Wednesday, 27 January 2010

People talk too frequently about the displeasure they find in eating alone. So many people, famous or otherwise, have been quoted that the satisfaction of a meal is found in the company we eat with. Which can be absolutely true. But does this mean that we can not find pleasure in ourselves, and pleasure in paying attention to exactly what we want, whether it be a meal or otherwise?

Cooking alone, and eating alone, can be a wonderful experience. Chopping curly fronds of winter greens, flipping onions with a wide wooden spatula, stirring a thick chocolate batter - these are all quieting steps for me. They provide moments, albeit too few and far between, where my mind can settle and even disappear a little. It's not even about focus, really, because that implies a trying effort. No, it's something that comes much more naturally, much more fluidly, and happens without worrying or thinking.

So, when my family disappeared for a few nights this week to celebrate a certain someone's birthday, I had the house to myself. It wasn't until they had left, and it was just Dylan (our german shepard/golden lab mix) and myself lounging on the couch, that I realized it had been a very long time since I had an evening to myself.

You see, roommates disappear. Parties, boyfriends or girlfriends, side trips - there are innumerable reasons why, in the past, I would end up quietly cooking a meal for myself in an empty house. But the thing about family is, they never leave.

No offense family, but really, why don't you go on vacation more often?

Because family vacation means I can get nice and cozy with a sprout. Or several, really.

Brussel sprouts. Just like a solo dining experience, they make many cringe at first thought. But, if you treat then gently and with the slightest bit more attention than a brute slice in half and a disheartened toss into boiling water, those small, green leafed crucifers unfurl with a sweetness few would associate with a miniature cabbage.

The key is in the cut: it must be thin, and it must be through the stem. Thin so the leaves turn to feathers, stemmed so the feathers cluster together in the pan.

Once sliced, a good, quick fry is all that's needed. Hot pan, hot olive oil, and the sprouts searing quickly into golden crusted fronds. Off the heat quickly to maintain a nice, toothsome crunch, then with sprinkle of sea salt, and finished.

Sometimes, I like my sprouts with a bit of a kick though. Especially because when I'm dining alone I don't feel bad that I am only eating sprouts. No starch, no meat - just a mess of greens. (I have been know to use this trick of "just greens" for dinner to justify eating three cherry turnovers in a row). So as the sprouts are cooking, I toast some hazelnuts, brown some garlic, and sprinkle in some brown sugar. The nuts caramelize, and the garlic takes on an almost haunting molasses flavor that, once tossed with the sprouts, sticks to each leaf and rounds out the dish into something more complete. Something that would look quite nice on top of a bed of rice, or alongside a piece of perfectly roasted chicken.

Or, something that looks equally lovely alone on a plate, held in the hand of the only person in a large house in the middle of the woods, the frogs croaking after the last rain. Exactly what I wanted.

Brussel Sprouts with Caramelized Hazelnuts
inspired by 101 Cookbooks

1 pound brussel sprouts
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup whole hazelnuts
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp butter
1 1/2 tbsp brown sugar

1) Start with the sprouts. Cut off any protruding stems, and gently peel off outer leaves that look bruised or discolored; discard them. Slice the sprouts very thinly, about 1/8 inch thick, through the stem. You could also use a mandoline if this step started to drive you crazy.

2) Meanwhile, toast the hazelnuts in a small pan on medium heat until golden, and set aside.

3) Warm oil in pan over medium high heat. Add sprouts, toss to coat in oil, then let them sit in the pan for a minute or two. Toss, then let them sit again. You want them to brown, but not burn. And you don't want to cook them too long - 5 minutes should be your target here, with plenty of golden patches on the leaves.

4) Meanwhile, chop the hazelnuts, set aside again. Melt butter in same (empty) pan that the hazelnuts were toasted in. Add the garlic, and brown for 1 minute. Add the hazelnuts, then sprinkle in the brown sugar, tossing quickly to coat the nuts and garlic. Cook another 30 seconds - 1 minute. Again, you want browning and caramelization, but not burning.

5) Add nuts and garlic to the sprouts, toss. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve to yourself with a flourish.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Round and fat: a happy lentil

A simple fact: every cook should have a good lentil recipe in her repetoire.

