Indian bread staple naan is versatile and tasty

Jeanmarie Brownson
Chicago Tribune

Warm, freshly baked bread drives me crazy.

Little wonder, then, that loaves from the tandoor oven at our neighborhood Indian restaurant haunt my dreams.

Christine Manfield’s gorgeous book “Tasting India” tells us that bread is a staple across all of India.

However, simple naan is the breakout star in our collective global food embrace.

These oven-baked flatbreads prove reminiscent of pita. Naan also is a yeasted dough, but the Indian tradition is to hand-stretch the tender dough into large tear-dropped shapes before they are slapped onto the walls of very hot tandoor ovens to bake.

There are many variations to basic naan, with flavorings ranging from herbs to garlic.

I bake my own naan on clay tiles heated in my oven set at 500 degrees. It’s nearly as good as the neighborhood restaurant, so I’m including an adaptation.

Lately, I’ve enjoyed tinkering with store-bought naan found in both the freezer and bread aisles of my local stores. My favorite snack involves simply smearing the naan with some garlicky seasoned oil and baking until crispy. A topping of nuts or seeds, honey and herbs sends the combination over the top.

Convenient, easy naan pizza is a long way from the English muffin pizza of my youth. Rather than tomato sauce, I use a bottled curry sauce, such as Maya Kaimal or Patak’s, for the base. Then a topping of roasted vegetables and crumbled cheese for an exotic but warm and comforting weeknight dinner.

The recipes that follow use naan weighing about4 ounces each. If using smaller breads, reduce the cooking time a bit. Thick, fresh pita (without pockets) works well in all these recipes; just know that it tends to be a slightly denser bread without the delicious browning found on naan.

Note: That jar of yellow curry powder many of us grew up with is not actually used in authentic Indian cooking. Instead, traditional Indian cooks toast and grind their own blends of spices. Experts say the stuff in the bottles labeled “curry pow-der” is actually a British blend of spices, usually heavily laced with ground yellow turmeric; it vaguely resembles a spice blend known as garam masala.

It’s easy to find garam masala and other tradi-tional Indian spice blends in grocery stores and online. But fear not; if the reliable yellow curry powder is what you have on hand, please use it as long as it smells and tastes fresh.

Basic Naan

Prep: 20 minutes

Rise: 1 hour

Cook: 5 minutes

Makes: 6 flatbreads

This recipe is adapted from Christine Manfield’s “Tasting India” (Conran Octopus, 2011). I make 6 flatbreads instead of 4 for ease of handling in and out of the hot oven. Always measure the water temperature with an instant-read thermometer so it is not too hot for the yeast.

3 cups flour, plus more for work surface

1 packet (1/4 ounce) or 2 teaspoons active dry yeast

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)

2 tablespoons plain yogurt

1 tablespoon expeller-pressed canola oil

Mix flour, yeast and salt in a large bowl. Stir in warm water, yogurt and oil. Work with floured hands to make a dough. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth, 5 to 6 minutes. Put the dough ball into a floured bowl and cover with a cloth. Let rise in a warm spot until doubled in volume, usually about 1 hour.

Line your oven with a pizza stone or clay baking tiles. Heat oven and tiles to 500 degrees.

Punch down the dough and divide into 6 even pieces. Roll 1 piece into a ball, then stretch into a thin, elongated oval.

Place the oval in the oven on the preheated stone. (You can bake 2 breads at a time if your stone is large enough to allow space between the breads.) Bake until the bread puffs up and turns golden, about 5 minutes. Remove and wrap in a towel. Repeat to bake the other breads. Serve warm.

Nutrition information per naan: 256 calories, 3 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 1 mg cholesterol, 48 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 7 g protein, 393 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

Crispy Garlicky Naan With Pistachios and Honey

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 5 minutes

Makes: 2 to 4 snack breads

This falls under the category as a salty, savory, snack with a sweet finish. I serve the breads warm — cut in half for easy nibbling — with sparkling rose wine.

