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Posts Tagged ‘lentils’

Yes, spring is just a week away, but winter has not started loosening its grip yet. There are still days that are so raw and cold and windy that I can hardly force myself to get out of the house even for essential errands. When I do, nothing thaws me out and comforts me like coming home to a bowl of hearty homemade soup.

I like trying new soup recipes, as regular readers of this blog should know: I’ve published posts about more than 30 kinds. One of my good sources is Michele Scicolone’s Italian Vegetable Cookbook. Its soup chapter contains 19 recipes, several of which I’ve made. I wrote about two of them here. This time around, I tried two more.

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First I made a simple Barley and Leek Soup, which the recipe said would serve four. I started by chopping two leeks, a stalk of celery, and a carrot, and sauteeing them in olive oil along with a sprinkling of thyme.
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Next I was to add a cup of barley and 6 cups of broth, bring it to a simmer, and cook for 45 minutes, or until the barley was tender. Tom, who had been looking on with a knife expert’s interest while I chopped the vegetables, totally disbelieved the quantity of barley. “That’s going to absorb all the liquid and swell to triple the amount!” he warned. I knew he was probably right, but I was determined to follow the recipe, and I did.

It was way too much barley. It swelled to about four times its bulk and indeed absorbed all the liquid, ending up as thick as a risotto. The recipe didn’t even say to cover the pot, but I did, given that long cooking time. It did say I could add a little water if it was too thick at the end. A little? I had to stir in two whole cups of water, just to turn it back into a soup.

Diluted down, seasoned generously with salt and pepper, and topped with grated parmigiano, the soup came out well. I would have liked the leek to be more prominent: less barley would have made for a better balance. But the soup’s mild flavor and soft texture were very comforting.
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And it’s a good thing that it was a good soup, because that four-serving recipe made enough for at least eight. Happily, soups freeze well.

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A few days later, with my soup jones still pestering me, I turned to the book’s Lentil, Potato and Spinach Soup. This recipe was to serve 4 to 6. With caution born of the preceding experience, I considered the fact that it called for a whole cup of lentils and decided to make half a recipe’s worth.

This time, I put chopped carrot, celery, and onion, plus rosemary and thyme, into the soup pot with olive oil and cooked for 10 minutes to soften the vegetables.
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I added a minced clove of garlic and continued cooking for a minute; stirred in half a cup of lentils and a tablespoon of tomato paste; and added a diced all-purpose potato, salt, pepper, and three cups of water. As before, I simmered the soup for 45 minutes, stirring often to keep the lentils from sticking to the bottom of the pot. And as before, the lentils behaved just like the barley and absorbed so much water they made a porridge. I had to add another whole cup of water to bring it back to soup.

For the last step, I tore up enough cleaned spinach leaves to pack into a one-cup measure, stirred them into the soup, and continued cooking just long enough to wilt them. At serving time, as the recipe suggested, I drizzled olive oil onto each bowlful.

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This was also a good soup – a little more complex in flavor than the previous one. The lentils were the prominent ingredient, with the spinach and potatoes offering nice color and texture contrasts. And, as I’d suspected it would, the “two-serving” half recipe made four generous bowlfuls.

I have to wonder if there was a copyediting glitch somewhere in that book. But look on the bright side: With people to feed, a recipe that makes too much is better than one that makes too little.

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There’s fresh spinach and asparagus in my Greenmarket now, and I’ve pounced on them with glee as a sign of winter’s end at last. Still, I can’t eat spinach and asparagus every day, so I’ve been looking for new ways to prepare sturdy year-round vegetables in the intervals between meals with spring greenery. I found two promising ones in James Villas’ Country Cooking, one of the books I acquired from the recent Beard House book sale and have been testing out.

???????????????????????????????Villas writes entertainingly about his weekend house in Long Island’s fashionable East Hampton, and the dishes he prepares for what seems like an endless procession of house guests. As with many of the recipes in the book, the two I chose to try can be made mostly in advance and are scalable, making them handy for feeding a crowd and also easy to downsize for just two servings.