So easily looked over, so easily pinned flavorless and bland, and so easily thought of as "hippie food" (for me, a fond acknowledgement of implied health; for others, a somewhat disdainful jab at something associated with lack of money and sanitation).

A harsh judgement, in my opinion.

Because lentils are absorbing little creatures - if you give them seasoning, care, and the slightest bit of attention, they will reward you with a transformation into plump, tender bites that yield just so to the tooth.

Even before cooked and tended to, the average lentil may be rather pallid in color, but look to others and you'll find brightness and potential. Red lentils, shaped like thin flattened disks, that disappear as they soften with heat; French green lentils, freckled along the seams of their rounded, green edges; and finally, black beluga lentils, shiny and dark, capturing the sound of rain when poured into a glass jar.

Which brings me back to the soup. It's taken me some weeks to get here, and it's really quite a shame I did not share this sooner. The storms here, dumping an inch of water a day, cracking thunder across the canyons, shooting lighting into our telephone poles, warrant a good soup.

A simple soup, flaring with Indian spices, rounded by melted butter, and braced by a good chicken broth, in which a balance is formed between the health we want to tell ourselves we are embracing, and the pure satisfaction of warm, salted butter on a winter's evening.

The butter - I've mentioned it twice in the last paragraph, suggesting there is plenty of it mingling in the broth and coating the lentils. This is an exaggeration. Brilliantly, the flavor of the butter grabs the spices and carries them through each bite; and yet, in reality there is not that much of it. Not that much of the spices either, come to think of it. A subtle balance of cumin, coriander, garam masala, and cardamom temper each other in warmth and satisfaction. Nothing is too glaring or abrasive, and nothing makes you run for a green salad or buttered bread to compensate for lack of health or fat.

It's whole and ready and round as is, which brings me to the point that no one should wait as long as I did to make this soup. In fact, if I were you, I would start looking for black lentils in your cupboard or your friends cupboard or maybe even the grocery store, as soon as possible. Chop the onion right now into big sloppy pieces, crush the tomatoes between your fingers before another moment passes, and then let the pot sit on the stove while you go dance to some early Simon and Garfunkle music or flip on season two of the Sopranos.

And even if you have to wait to actually eat the soup because you end up also dancing to Vampire Weekend (the lead singer of which sounds uncannily like Paul Simon) or you have to watch the next episode to see if Christopher really does die from those gunshots to the stomach - it's okay. Just turn the heat down, and the lentils will wait. They are patient little fellows, and will sit happily for as long as you need, tucked between layers of onion and tomato. Perhaps they will even puff further with spiced broth, and then finally, when you are ready, you can listen to the rain and eat your soup and feel pleasantly like an unhurried balance has been found between all the wonderful, overlooked attributes of a happy lentil.

Indian Spiced Black Lentil Soup
adapted from Food and Wine

1 cup black lentils
3 or 4 cardamom pods
One 1-inch piece of ginger, thinly sliced and
2 tbsp minced ginger
5 tbsp butter, divided
1 onion cut into 1/2 inch dice
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp ground coriander (heaping)
1/2 tsp ground cumin (heaping)
1/4 tsp cayenne (heaping)
1/4 tsp garam masala (heaping)
2 quarts low sodium chicken broth (vegetable broth will do fine as well)
1 cup canned tomatoes
salt to taste

1) In a small pot, cover lentils, cardamom and ginger slices with 1 inch of water. Boil until softened, about 10 minutes. Drain, discard cardamom and ginger, set aside.

2) Meanwhile, melt 3 tablespoons butter in a large pot. Add onion, garlic, and minced ginger. Cook over medium heat until softened (8-10 minutes), then reduce heat to low. Add the spices and cook another 4 minutes, until fragrant.

3) Add the broth, lentils and tomatoes, breaking apart the tomatoes with your hands if they are not already crushed. Bring to a boil, then simmer over moderate heat until lentils are soft and the soup has thickened, 50-60 minutes.

4) Finally, stir in remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and season with salt, if needed. Serve.

Serves 4, and any remaining will taste even better the following day