February is here and the bitter chill we experienced in January will, hopefully, be all behind us. The light is longer in the afternoon; twilight comes around 6:00pm as opposed to 4:30, and with the last day of our arctic first month we had a brilliant thaw- temps in the 40’s, and a balmy breeze that reminded our frozen extremities that yes, Spring does follow winter, and really, it shouldn’t be too long now. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
My newly adopted African violets seem to really enjoy our sunroom. I was gifted with an entire collection of them after they failed to thrive, and I am really looking forward to seeing what lovely blossoms they will bestow on me. This one poked it’s head out within days of landing amongst the sun and warmth of our house, looking around as if to brightly proclaim “It’s nice here!”
Still, we need some foods to warm us, to take away the icy feeling that comes from old squeaky snow underfoot (more than three weeks since a measurable snowfall), the harsh almost breakable nights where the stars resemble ice shards in the sky and the wind creeps through even the snuggest of weather-proofing. It may be slightly warmer than our bone-numbing arctic blast of a few weeks ago, but that last push through February and into March, where the calendar brings at least the promise of meteorological Spring even if the atmosphere doesn’t get on board, can seem longer and more pressing than the first few weeks in December where everything seems so dark and heavy. It’s like the last few miles of a strenuous trip to a beloved destination; the haul is long, but the end result is oh so sweet.
The month started out with some beautifully sunny days, although today isn’t one of them. The sunshine makes the house feel very cozy during the day, especially in the second floor bedroom. It’s hard not to curl up against the pillows in the warmth, a good book in my hands and a cup of steaming tea on the bedside table, maybe a purring feline against my leg. Just walking into the room propels me into a different mood, like the warmth and sun work in a swift instant to relax me. It’s best for me to just stay downstairs, focused, a worthwhile endeavor at hand, like stirring together a pot of Red Lentil Dhal.
I’ve done this dish before and was thrilled with the results. Why I don’t put it together more often is beyond understanding; red lentils, of all the lentil types available, cook the quickest with such little effort besides a swishing through water. This recipes calls for a deeply aromatic melange of toasted spices and seeds, creating a smoky taste that permeates each bite. From start to finish, it barely ticked 30 minutes off the clock- enough time for me to switch a load of laundry, gaze outside at the sunshine, scratch a soft warm cat ear. Even if it cooks a little too long you’re not worse for wear. And the flavor is so delicious. Scooped warm over some rice with a few crunchy pistachios as a garnish and my lunch was sunshine-y perfect.
Even though the temperature fluctuates between barely climbing to double digits and then turning around and surpassing the freezing mark, the sunshine made everything seem so much nicer, regardless of the number on the thermostat outside. I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the rest of our winter is friendlier, and my eye on more delicious and warming meals like this one.
That’s a pretty tomato isn’t it?? They are surprisingly flavorful for a winter tomato and my brain is working out all kinds of ways to use them. I think it’s trying to trick me into thinking it’s summer time. A girl can wish, can’t she?
(recipes and notes follow)
Red Lentil Dhal
makes 6-8 servings
Toasting and grinding your seeds is so worth the effort, and doesn’t take long at all. Serve this dhal as a main dish with rice or as a side dish. It is aromatic, rich and delicious.
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 medium yellow onion
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup dried red lentils
2 tablespoon tomato paste
4-5 cups water or veg broth
5 plum tomatoes, chopped
juice of 1 lime
1 cup lightly packed chopped fresh cilantro
2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
6 whole cloves
4 cardamom pods
2 dried red chilis (seeds removed)
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
In a saute pan over medium heat, toast the seeds (but not the dried red chili) for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from pan and let cool. Transfer to coffee grinder, along with the dried red chili and cinnamon, and grind to a fine powder. Over medium-high heat, heat oil in a soup pot, add onions and saute for 5 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and saute 5 more minutes. Add spices and salt, saute until fragrant, about 30-60 seconds. Add 4 cups of water and stir to deglaze the pot. Add tomato paste and lentils. Bring to a boil then lower the heat a bit and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the tomatoes, lime juice and cilantro and more water if it looks too thick. Simmer 10 more minutes, or until lentils are completely tender.
Do not skip toasting the spices, and watch carefully to prevent burning. Pour the spices into a bowl or on a plate when they are done. If you leave them in the pan, they will continue to cook. If you don’t have a designated coffee grinder for spices, you can use your regular coffee grinder. Wipe it well afterwards and run some oatmeal through it to remove the spice taste.
If you don’t have a red chili of any kind on hand, sub in crushed red pepper to taste. Sub in ground mustard for the seeds if you don’t have those either. I didn’t, and couldn’t tell the difference.
Cilantro is optional; any green works well in this dish. My love is spinach, which is in this variation. Some lime zest is nice in this too.