Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Wonders of an Indian Grocery

Our sincere apologies for that month-long silence; be comforted to know that despite being very busy, we've managed to do some exploration of a new and important element in eating cheap, delicious vegetarian food. Yes, we finally made our way to an Indian grocery store.

Why are these things so wonderful? Well, first off, a higher proportion of Indians are vegetarian than not, so there's plenty of demand for vegetarian options. This means the food is cheaper and there's more to choose from. Also, the spice selections at these stores are literally jaw-dropping. You can stock a spice rack well for the next five years for under $40, again, because the customers actually buy and use spices. Plus, super-cheap lentils and beans.

Anyways, we found an ingredient that we've introduced into our larder, probably for good: Chickpea, or gram, flour. It's used pretty extensively in Indian cuisine for frying batters, but it's also used in a little treat called "farinata" from the border regions between France and Italy. It's basically a springy crepe made from chickpeas, flavored with onions and rosemary, but of course that can be altered depending on how you're using it.

First, put a cup and a half of warm water in a bowl. Next, slowly sift a cup of chickpea flour into the bowl. Chickpea flour clumps, no matter what, so either use a fine-mesh strainer, or do what we do: take a fine-mesh produce bag and repurpose it as a strainer. It's actually a little faster and more effective, plus it's free (assuming you've used the produce that came in it). Chickpea flour, like any other, weighs about 4.5 ounces to the cup, if you're doing it on a scale like I do.

Next, add a couple tablespoons of olive oil and a couple big pinches of salt and pepper. This mixture can sit for anywhere from a few minutes to a day in the fridge; it does produce a slightly more resilient texture if you let it sit at least 8 hours, but if you're eating it by itself, it doesn't really need it.

When you're ready to cook, preheat your oven to 450°F and get a heavy iron skillet heating over medium flame. Slice a half onion very, very thinly, and pick about a tablespoon of rosemary leaves; stir these into the batter. You can, alternatively, add garlic, or a spice mix like garam masala, or really any flavoring component to fit the rest of the meal. When your skillet is hot, add olive oil to cover, and wait until it shimmers and runs easily (should be almost immediate). Then, working quickly, pour the batter in a thin layer over the bottom of the pan and toss into the oven. Check after about 5 minutes to see if the center has set up; it usually takes 7-10, but it can vary.

Once the center is set and the edges look crisp, pull out the pan, smack the handle with the palm of your hand, and slide the pancake out. Add oil to cover again, pour in another layer of batter, and slide back into the oven. The flame was really just to preheat the pan for the first one. Repeat the process from here until your pancakes are finished.

These things taste like the world's finest fried food. They are, like all chickpea products, loaded with protein, and if you let the batter sit for long enough, they are a perfectly serviceable flatbread. Also, they allow me to achieve my dream of a meal composed entirely of chickpea: farinata, spread with hummus, rolled around falafel. Maybe one day, Anna will actually let me try it. I'll report back when that day comes.

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