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Herbed Potato and Onion Cake

This is essentially a dish of scalloped potatoes, made distinctive by a large amount of onion. I sliced a large Spanish onion and sauteed it in butter for five minutes; sliced a large Russet potato; and spread two layers of each in a baking dish, sprinkling rosemary, thyme, salt, and pepper on the onion layers. Then I poured in ¼ cup of half-and-half and baked the dish in a 350° oven for 40 minutes covered, 10 minutes uncovered.

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It was good: dryer than the way I usually make scalloped potatoes, so truly a cake, as the title indicates, but still sufficiently moist. Using half-and-half instead of milk gave it a nice touch of richness. I fear I had too heavy a hand with the rosemary, though, because its flavor dominated the dish more than we’d have liked. Next time less rosemary, more thyme.

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Sauteed Lentils with Onions and Peppers

To start this dish, I cooked lentils in plain water until tender, drained them, and set them aside. Then I softened chopped bacon in a skillet and added a mince of onions, red bell pepper, and garlic, and cooked until the bacon was crisp. I stirred in the lentils, thyme, salt, and pepper, cooked five minutes to heat everything through, and served – not forgetting (for once!) to sprinkle on parsley.

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This was a pleasant change from the way I usually serve lentils. The mixture of flavors was good, with the tiny nuggets of red pepper especially tasty. Tom likes his lentils more moist than these were, but I was perfectly happy with them. Leftovers made a nice little cold dish too.

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So, while I’ll never have a summer place in East Hampton – I saw a neat little one advertised in a realtor’s brochure this week, priced at a mere $28 million – I guess I can now claim to occasionally eat as the 0.1% does!

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Just before we left on our Texas birding trip, Tom and I did another of what we call our cookathons with our friend Hope. These involve many advance days of ethnicity decision, recipe selection, shopping list creation, and ingredient purchasing. On the day itself, Hope arrives at 3 p.m. and we all start cooking. With luck, we manage to sit to dinner around 7, fairly well exhausted from the kitchen work but anticipating a splendid meal.

India was our selected cuisine this time, and the recipes came from three cookbooks: Vineet Bhatia’s Rasoi: New Indian Kitchen, Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking, and the same author’s Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking.

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Here’s the menu we chose.

Crispy Prawns with Red Onion, Cumin, and Turmeric Khichdi
Masala Crab Cakes
Goat Curry
Vegetables Braised in Yogurt and Spices, Patna Style
Pink Lentils with Garlic Butter
Cucumber and Yogurt Salad
Basmati Rice

Shrimps, crab, goat, veg: That didn’t sound too complex. But we sort of forgot how very labor-intensive Indian food is to prepare. From 3 to 5 pm, with only a little time out for a glass of prosecco, the three of us did nothing but chop and grind things. The kitchen counters were totally covered with little dishes of red and white onions, garlic, ginger, green chilies, coriander seeds and leaves, curry leaves, cumin seeds both plain and toasted, and measured amounts of other spices. Only after two hours of that could we start actually cooking.

I won’t give you the play-by-play, because it got very complicated – starting one dish, moving to another while the first simmered, on to a third, back to the first, and so on: Tinker to Evers to Chance for another two hours and more. (Also washing pots and bowls as needed to reuse them.) I’ll just tell you about the principal dishes as we – ultimately – ate them.

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Crispy Prawns with Red Onion, Cumin, and Turmeric Khichdi

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This, from the Rasoi cookbook, was a lovely shrimp preparation, unlike anything Indian I’d ever had before. Because of the amount of work it took, there’s no question this is really a restaurant dish, but we all loved it. The shrimp are dipped in a batter of egg, cornstarch, chopped coriander leaf, and cayenne, and then deep-fried. They’re placed on a cushion of khichdi, which is made as follows.

Heat oil and butter in a pan, sauté cumin seeds, garlic, ginger, chili, and red onion. Add turmeric and basmati rice. In a minute, add vegetable stock and cook until the rice is almost done. Finish with yogurt, butter, salt, and chopped coriander leaf.

