Masala Paste from Scratch

Ok. Here I am again, posting about cooking. Let me put in a quick disclaimer: I am not a chef. I am a self taught dabbler, a mother of two and wife of one (no polygamy here). I had no interest in food until, in art school, I discovered that I needed to cook, or die. Thus began my foray into cuisine, first by frantically phoning my mom to ask basic cooking questions, and then, starting to use my gut.

If you are a details person, you like to follow instructions to a tee, measure out everything exactly, this is not the post for you, stop reading immediately and find another recipe.

If you are a person who, like me, tends to scan recipes, compile the fundamentals in your mind basket, and then go-to with wild abandon, substituting with rough equivalents where ingredients are lacking, then this might be for you, read on.

A dear friend of mine recently tried my curry from scratch and asked if I could give her my recipe. I had to answer “no”. Not because it is any great secret, but because I really haven’t the foggiest when it comes to the exact ingredients I use when making my basic masala paste from which my curries emerge. I realized that this has got to change. I really do need to lay it out once and for all. My husband is a huge fan of my curries so I make it quite regularly, however, they always turn out a little different.

Can I also preface this with…I am an ignoramus when it comes to Indian cuisine. I do not know the specifics about the different curries nor their names. I am a novice in the world of Indian spices, yet they delight and tantalize me. They have an amazing power and fragrance and in a world of less is more, the opposite is actually true of these incredible spices, just add more, more, more! It took me a while to realize that I needed to not hold back with the amount of spices I put in. My measly amounts of spices were pathetic. Now, I happily purchase bulk spices in their seed form. You can buy the pre-ground and make life easier, but I believe much of the deliciousness comes from freshly grinding the spices as needed.

So, saying that, if you are anything like me, you already want to throw in the towel. I always get overwhelmed by the prerequisites to a recipe “oh, I need that tool?” “oh, I have to get those spices?””Gaw, I’ll just eat ramen”

Hear me out. What you need is a coffee grinder if you are using the spice seeds. If you have pre-ground, give that grinder no second thought. ( most of us have coffee grinders. I now possess my own “spices” coffee grinder after one too many coffee tasting of cumin. However, coffee with a hint of cardamom is delicious!). It is also helpful to have either an immersion blender or food processors (food processors, I hear they are useful. I haven’t got one).

What you need for spices seems like a long list. It is. But, if you get hooked like I did, you are going to be using them for a long time. Heck, you probably have a few already:

  • cumin seeds
  • paprika
  • garam masala
  • cardamom (whole) or inner cardamom seeds
  • coriander seeds
  • black pepper corns
  • turmeric (I use the powder)
  • mustard seeds
  • clove
  • fenugreek seeds

 

If you don’t have all of those, that’s ok, it’s still going to taste delicious.

Other ingredients:

  • 2 med onions
  • sea salt
  • 5 to 6 cloves of garlic
  • a thumbs length of garlic (roughly two tablespoons when chopped)
  • a can of diced tomatoes or several large tomatoes diced.
  • ghee…or butter…or coconut oil.

Here we go, step by step with pictures!

  1. Get out a pan. ( If you are using powder, skip this and the next step) I love my cast iron skillets. I despise non-stick. The first will (apparently) leave trace amounts of iron in your food- good for those of us always low on iron and pregnant ladies. The latter, will leave trace amounts of mystery chemicals, especially if it’s been scratched or roughed up. A good compromise: a stainless steel pan. With pan on medium heat toss on a tablespoon of each of the following: cumin seeds, coriander seeds, inner cardamom seeds*, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds and roughly twenty cloves.  Toast them in the pan. Toast until fragrant (roughly 30 seconds?) If they start to smoke, you’re done! Take the pan off the heat. This happens relatively quickly, so do not walk away. Use your expert tossing skills to shimmy those seeds around the pan as they heat.* On closer examination of this photo I realized I had no cardamom on the pan. Further sleuthing revealed that the spice lady at the shop had neglected to even sell me any. Oops. I can attest to the fact that this recipe is delish sans cardamom).

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2. Pour toasted seeds into a grinder and grind until fine and fragrant.20160816_150138.jpg

3. Chop the garlic, ginger and onions roughly and set aside in either separate ( if you like to feel like those chefs on TV with pinch bowls) or a single bowl. It is not necessary to spend time on this as it will all be blended once cooked.

