Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Into the spice cabinet

Not too long after we ate the pigs’ feet, Ben called me from work and in a serious voice said: “I have a question for you.”

Several possibilities raced through my mind right then (Had I made that charge to the credit card? Could I sweep the lotto tickets from the sidewalk? Would I live on the boat with him for a year?), before the word detox left his mouth. He was inviting me to join him in a meat-free month.

“Sure,” I said, somewhat relieved. “I can do that.”

“And booze.”

“Uh. Okay”

And so we embarked on our healthful journey that night, with a plate of whole-wheat farfalle, tossed with kale pesto and chickpeas. There were additional vegetables, bright and vitamin-packed, filling out the plate. And beside it all a nice crisp glass…of water.

I suppose if you don't rein it in a bit after the holidays, your habits catch up with you sooner or later, in some form or another. And for both of us, winter's porcine delights and our nightly glass(es) of red wine had added up to a little extra fatigue, a bit more difficulty waking up in the morning, and a touch of all-around crankiness. Though weight gain was not the problem, we needed to lighten it up. 
Cooking vegetarian every night? A piece of cake–since I once went 10 years without eating meat. At the end of that period, I had concluded that forgoing meat altogether, long-term, was not the best thing for my constitution (I had zero energy by year 10), but I'm still a lover of vegetables and legumes, and we do enjoy meatless fare on a regular basis.

But gradually, lately, something had happened. Over the years, through cooking school and restaurants and writing about food and enjoying it, I had begun to take for granted the amount of meat in my diet. I had convinced myself that I was eating in a balanced and responsible way, because all of our meat comes from small, humane, sustainable farms, and I don’t order sketchy meat in restaurants (though I'm not this much of a pain when we go out). Weekly pork is a given in our house, because we subscribe to a fantastic pig share upstate. The problem, paradoxically, was that responsibly-raised meat had became too available. So much so that I hadn't noticed that the balance had tipped, and that I was eating more meat than I needed to–especially as we were trying to keep warm through this brutal winter. That is, until Ben called us out on it.

As for the booze part of it, I feared that going without wine would be far more painful than the meat part. Wine is my poison of choice, a must with great food, and as many parents know, a fantastic gear-switcher after a trying day with the kids. Wine, too, I had begun to take for granted. But climbing on the wagon wasn't as hard as I thought, once I got over the weird feeling of not having a glass in hand in certain situations (restaurants and parties, really). We attended a wildly celebratory occasion dead sober and found ourselves entertained by the antics of those who weren't: friends imitating their one-year-olds, lobbing frozen blueberries into each other's champagne, revealing their craziest dreams featuring Keith Richards. A good time was had by all, and we felt superhumanly alert the next morning. 

So thank you, Ben, for getting this rolling. Since we first switched gears (it has been about a month), we just recently started adding alcohol and meat back into our diets–in moderation. I really don't crave meat, and I'm fine restricting alcohol to weekends and occasional weeknights out; when I do have a glass, it's a choice, not a reflex. This change also makes sense for Spring, of which there are definite signs around here!
An added gift of this shift has been a necessary boost in creativity, and a renewed intimacy with the spice cabinet. I realized that somewhere along the line, pork had become my default seasoning: you know how effortlessly a little sautéed bacon here, a ham hock there can add smoke, and savoriness to a dish. If you're eating vegetarian food all the time and your palate craves big flavors like mine does, you may have to use a little more alchemy.

Over the past month I've reached for cookbooks I hadn't opened in years, like Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking. This is a wonderful, timeless handbook of Indian recipes and techniques–and, incidentally, taking one of her cooking courses is on my bucket list. I had remembered, from somewhere, her recipe for Buttered Black Beans (Kali Dal), creamy and spicy and delicious, and I wanted to adapt it to the inky black beluga lentils I had in my cupboard.
Her recipe calls for black gram beans and literally a few kidney beans and long soaking and cooking times. Because beluga lentils are so tiny (similar to green French lentilles du Puy) and you want them to retain their delicate, caviar-like bite, there is no soaking and less than half the cooking time. Make no mistake: this is a rich dish. It's the kind of dish, if you're an herbivore, that you might want to trot out once and a while to remind yourself that, yes, veg fare can be racy and decadent. The tadka is a bit of gilding on the lily; though I love the nutty-sweetness of the browned cumin seeds and onions, I couldn't bring myself to add the cream (I noted it as optional). In fact, you can dial back the amounts of butter or cream in the dish and it will still win you over. It works as a soup or a side, as a main course or part of a big Indian vegetarian meal. Enjoy with basmati rice, with some naan, and a heaping plate of vegetables alongside, if it's virtue you seek.
Beluga Lentil Dal
Serves at least 8 
Adapted from Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking

Ingredients for cooking lentils:
  • 2 1/4 cups beluga lentils, rinsed
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 3 TBS finely chopped ginger root
  • 1 1/2 cups tomato puree (canned works well)
  • 1 1/2 cups plain yogurt
  • 1 tsp ground cardamom
  • 2 TBS ground coriander seed
  • 2 tsp cayenne pepper (add more if you like more heat)
  • 1 1/2 TBS kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
For Tadka: 
  • 8 TBS ghee or vegetable oil
  • 1 TBS whole cumin seeds
  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely minced
  • Optional: 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed, chopped cilantro leaves

Put lentils in a deep, heavy-bottomed pot and add water. Bring to a boil and immediately add all the other ingredients for cooking lentils. Bring to a boil once again, then immediately lower to the barest simmer–you don't want the lentils to crack or burst. Simmer on lowest heat, partially covered, for 1 1/2 hours, occasionally stirring gently. If you think the liquid is getting too low, add a little water. Taste: they should be firm and whole but not undercooked. You may also add a bit more salt or spice at this point. 

To make tadka, heat the ghee or oil over medium-high heat, in a skillet. When it is hot, add the cumin seeds and fry until dark brown (about 10 seconds), then add the onions. Lower the heat a little bit, and fry them until they're softened and golden brown. Stir them during cooking, so they don't burn. Pour the entire contents of the frying pan over the lentil mixture (which should be simmering at this point), add the cilantro leaves and cream (if using), and stir to mix thoroughly. Simmer until heated through. Check for salt, and serve.

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