We set ring molds on three plates and spooned the khichdi into them. To our pleased surprise, when we removed the rings the rice stayed in neat little cylinders. We topped them with the fried shrimp, added a pool of green coriander chutney (it was supposed to be piped in a decorative ring around the plate, but hey!) and sat to our first food of the evening. It was well worth the wait. The combination of flavors was astonishingly good. And rich. The khichdi was particularly luscious. I think I’ll make that again to serve just on its own.

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Masala Crab Cakes

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The crab cakes, also from Rasoi, were also lovely. To assemble them we had to sauté black mustard seeds in oil, add chopped curry leaves and chopped onion; sauté some more; add chopped garlic, ginger, and green chilies; sauté some more; stir in a paste of cayenne, turmeric, and water; add crab meat and sauté some more; stir in grated parboiled potato, and season with chaat masala.

All that could be done a little while in advance. When ready to serve, we had only (!) to form the mixture into cakes, dip them in egg, coat them with breadcrumbs, and deep-fry them. The mixture was very soft, and we wondered if the cakes would just fall apart in the deep fryer. But no, they behaved very well, coming out as crisp, golden brown 3½-inch balls.

We’d made two cakes apiece, because the recipe seemed to call for so little crab – less than 1½ ounces per cake. But they so were rich and crabby that, knowing how much food there was still to come, we ate only one apiece. We served three chutneys on the side: tamarind, hot mango, and papaya-orange. Store-bought, not fresh made: we had to cut ourselves some slack. All the chutneys went well with the cakes. (The other cakes, reheated, were fine the next day.)

The chaat masala flavoring was new to me, and a welcome discovery. It’s an intriguing mixture of black salt, green-mango powder, cumin, mint, asafoetida, cayenne, nutmeg, black pepper, and regular salt. It’s used in many dishes, and I understand it’s also good just sprinkled on apple slices. I’m going to try that soon.

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Goat Curry

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Ghosht Kari, a recipe from Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking, is an old standby of mine. I’d only ever made it with lamb before, though in India, goat is the meat of choice for this dish. We first browned pieces of goat in oil, removed them and browned onions in the same pan; added garlic and ginger; then cumin, coriander, turmeric, and cayenne; returned the meat to the pan and added a puree of yogurt, tomatoes, garlic, and ginger; added hot water, covered the pan and let it all simmer together, adding chunked potatoes partway through the cooking.

While the lamb version of this curry was always done in two hours, we had to cook the goat quite a lot longer before it got tender. Then the dish needed to rest for a few hours before being reheated and served, sprinkled with ground roasted cumin seeds and chopped coriander leaves.

It was a little disappointing – possibly because the first two dishes were so spectacular, and possibly because we’d made a marketing error here and not gotten the goat from our ever-reliable butcher Ottomanelli’s: It had too much bone and too little flavor. The dish was nice enough, but not as spicy-hot as it had been in the past. We relied on the various chutneys to make it more interesting.

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Vegetables Braised in Yogurt and Spices, Patna Style

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We were trying Patna Korma, a recipe from Sahni’s vegetarian and grain cookbook, for the first time. The vegetables are eggplant, zucchini, carrots, and green beans. The braising medium is yogurt, tomato puree, ground almonds, fried onions, cumin, coriander, turmeric, cayenne, and black pepper. When the dish is done, it’s sprinkled with garam masala and chopped coriander leaf.

The recipe was supposed to develop a “delicate velvety” sauce, with a “complex but subtle” spicing. Alas, it came out tasting much like the sauce of the goat curry, along with which we served the vegetables, and therefore not the interesting contrast we had hoped for. Also, the instructions for cutting up the vegetables didn’t work. The carrot pieces were too thick to soften even after extra cooking time, while the eggplant and zucchini pieces were ready to fall apart before then. The green beans were the best part of the dish.

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Side dishes: Rice, Dal, and Raita

Alongside the curry and vegetables, we had plain boiled basmati rice, a dal of pink lentils dressed with melted butter and sliced garlic, and a raita of Greek yogurt with slivers of cucumber and tomato.