2 to 4 naan, total 8 to 12 ounces

3 cloves garlic

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup dry roasted, salted, shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped (or roasted pumpkin seeds)

1/2 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves

2 tablespoons honey

Maldon sea salt or coarse (kosher) salt

Heat oven to 400 degrees on convection or 425 degrees on conventional. Lay naan out in a single layer on a baking sheet.

Crush garlic into a small bowl. Stir in oil, paprika and pepper.

Use the back of a spoon to smear the mixture over tops of the naan. Bake until golden around the edges, 3 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle with nuts. Bake 2 more minutes. Sprinkle with fresh thyme. Serve warm drizzled with honey and salt.

Nutrition information per serving (for 4 servings): 284 calories, 13 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 37 g carbohydrates, 10 g sugar, 6 g protein, 245 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

Red Lentil and Peanut Dip

Prep: 15 minutes

Cook: 15 minutes

Makes: 2 cups

Look for split red lentils at Indian grocers and in the imported section of large supermarkets. Use scissors to cut chiles crosswise into 1/8-inch wide strips.

1 cup (6 ounces) split red lentils, well rinsed, drained

2 cloves garlic, crushed

2 teaspoons grated fresh peeled ginger or store-bought ginger puree

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon garam masala or curry powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup olive oil

3 dried New Mexico or guajillo chiles, stemmed, seeded, cut into 1/8-inch strips

1/2 cup dry-roasted peanuts, finely chopped

Chopped fresh cilantro

Crispy naan wedges, see recipe, or pita chips

Heat a medium saucepan filled halfway with water to a boil. Add lentils. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Drain lentils and place in a large bowl. Stir in garlic, ginger, cumin, curry powder and salt until well mixed. Keep warm.

Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium heat until hot but not smoking. Reduce heat to low. Add the chile strips and peanuts. Cook and stir until golden, 1 or 2 minutes.

Spoon lentil dip into a serving dish. Spoon the peanuts and chile with the oil over the top. Garnish with cilantro. Serve warm. Pass the crispy naan wedges or pita chips for dunking.

Crispy naan wedges: Heat oven to 400 degrees on convection or 425 on conventional. Cut 2 naan from one package (8.8 ounces) into small wedges. Place on a baking sheet. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon expeller-pressed canola oil. Toss to coat everything with oil. Bake, 5 minutes. Turn wedges over. Bake until golden and crisp, about 5 minutes. Serve warm.

Nutrition information per 1/4 cup serving: 202 calories, 12 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 17 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 8 g protein, 187 mg sodium, 4 g fiber

Naan ‘Pizza’ With Curried Cauliflower

Prep: 20 minutes

Cook: 25 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

To save time, you can use roasted vegetables from the salad bar instead of roasting your own cauliflower.

1 teaspoon garam masala or curry powder

1/2 teaspoon each: garlic powder, salt

4 cups small cauliflower florets, about 12 ounces

3 large shallots or 1 small red onion (total 5 ounces), very thinly sliced, separated into rings

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 whole grain naan, usually two 8.8-ounce packages

2/3 cup bottled tikka masala spicy curry sauce

1/2 cup finely crumbled goat cheese, or feta

Chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish

Heat oven to 400 degrees convection or 425 conventional. Mix curry powder, garlic powder and salt in a small dish.

Mix cauliflower, shallots, oil and spice mixture on a baking sheet; toss to coat well. Bake, stirring once or twice, until cauliflower is fork-tender and shallots are golden, 15 to 18 minutes.

Lay out naan in a single layer on a baking sheet. Smear 2 or 3 tablespoons curry sauce over each bread. Top with the roasted cauliflower mixture and cheese. Pop into the oven to heat everything through, about 6 minutes. Serve garnished with cilantro.

Nutrition information per serving: 568 calories, 25 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 19 mg cholesterol, 71 g carbohydrates, 8 g sugar, 19 g protein, 1,145 mg sodium, 10 g fiber