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making lentils lovely

February 22nd, 2010 | 8 Comments »

There are certain foods that are superstars of nutritional value, simple to prepare and easy on the pocketbook yet are really kind of ugly ducklings in terms of aesthetics. If we eat with our eyes first and foremost, and if we didn’t know that these foods were not only powerhouses in being good for us AND very tasty as well, we would take one look at them and likely turn away in scorn. Take lentils for example. These tiny legumes are so rich in the good things we need for our bodies. But I imagine there’s a huge population of people simply turned off by their unfortunate lot in the food world beauty contest. Cooked to perfection and placed in a bowl, they resemble more a pile of mud than something amazing you want to eat.

Now doesn’t that sound delicious?! Can’t wait to dig in!

I do get it. Really, I do. If it wasn’t for the copious amounts of fragrant dhals and mounds of aromatic Indian food that I’ve come to adore in my life, I might not exactly be in the Lentil Fan Club. But I am. And I think that everyone should. As legumes go, the lentil is one that you can take from dried form to beautifully cooked with hardly a second thought. Even the largest brown lentils will cook up nicely in about 20-30 minutes, the smaller pink and red ones turn delightfully smooth even faster, making the lentil a smart choice to keep on hand for a hearty meal. With added vegetables, it turns into a perfect soup. Served over rice, maybe with a salad and you’ve got a complete meal. Add in one of the heady fragrant spices of Indian cuisine, such as fenugreek or cumin -or in this case, both- and you’ve got a delicious creamy, slightly spicy and overall compelling meal with little more than boiling some water and a measuring spoon or two.

By far and away my favorite lentil is the French Puy, also known as the French Green lentil. It’s smaller than the brown, larger than the more colorful red and pink and will also cook up easily, all the while retaining it’s shape more without turning mushy. While the mushy lentil does have it’s place, I really prefer some texture to them. The Puy has a somewhat higher price tag than the brown, but I think it’s worth it. The flavor too, is deep and earthy, a bit more intense over the somewhat gritty taste I’ve come across in the brown.

My first exposure to lentils was as a wee lass in elementary school. Our schooling, up until I was in 5th grade, centered mostly around a loosely defined cooperative that rented space in an old Catholic school building. We had some pretty progressive education, I guess these days it ties in best with home schooling, and one year we did volunteer work at the Renaissance Festival in a soup booth, making both Beet Borscht and Lentil Soup. I did not like the lentil soup much, but I was a kid. Forgive me for thinking it was odd among my usual repertoire of fish sticks and Rice-a-Roni.

Then in college, I had a roommate for a time who was a vegetarian and loved to cook. On occasion I would tag along with her on her trips to The Wedge Co-Op, back in the long ago days when it was so tiny that barely two people could stand in any aisle. I often had no clue about the foods she would buy but I asked her endless questions and when she cooked she would share some of her meals with me. One meal was lentils, and although I didn’t fall down in love with them, I had a better idea of them than what my childhood memories had given me. Still, it took cementing my love of Indian food for me to begin actually making them at home. Once I did discover how good they could be, really there’s no stopping me now. If only I could convince The Teen to try them.

One of these days, maybe.

Dhal with Green Lentils
adapted slightly from The Curry Book by Nancy McDermott

1 c. french puy green lentils, rinsed and sorted
4-5 c. water
1 t. ground turmeric
1 t. fenugreek seeds, crushed
1/2 t. ground cayenne
2 t. cumin seeds
3 cloves finely minced garlic
2 T. finely minced fresh ginger
1 medium onion, finely minced
1 medium tomato, chopped

In a large saucepan, bring 4 cups of the water and lentils to a boil. Skim off any foam that may form. Reduce heat to medium-low and add the turmeric, fenugreek and cayenne. Allow to simmer, uncovered, until lentils are tender- approximately 25-35 minutes. You may need to add more water as the lentils cook to prevent them from sticking.

When lentils are tender, heat a small skillet over medium heat with oil of choice. Add the cumin seeds and cook until they become dark and fragrant, and begin to pop. Add in the onion, garlic and ginger and reduce the heat, sauteing gently and stirring occasionally until the vegetables are soft, about 5-7 minutes. Stir the mixture into the lentils and blend well. If the lentils are soupy, you can raise the heat and simmer the mixture to reduce the liquid. Keep an eye on it so it doesn’t burn and stir it to keep blended. When cooked to your desired consistency, stir in the tomato. It will thicken slightly as it stands. Season with salt if desired.

NOTE: It’s unlikely you can find fenugreek in anything other than seed form. To crush them, use a dedicated spice grinder if you have one, or place them in a sealed plastic bag and crush them with a rolling pin, a meat tenderizer or other hard implement. The seeds are pretty solid. Don’t be surprised if doing it by hand requires slight effort. It’s totally worth it for the flavor.

This dish definitely gets better with some time to sit in the fridge. It can be made with the smaller colored lentils but keep in mind that the cooking time will be much quicker, and it will have a different texture. One cup of red lentils will need less water, about 3-4 cups.

Sun in February

February 9th, 2009 | Comments Off

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

Come in to my kitchen…

Red Lentil Dhal

January 23rd, 2008 | 8 Comments »

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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.

Ingredients
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

Spice blend
2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
6 whole cloves
4 cardomom pods

2 dried red chilis (seeds removed)
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Directions
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 oil a soup pot, add onions and saute for 5 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and saute 5 more minutes. Add spices and salt, saute 5 minutes more. 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.

RECIPE NOTES: Surprise! I didn’t vary too much from this original recipe except to add about two cups of shredded spinach to the last 10 minute simmer. I also grated in some lime zest simply because I love how it tastes. It needed no extra water after 30 minutes of simmering, and as it sat and cooled it thickened quite a bit, so if you get an end result that seems thin, don’t despair. After a night in the fridge it was thicker still.

I did cook the onions until they were slightly browned and rather soft; I love the flavor they impart with this amount of cooking. Beware when you add the water after cooking the spices and onion mixture- the pan will splatter a lot!

TOAST the spices!! TOAST the spices! TOAST the spices!