Friday, November 19, 2010

Lentils and Cream Dip for Maria: new take on an ancient legume

Lentils go back at least to Neolithic times over 8000 years ago, back when terra cotta pottery pots had been developed in which to cook them.

Red lentils stewed into "pottage," according to the Book of Genesis, was the reason why Esau, the firstborn son and rightful heir of Isaac, traded away his birthright to his younger brother. Except for the lentils, the people of Israel might have been the House of Esau rather than the House of Jacob.

Called "lens" by the Romans (still the scientific genus name for lentil) lentils had the name well before it was applied to the similarly shaped light-focusing structure in telescopes and eyes.

A legume like peas and beans, lentils grow easily in poor soil thanks to nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their root nodules. The bacteria make fertilizer, in effect, from thin air. Lentils also require little rain, and can be grown in fairly dry zones.

Like other legume seeds, lentils are rich in protein and fiber. They are also an excellent source of dietary iron. They store and ship well. And unlike most of their dried bean and pea cousins, they cook quickly.

But their historical, agricultural, nutritional and culinary attributes would be of limited interest if they did not taste good. Fortunately they do taste good. And cooked well, they can be exciting as well as comforting.

Strangely, lentils are not prominent in American cuisine, despite their popularity in South Asia and the Mediterranean. These simple legumes, of which there are many varieties, are among my favorite cooking ingredients.

Here's a lentil appetizer dish I developed for my daughter Maria for an opening reception at a gallery exhibit of her pottery. Lentils and pottery are intertwined in early human history, and I made a dip of lentils to serve out of one of Maria's pots.

The lentils for this recipe are the common tan-green variety readily available at supermarkets (near the dried beans and rice) as well as at natural and health food stores. The smaller dark green "French" lentils are also extremely tasty, but they require somewhat longer cooking.

Choosing a wine to pair with this dish is a little challenging. It's earthy and creamy body, with light herbal overtones, suggest to me a medium light-bodied red wine. A Beaujolais, a good Chianti, or perhaps a Grenache/Garnacha or Malbec would do, as would a crisp, luscious white like Viognier or Albariño.

The recipe makes enough appetizer for a large crowd. Accompany it with non-salty crackers or pita chips.

Lentil-Cream Dip for Maria

1 pound (2 cups) tan or green lentils
1/3 cup red wine
2 medium-large carrots
1 medium celery stick
1 medium onion
1 medium clove garlic
1/3 cup olive or vegetable oil
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
3/4 cup sour cream
12 small fresh Asian basil or 4 medium-large regular basil leaves

Add lentils to a pot of boiling water, simmer 1 minute, then allow to sit at least 20 minutes. Drain, then return lentils to pot.

Add wine plus enough water to reach the surface of the lentils. Bring back to a boil. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until tender. Add a little water as necessary to keep lentils moist but not wet.

Meanwhile, scrub but do not peel carrots. Cut off tips, then chunk the carrot. Chop very finely in food processor, along with chunked celery, onion and garlic. Alternately, mince all the vegetables very finely.

In frying pan, fry vegetables in oil, stirring frequently until color lightens and vegetables become tender.

When lentils are very tender, add fried vegetables plus salt, pepper and cayenne. Simmer 10 minutes, stirring frequently and scraping bottom of pot. Taste, and add salt to make the mixture slightly salty (the lentils will soak up more salt).

Remove from heat. Stir in sour cream. Mince basil finely and stir it in.

Cool thoroughly. Taste, and add salt, if desired.

Serve in bowl, accompanied by crackers or pita chips.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Double-Fish Cream Dip, for Maria

Our youngest daughter is a potter, and only makes vessels that can be used. Maria's artistic vision is that the pottery she makes should not only be beautiful, reflecting nature's beauty, but that one can eat and drink from it.

Since the development of terra cotta in the Neolithic Age, mankind has had two principal uses for fired clay: cooking, eating and drinking with it -- pottery -- and reverence for divinity and humanity -- sculpture.

For Maria's gallery exhibit this December, I have developed several appetizer dishes that are intended to "pair" with her pottery. She will, as she has done before, serve her guests foods to eat from her ceramic creations, foods that I have created to complement her works.

Here is one of the dishes I developed, a dip or spread for bread or chips. Other recipes will follow in later postings.

Double-Fish Cream Dip

8 ounces low-fat (Neufchatel) or regular cream cheese
2 teaspoons anchovy paste (from supermarket, near the canned fish)
1 (5-ounce) can chunk light tuna, including its water
1 tablespoon tomato ketchup
1/2 teaspoon horseradish
1 sprinkle of ground black pepper
1 medium scallion (green onion), green and white parts, minced
1 teaspoon capers, drained and minced

In bowl, soften cream cheese and anchovy paste with wooden spoon. Mix in all the other ingredients, breaking up tuna.

Let rest 10 minutes, then taste. Add salt if needed. If desired, several drops of vinegar can be added.

Serve with small toasted pita or bread slices (bruschetta/crostini), low-salt crackers or tortilla chips.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Indian Cabbage Curry

I’ve been somewhat slow at getting things onto my blog because of being busier with the family restaurant and catering in Athens, plus I’m busier at my day job for the time being too.

At any rate, here’s a cabbage curry, a nice side dish for an Indian dinner, that I cooked for a vegetarian dinner for a group this past weekend. It’s basically the South Indian (Tamil) dish I learned to cook from Indians in Malaysia, except that there the oil would have been coconut, and curry leaves would have been cooked in with the cumin seeds.

I haven’t put many Indian dishes on the blog because the ingredient lists, spices particularly, are so extensive. I get my spices in small bulk quantities at our Dekalb Farmers Market, but they’re available inexpensively also at Indian groceries.

The recipe makes enough for a side dish for 6 to 8 persons.

Sliced Cabbage Curry

1 small-medium head cabbage (1 1/2 to 2 pounds)
1 medium onion
1 clove garlic
1/2 inch fresh ginger
3/4 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
2 teaspoons turmeric
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt, plus to taste
1/4 cup yogurt
Coarsely chopped cilantro for garnish

Prepare vegetables and spices before starting to cook. Quarter and core cabbage. Cut quarters in half lengthwise, then slice across into 1/4-inch shreds. Dice onions. Mince garlic and ginger together. Have butter, mustard seeds and whole cumin ready. Combine ground spices in a small bowl.

Heat heavy pot to medium hot. Add canola oil, and when it’s hot add mustard seeds. Shake or stir as the seeds pop. When they are partly popped, add cumin seeds and let them splutter 10 seconds, stirring.

Add butter and reduce heat. Immediately add ground spices and stir for 1/2 minute, or until fragrant. Add onion and fry, stirring occasionally until softened and just starting to brown. Add garlic and ginger. Stir and fry briefly.

Add cabbage, and let it fry several minutes, stirring frequently. Add salt and yogurt. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally and adding a tiny amount of water if mixture is dry. Simmer until cabbage is tender. Taste, and add salt as necessary.

Serve sprinkled generously with cilantro. Accompany with rice or Indian roti chapati.