Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Dhal: Excellent Indian Lentils

My introduction to serious dhal dishes occured while living in Malaysia, where many varieties were staples in the diverse Indian communities. Lentils, or dhal in Hindi (parapu in the prevailing Tamil of the largest Indian community in Malaysia), are the major protein source for hundreds of millions of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Nepalis, rich and poor, vegetarian and non-vegetarian. Paired with rice or whole wheat chapatis, dhal forms the basis of food and nutrition for a fifth of the world's population.

These humble legumes, both whole seeds and split varieties, are transformed by spices, butter or oil, onions and occasionally vegetables into astoundingly satisfying, even elegant, dishes. Virtually no serious Indian meal lacks dhal in one form or another.

My favorite of the dhals I know how to make is the north Indian stew of "channa," which is very similar to yellow split peas. I learned this from a warm, slightly rotund Sikh lady, Mrs. Majumder Singh, whose class I took In Kuala Lumpur. Her face carried a happy, almost lascivious, smile as she dolloped extra globs of clarified butter into the bubbling mixture. She knew what she was doing. It was alchemy, turning dull, dry legumes into lusciousness. Her dhal made you sigh with joy.

At good Indian restaurants (and, blessedly, we have them in Atlanta) I typically get dhal makani, a slow-cooked dish of black dhal and red beans with fresh ginger and cream, that I wouldn't usually make at home. But when I cook, my dish is what I'm describing, a Punjabi yellow dhal you never tire of.

Sprinkled with coarsely chopped cilantro, it goes with salted Basmati rice and plain yogurt. On the side, I like a little hot Indian pickle, bottled and imported, an achar.

Yellow split peas are sold at supermarkets. Channa dhal is at Indian and some natural foods stores. Spices are cheapest at Indian and natural food stores. Mexican stores also carry some herbs and spices cheaply.

Dhal patterned after Mrs. Majumder Singh's

1 pound yellow split peas (supermarkets) or channa dhal (natural food and Indian groceries)
Water to cover by 3 inches in pot
3 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, divided
1 jalapeño, minced, or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon small black mustard seeds
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
1/2 cup cilantro, leaves coarsely chopped
1-1/2 teaspoons salt, plus to taste

Rinse and drain split peas or lentils. Place in pot with water to cover by 3 inches. Bring to boil, and skim off foam. Add butter, half the onion, diced, jalapeno, ground cumin, and turmeric. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until peas begin to break down, 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the legume used. Add water to make into a soupy mixture.

Meanwhile, thinly slice other half onion lengthwise. Heat il in heavy pan. Add mustard seeds, and stir and fry until they begin to pop. Add cumin seeds, and after they sizzle 10 seconds, add sliced onions. Fry gently until onion begins to brown. Stir in cilantro and remove from heat.

When peas are becoming soupy, add salt, plus fried onion-cilantro mixture. Simmer 1 minute and remove from heat. Taste, and add salt as needed.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Roasted Stuffed Mushrooms: Italian antipasto for winter

In mid-winter, freshly roasted stuffed mushroom caps are something to savor before an Italian meal. Or any meal for that matter. We're just past Christmas, with too much rich food. So this one is for when things settle down, and guests have gone home.

This is a hearty antipasto, literally something to eat before the pasta course in an Italian dinner. Increasingly, large mushroom caps are available at supermarkets for stuffing, but more ordinary sized mushrooms are also effective. Both meat and non-meat stuffing variations are included here. Prepare mushrooms ahead, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate. Roast just before eating.

The recipe serves six. Wines to go with antipasti include Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chianti.

Stuffed Mushroom Antipasto

12 large stuffing sized mushrooms (or 24 regular sized mushrooms)
1 scallion (green onion)
1 small clove garlic
2-inch length of celery
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 pound ground pork or chicken (easily chopped on a board using a chef’s knife or cleaver) (vegetarian substitute: 3/4 cup grated zucchini or summer squash)
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon paprika
Small pinch of cayenne or two squirts of hot pepper sauce
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley (or 1 teaspoon dry)
3/8 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (3/4 cup) unseasoned breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons red or white wine
6 to 8 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons grated Romano or Parmesan cheese

Rinse and drain mushrooms. Cut off (and reserve) stems. Place mushroom stems, scallion, white and green parts, garlic, and celery in a food processor and pulse to chop finely. (Alternatively, finely mince these ingredients on board with chef’s knife.)