The latter two are dishes I almost always serve in an Indian meal, but they didn’t contribute much this time. My lentils, which had been sitting in the pantry for some time, must’ve been too old, because they had little flavor, and neither of the two main dishes was so spicy-hot for us to need the usually welcome coolness provided by raita.

However, I learned a great way to handle basmati rice. Indian cookbooks always call for elaborate preparation of this prized rice from the foothills of the Himalayas. Typically you’re told to rinse it in water nine times, soak and drain it, parboil and drain it again, finally steam it carefully over very low heat. Happily, Hope told us that she always cooks basmati as if it were pasta – just dumps the dry rice into boiling water and cooks until it’s al dente. So we did that, and it was perfectly fine.

With this whole meal, we drank Trimbach Gewürztraminer, a wine whose own spicy flavor stands up well to the multiple flavors of Indian dishes. And afterwards, we tamped everything down with – surprise! – a grappa.

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Toward the end of each year, as the weather declines from chilly to frigid, I start thinking of long-cooking, rib-sticking legume dishes, based on beans and lentils. I have good French, Italian, and American recipes for these pulses, but this week I was feeling global, so I looked in my cookbooks for something more exotic.

I also happened to have in my pantry superior varieties of both brown lentils and white beans. The lentils – small, tender, golden brown – are from Castelluccio, in Italy’s Umbria/Marche region, by way of a shop in Torino. The beans are alubias, an heirloom variety from Guanajuato, Mexico, by way of Rancho Gordo. In one sense, it was silly to try to do anything exotic with either of these, since they’re both marvelously flavorful just in simple preparations from their home regions. But I had culinary Wanderlust, so I looked farther abroad.

Mujaddara: the lentils

For the lentils, I went as far as the Arab Levant, using Clifford Wright’s book A Mediterranean Feast. This is an imposing tome of gastronomical history, as indicated by its subtitle, “The story of the birth of the celebrated cuisines of the Mediterranean from the merchants of Venice to the Barbary corsairs, with more than 500 recipes.” Mujaddara is a rice and lentil pilaf recipe, a traditional dish in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine.

The recipe starts by having you fry a batch of onions to top the eventual dish. I have to say the instructions for the onions gave me pause. The author seems to think you can slice onions less than 1/16” thick, toss them in hot olive oil, fry them until dark brown, and still have them hold together as slices. Has he ever actually tried this? It can’t be done. The onions immediately fall apart, as my photo of the frying stages shows.

But the general technique is close enough to the way Indian recipes brown-fry onions, so I just did it that way and didn’t worry about their shape.

Then you boil lentils in water until they’re almost tender, and set them aside. Soak rice in water for half an hour, and drain it. This rice preparation is again very like the way Indian recipes treat basmati rice, but this author didn’t specify a type, so I used long-grain Carolina.

Finally, you sauté a little freshly chopped onion in butter, add boiling water, salt, the lentils, and the rice, and cook until the rice is tender and the water all absorbed. Transfer to a serving dish and top with the fried onions.

It was good. Mild tasting at first, but it grew on us as we ate. With the rice and lentils combining to make a complete protein, we could practically feel the nourishment we were getting! The lentils were definitely the star of the dish, because the rice had gotten a little pulpy from the soaking. So if I do it again I’ll either reduce the proportion of rice or use basmati to see if it contributes more to the flavor and texture.

La Loubia: the beans

I found my bean recipe in the Dried Beans and Grains volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. Translated as Spiced White Beans, it’s a dish from Morocco, or more generally, North Africa. The recipe looked perfectly easy to make, and so it was. After an overnight soak (or a two-minute boil followed by a two-hour soak in case, like me, you forget about the beans the night before), the beans are cooked in plain water until nearly tender. Meanwhile, you make a heady paste of garlic, cumin, cloves, paprika, cayenne, salt, and olive oil, and then simply stir it into the beans for their last 20 minutes of cooking. That’s all there is to it.