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4. Begin heating a decent sized pot. It’s going to hold all of your masala, so make sure it’s not a small pot. I’d say a medium to large one. In the warm pot, add 2 tablespoons ghee (or whatever oil you’ve chosen). I like to use ghee…it makes it feel more authentic, though I can’t honestly say it is any different from butter. Coconut oil adds a little bit of flavor. In my estimation, if you are going to use coconut oil, this is the type of dish to use it in, the flavor lends itself well to curries. Sprinkle in some salt too…this is a great time to incorporate some salty goodness. Now toss in the ground spice. If this is the first time the spice has touched a pan, aka if you bought it pre-ground, I recommend putting it in first, before the oil and salt and letting it warm and “toast” briefly before adding the other stuff. It’s all about releasing the aroma and flavor!20160816_150731.jpg

5. Once the ghee has melted (it happens fast) toss in the onions, garlic and ginger. Stir well on high heat, then lower to a simmer.20160816_150813.jpg

Now make a cup of tea (preferably a spiced chai) and hold your horses while you wait for the onions to cook down. You want them to be transparent. Don’t rush this stage. If you don’t let the onions caramelize you are wasting some great natural sweetness. This could take at least 10 minutes. Breathe.20160816_151043.jpg

6. As you wait, or in your own good time, gather together the following spices, all approximately a tablespoon …except for the cayenne: that is “to taste”. (I have some incredible Birds Eye Pepper cayenne that is HOT. I used only a quarter teaspoon): Black pepper (preferably freshly ground), turmeric (this is a root, so I buy it in powder form), garam masala ( also a proprietary blend of spices, so comes in powder form) and cayenne.20160816_151555.jpg

Go ahead and add those spices to the pot. Stir well to incorporate.20160816_151623.jpg

By now the whole thing should be thickening up and gluing itself together. You will also start to worry that it’s drying out and about to burn. If the onions are still not transparent, then add a bit of water, just enough to keep it from burning. Do this periodically until those onions are soft. Then cook until dry and about to burn. Now’s the time to…

7. throw in the diced tomatoes. Fresh is best but I did not have any, so canned it was (if you really want to go the health nut way, you only use fresh, because there’s good research that shows that canned tomatoes are pretty bad for you – the acid in them leeches the plastic lining out. Yes, even if it’s BPA free lining, it’s still a synthetic lining of some kind. But if, like me, you’ve obsessed, stressed and ultimately surrendered to theses realities, you will weigh the good against the bad and just go ahead and use it anyway…if sparingly).20160816_151655.jpg

Stir. Now watch as that tomato and its juices helps to de-glaze the pan. Now you’re lookin’ at an almost finished masala paste. You just need to cook that down for a bit. I’d say roughly 15 minutes of simmering with the lid off.

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8. When you’ve cooked it down a decent amount (it should look like a thick tomato sauce) turn of the heat and let cool.

9. If you are anxious like me, sometimes, or in a time bind, you’re gonna want to blend that up right away. I advise not to. Do you like being burned by scalding hot masala paste? I didn’t think so. Hopefully, you’ve waited at least 20 minutes. Now, go ahead and blend that masala smooth using your immersion blender or whatever other fancy tool you might have for doing this. You can now use this masala paste to immediately make a massive vat of curry. Or, like me, you might choose to divide it and sock some away in the freezer for a future meal. This is how I divided mine:

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2/3 in a jar to be used the next day on a curry for four adults and two kids. The last third in a ziplock to be frozen. It will expand to make enough curry for my family of 4.

That’s it. That’s all. I hope you could follow that relatively well. Just in case not, I have handily combined the instructions without the pics and needless commentary below!

Cooking Instructions:

1 With pan on medium heat toss on a tablespoon of each of the following: cumen seeds, coriander seeds, inner cardamom seeds*, mustard seeds, fennugreek seeds and roughly twenty cloves.  Toast them in the pan. Toast until fragrant (roughly 30 seconds) If they start to smoke, you’re done! Take the pan off the heat. 

2. Grind the toasted seeds and set aside.

3. Chop the garlic, ginger and onions roughly and set aside in either separate or a single bowl.

4. Begin heating a large pot. In the warm pot, add 2 tablespoons ghee (or whatever oil you’ve chosen). Add a teaspoon of salt. Add in the ground spices. Stir.

5. Toss in the onions, garlic and ginger. Stir well on high heat, then lower to a simmer.

6. Gather together a teaspoon each of the following spices ( cayenne to taste): black pepper, turmeric, garam masala, cayenne. Add to pot and stir well to incorporate. 

7. When onion mixture is well caramelized and transparent, add in one large can of diced tomato, stir well. Set on simmer until cooked down to consistency of a thick tomato sauce. Approximately 20 minutes.

8. Blend cooled masala into a paste. Use immediately or store in zip lock bags in freezer. Makes enough for roughly two meals (for up to 4 adults per meal).

 

Thanks for checking this out. If you are curious about how I expand this into a curry, check out my next blog post.

 

 

 

 

 

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