There’s something satisfying about lentils. Tonight, they’re the little green French ones that hold their shape and offer resistance to the bite rather than falling apart like the pink-orange South Asian ones that are perfect for dal.
I rarely make them, actually, though my kids love them. I sort of forget about them, or take for granted, though as the oldest cultivated legume in history, they deserve my respect. Every time we have lentils, which is amazingly seldom, we remark how much we like them and how we ought to have them more.
But, rich, decadent, fatty foods call us. Pork chops, roasted chicken, poached or broiled salmon, a meaty braise. The dainty and subdued lentil is passed over when these offerings are in the house. It’s only when we are out of food, when the bank account is frightfully low, when we’re too lazy to go to the store, or when for some other reason there’s no protein source in the house (eggs are all gone tonight too), that the lowly lentil is remembered, and appreciated.
Tonight, I began cooking her and several dozen of her sisters in salted boiling water with a bay leaf, half an onion, a carrot. I was getting a lackadaisical start to dinner. I decided I should probably spice it up a little. I found a Madhur Jaffrey recipe for “Green-Lentil Curry” and went from there. I had springy-fresh bok choy already chopped. I had cut half a head of the equally fresh dinosaur kale I’d bought at my local health food store earlier today on the counter. I chopped that and set it aside with the bok choy.
I made the spice-tomato paste Jaffrey advocates, minus the ground cumin since I didn’t have any. I ground everything in a mortar and pestle, having fun pounding the little round coriander seeds into the garlic. The fibrous ginger was harder to decimate, but I did my best to at least flatten each fresh peeled slice against the rough side of the mortar bowl. I added that to the cumin seeds and sliced shallot I had going in a cast iron pan. Once that was assembled, I added the greens to the lentil pot with a good two tablespoons of turmeric.
The greens spilled out of the pot in the most obstinate way. Eventually, though, they wilted sufficiently to stir without bits falling to the floor. I added a tablespoon of kosher salt, a teaspoon or so of cayenne, oh! and cilantro — I went out to the garden for that. It was getting dark, but I could recognize it by the downy white petaled heads that floated eerily over the dark bed. I tore off a few of those heads, figuring if the leaves are good the flowers must be too. I dashed back into the house, and tore/dropped them into the lentils. Minuscule white petals fell like snow onto the green lentils and greens.
As I was doing these things, I gave thanks for the grace that’s finally arrived to me in the kitchen. Not very many years ago, and for many years in succession, I suffered from a paralyzing anxiety in the kitchen, as I did in most parts of my life. I followed recipes so assiduously as to be totally hamstrung by them. I was a tense and angry cook, irritable, frantic, desperate, castigating myself at every turn. Did I forget a spice? Like the veal paupiettes I wrote about elsewhere, I would freeze, paralyzed with shame as a feeling of worthlessness spread like a toxin through my being. I’d throw the whole lot out, and start again.
It makes me wince to remember these days, days when I spread my toxicity to my partner as well, making him re-measure the water for the oatmeal in one infamous case that makes me squirm still. I was like Laura Brown, the character played by Julianne Moore in the film The Hours. In the Wikipedia article about the movie, the writer says simply that Laura, a 1950s California housewife, and her young son “make a cake for her husband’s birthday, but it’s a disaster.”
That’s not what I remember. That scene stunned me and is seared in my memory because it depicted a woman so tense and filled with self-loathing and insidious perfectionism that she turns what should be a fun, bonding moment with her child into a gruesome, painful, and terrifying trial. I saw my mother in it, and I saw myself.
So, I took a minute tonight and loved the universe for freeing me from relentless perfectionism that cuts me deep and constant. Now, I can and do approximate, play. I can glance at a recipe and adapt it. I’m not afraid to jump in even when I lack one, two, three, or even more of the ingredients. I substitute where I can, and I’m not crushed if the results aren’t ambrosia. Usually, in fact, they’re just fine.
Tonight, Rachel, my son’s Sri Lankan girlfriend, came home while I was finishing up. She was tired. I got her a glass of water and asked her if she would be so kind as to check my handiwork. She tasted the sauce (the tomato-based paste), thought for a minute, then pulled “her” drawer open (the drawer she reserved a week ago for her spices, carefully laying a clean, folded dishtowel cheerfully printed with spice images, on the bottom). She added two tablespoons of whole fenugreek and about a tablespoon of her Sri Lankan roasted curry powder.
She stirred the powder in and let the fenugreek seeds roast on the side of the cast-iron pan. After a few minutes, I stirred them together, added the tomato-spice paste to the lentil pot, and called the kids for dinner. My daughter set the table. She and her brother bickered, as usual, making me suffer, as usual, but really, I’m happy. We were home together, sharing a meal, with the Robert Flack Pandora station playing “Show and Tell” by soul great Al Wilson.
Life is good.
Green Lentil Curry, adapted from Madhur Jaffrey
2 tablespoons grated ginger
2 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons olive or some other healthy oil (no processed oil)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 shallot, chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste mixed with 1 tablespoon of water
1 1/2 cups dried green lentils
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
About 2 cups chopped greens (kale, chard, bok choy, whatever you have on hand)
1 carrot, sliced
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon Sri Lankan roasted curry powder (or the curry powder you have on hand)
1 tablespoon whole fenugreek seeds
Combine the ginger, garlic, coriander and ground cumin in a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder set aside for your spices. Add a little water to make a paste. In a small skillet, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the cumin seeds and cook over moderately high heat for a few seconds, until sizzling. Add the shallot and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about a minute. Add the spice paste and let cook until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook until thick, about a minute more.
In a saucepan, combine the lentils with the turmeric and cover with water (about 4 cups); bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer for 20 minutes, until the lentils are barely tender. Add the greens, carrot, a handful cilantro, and the cayenne. Season with salt. Cook until the lentils and vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Scrape in the spice paste and the remaining cilantro.
Serve with rice (we used basmati) and plain yogurt (we like full fat Greek yogurt).
Feeds about 4.