The dish looks pale and plain, but it was enticingly fragrant, and the unusual (for me, at least) blend of spices made it a delicious accompaniment to broiled lamb chops. The fleshy beans, flavorful in themselves, picked up different nuances from the seasoning and tasted slightly hot, slightly herbal, and slightly fruity – sometimes all at once, sometimes sequentially. Very intriguing.

At the outset, one thing about the recipe had struck me as improbable. For six servings it called for four cups of dried beans. At the rate they expand when cooked, that would yield almost a cup and a half of cooked beans per person. A mighty hefty portion, unless the beans are meant to be the entire meal!

I decided to make the dish with only one cup of dried beans, which would be more than enough in a full dinner for two. But the amounts of spices called for in the recipe were quite modest, mostly just pinches. Using only one-quarter of them didn’t seem as if it would do much for my good-sized pot of cooked beans. So I approximately halved the spices, and that worked out quite well. Maybe Moroccan chefs’ fingers take bigger pinches than mine do!

A final note 

Tom took the leftovers of both dishes and made an excellent soup of them, adding a little sautéed carrot, onion, and pancetta, and then his homemade broth. Ingenious fellow, my husband.

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Happy New Year! Today starts my second Year in Recipes. In 2010, each of my weekly posts was about trying a new recipe from one of my many cookbooks. This year, I’ll broaden my scope. The time spent making new recipes from old books served its purpose: It got me back into my books and back into kitchen exploration. Now I want to mix things up a bit more – some old favorites, along with new dishes.

I’m starting with my own recipes for lentils and cotechino, a much-loved New Year’s Day dish. In Italy, lentils are traditional for January 1st. The idea is that lentils look like coins, and the more of them you eat on the first day of the year, the more money you’ll have that year. It can’t hurt to try, can it?

There’s a recipe for stewed lentils in the first cookbook that Tom and I published, La Tavola Italiana. That was over 20 years ago, shockingly enough, and I’ve changed a few things since then. I used to soak lentils, the way you do dried beans, but now I find it isn’t necessary. I just pick them over and rinse them. I sauté carrot, onion, celery, garlic, and sage leaves in olive oil; stir in the lentils and sauté briefly; then add broth and cook gently, covered, until the lentils are tender. Cooking time varies greatly, depending on the age and type of lentils used. My favorites are the small brown Castelluccio lentils, from Umbria. Here is my current version of the recipe.

La Tavola Italiana also has a recipe for making cotechino, a big, luscious boiling sausage made from ground pork meat, pork fat, pork skin, and spices. Cotechino is much more readily available in butcher shops nowadays, but if you know the sausage as made in the north of Italy, you’ll find many American versions disappointing – which is why Tom and I developed our own. It’s quite a lot of work to make, albeit fun if you enjoy messing around in the kitchen.

Happily, for the past few years my local Citarella market has carried an imported Italian brand of cotechino, Levoni, that has the true, characteristic unctuousness and zesty flavor. It’s fully cooked, needing only to be heated in boiling water in its aluminum-foil pouch for 20 minutes. That’s a godsend, since to make it from scratch the sausage mixture has to be shaped into a fat cylinder, rolled up in a sheet of caul fat, aged in the refrigerator for 3 days, soaked in cold water for 8 hours, then drained and simmered in fresh water for 2 hours. Not exactly a spur-of-the-moment dish to make.

So for dinner on New Year’s Day I made a Levoni cotechino and my lentil recipe, with which we drank a 1990 Banfi Brunello di Montalcino, and very good they all were, the bracing Sangiovese fruit and acidity of the wine making a lovely foil for the unctuous sausage and earthy lentils.

Now I’m just sitting back and waiting for the lentil-induced money to start pouring in.

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P.S.  Leftover lentils make a nice antipasto or first course, served warm or at room temperature with a drizzle of olive oil and minced onion. So does leftover cotechino, sliced and served with a potato salad dressed with olive oil, wine vinegar, and chopped parsley.

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