flour that you can dip in spicy soups or dip into a nice chutney. Naan? Who needs naan?
Between the wheatless bready-things and all of the vegetarian options, you can see why Indian food is such a favorite of mine when eating out. When we lived in downtown Manhattan, my favorite place to go was a restaurant called Surya down in the village. My friend Daryl turned me onto a dish called Chana Saag; she was so addicted that she swore they sprinkled crack on it. Such a simple dish in theory– chickpeas in a spinach puree–seemed an unlikely candidate to produce such a strong addiction. But sure enough, one taste and I was hooked, too.
Sadly, we moved across the Hudson river, and for reasons of convenience and economic recession, those weekly trips to Surya turned into quarterly trips–at most. Watching me wallow in Chana Saag withdrawal, my dear husband Alex set to work to find a recipe for Chana Saag that he could make at home that would set off those same pleasure-sensing areas of my brain…without all of the ghee (clarified butter) that would typically be used in an Indian restaurant dish. He scoured cookbooks and websites to find the perfect recipe. Some of the earlier versions that were heavy on the spinach and fenugreek were too earthy, and not savory enough. Later versions achieved savory, but missed the touch of sweet heat that my ideal Chana Saag had. Months into the exercise, Alex managed to invent a hybrid recipe all of his own that I proclaimed delicious. To be sure, it’s a very different Chana Saag than Surya’s–more saag, less chana–but it’s perfectly delicious, and addictive in its own right. And just like that, my saga was over.
The addition of vitamin C-rich tomatoes and red peppers is a sneaky way to maximize the amount of iron you’ll absorb from the spinach and chickpeas. Which I’m sure is what he had in mind when he concocted this recipe.
Recipe: Alex’s Addictive Chana Saag
Serves 4 incredibly generously as a main dish, 6 as a side dish. (Put on a pot of rice to cook before starting so you can eat as soon as the Chana Saag is cooked!)
2 TBSP vegetable oil
2 medium onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
2 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp ground ginger
10 oz fresh spinach (bagged works great), chopped
2 medium red peppers, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and coarsely chopped (optional)
1 can diced tomatoes, drained (14.5 oz, preferably low-sodium)
1 can chickpeas/garbanzos, drained (14.5 oz, preferably low sodium. If you want the dish to be more chickpea-stewy than spinachy, feel free to use 2 cans garbanzos)
1/2 cup lowfat milk (lactose-free if you’re intolerant; or use rice milk if you’d prefer this dish to be dairy-free. You can also use lowfat buttermilk or plain yogurt if you have that laying around.)
Salt to taste
- Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and saute until translucent (~5 min).
- Add garlic and spices (except salt) and saute for another 2 minutes until spices are fragrant and onions are well-covered in spices, careful not to burn the garlic.
- Add the spinach, half of the diced red peppers, jalapeno, tomatoes and salt and bring to a boil.
- Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes, partially covered, stirring occasionally
- Remove from heat and let it sit for a bit until its not too hot to transfer to a blender. Transfer vegetables in batches to a blender, and puree it until it’s a smooth, even consistency.
- Once saucepan is empty, use it to saute the remaining half of the diced red peppers until they soften.
- Return the puree to the pan with the sauteed red pepper pieces and add the chickpeas.
- Stir in milk/yogurt. Simmer uncovered until desired thickness is reached.
- Salt to taste and serve!
Approximate nutrition info per serving (assumes recipe makes four servings): 235 calories, 31g carbohydrate (of which a whopping 8g is fiber), 10g protein, 9g fat, 3mg iron and well over 100% of the daily value for vitamin C (112mg).
Serving the above with 3/4 cup of cooked basmati rice adds an additional 150 calories, 33g of carbohydrate and 3g protein… and completes a super-nutritious, totally filling and satisfying meal for less than 400 calories. Well done, Alex!
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