Fry in olive oil, stirring occasionally, until onion softens. Add ground pork or chicken (or grated zucchini or summer squash), and fry, stirring often and breaking up lumps, until meat color has changed or squash is limp and much of the liquid has dried (5 to 7 minutes). Stir in herbs and spices, parsley, and salt, and let fry gently one minute. Add wine, stir to blend in, and then breadcrumbs. Heat thoroughly, stirring frequently. Then add enough water, several tablespoons at a time, while stirring, until mixture is moistened. Remove from heat, and stir in grated cheese. Taste, and add salt if necessary.

Lightly salt undersides of mushroom caps. Evenly distribute stuffing mixture and pack it onto mushroom caps, mounding up as necessary. Place mushrooms, stuffed side up, in lightly oiled heatproof serving dish. Stuffed mushrooms can be stored at this stage, refrigerated, if desired.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Bake mushrooms until fully heated and surfaces begin to brown, about 15 minutes. Serve hot.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Delicious Chili with (surprise) No Meat

I've been slack on getting recipes onto the blog. Partly it was the Thanksgiving holiday abetted by three family birthdays. Plus we had catering in both Athens and Atlanta. But also, I'm now writing a bi-monthly recipe column in the Athens Banner-Herald.

Here's a recent creation aimed at the St. Barts Guinea Pig Contingent, a vegetarian lunch for their staff meeting during Advent. They have two more vegetarian meals coming.

"French" green lentils, grown in Canada these days as are the ordinary tan/brown ones, do amazing things. These lentils are available in bulk at natural food stores and our Dekalb Farmers' Market. These lentils are almost meaty. And a new bean discovery, at least for me, is the "cranberry" bean, which is meaty and luscious. Worked together they make a chili I would defy you to be sure didn't contain meat. Pintos would be the bean substitute.

The method is a little "tedious," needing an overnight soak for the beans and slow cooking of the chili. But the costs are minimal for ingredients, producing an amazing meal for very little. Make this when you have other things to do around the kitchen, like working on the computer.

This recipe makes enough for six, but with lots of leftovers, which taste even better on later days. I suggest accompanying the chili with some lightly salted rice (a good place to work in brown rice, if you do that kind of thing) and topping it all with a dollop of sour cream. And while I haven't tried beverages with this one yet, my culinary instincts say either a malty beer (an economical choice is Killian's Red, or Bohemia [Mexican]) or a strong red wine, not too expensive.

Vegetarian Chili Tim

1 pound dry "cranberry" or pinto beans
2 cups "French" green or regular tan lentils
2 large onions, in 1/2-inch dice
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon oregano
2 bay leaves
1/2 cup red wine
3 cups water
2 teaspoons salt plus 1-1/2 teaspoons more later
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste plus 1 can of water
1 large or 2 medium red bell peppers, seeded, in 1/2-inch dice

Pick over and soak beans in plenty of water overnight or at least 8 hours. Drain. Cover with fresh water and bring to boil, skimming off foam. Reduce heat and simmer until tender, partially covered, about 45 minutes. When tender, remove from heat.

Soak lentils at least 20 minutes in boiling water to cover by at least 3 inches. Drain.

Fry onions in oil until wilted. Reduce heat and stir in garlic for 2 minutes. Add dry spices, and stir and fry 2 minutes. Add drained lentils, wine, and 3 cups water. Bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer covered until lentils are nearly tender (20-40 minutes, depending on the lentils), stirring from time to time.

Add 2 teaspoons salt plus drained, cooked beans, tomato paste, and can of water. Simmer 5 minutes, stirring frequently so bottom doesn't stick. Add a little water, if too thick.

Stir in diced bell peppers and 1-1/2 teaspoons salt. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until pepper is tender. Taste, and add salt if needed.

Serve with lightly salted brown or regular rice. Top with sour cream.