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

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