Coconut Red Lentil Dip

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At our wedding, almost three years ago, Aaron and I gave bookmarks to our guests as tokens of our gratitude. These bookmarks were printed with various lines from a few of our favorite poems. One was the closing stanza of Margaret Atwood’s Variations on the Word Sleep:

I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.

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Lentils are stodgy things, unassuming and cheap. There’s an hippie strain about them, tainted with the implications of under-salted, uniformly brown meals. It’s easy to obsess over the beauty of fresh produce. There’s a vitality, brilliantly colored and beautifully arrayed. If lentils inspire love, it’s the love of gratitude. It’s a long running marriage to an heirloom’s passionate affairs. Lentils are supportive. There is always more they will be willing to give.

Perhaps we ought to celebrate lentils more. Lentils are accessible. They are sustaining. They give, quietly and without complaint, again and again. And they are happy to fade into the background, allowing their more glamorous accompaniments to take the spotlight. They are unnoticed. They are necessary.

In the spirit of generosity I offer this red lentil dip. Earthy from the lentils, sweet from coconut milk, and with a kiss of heat from ginger. My dreams of taking this dip on a picnic were destroyed by Aaron devouring half of it when he arrived home from work. I’m not fond of this habit of assigning any mashed beans the moniker “hummus”, because there’s no tahini and no chickpeas in most. But this is satisfying in the same way as hummus, with a similar texture and similar balance of flavors. And because red lentils are the uncelebrated workhorse of the kitchen, this dip comes together from start to finish in about twenty minutes. Pretty remarkable for something so unnoticed.

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Coconut Red Lentil Dip

Be careful when blending the dip- too fast or too long and it may start to take on paste-y quality. It doesn’t need to be perfectly smooth- in fact, a slightly nubby texture is delightful.

Makes about 2 cups of dip

4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger, peeled
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
salt
1 cup red lentils
1 fifteen ounce can coconut milk
4 tablespoons olive oil
juice of 1 lime

to serve

sesame seeds
crackers
vegetables

Melt the coconut oil in a heavy bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and ginger and cook gently for about five minutes, until the garlic and ginger are fragrant but not taking on any color. Add the coriander, black pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Stir well, then continue cooking for another minute. Stir in the red lentils until they are coated in the spice and shiny with the oil, then stir in the coconut milk. Bring the mixture to a simmer and stir often, cooking until most of the liquid is absorbed and the lentils are tender but firm, about ten to fifteen minutes. If the liquid is absorbed but the lentils are still hard, add water at half a cup at a time and keep simmering. You don’t want the lentils to dissolve for this.

Transfer your cooked lentils to a blender and blend until the lentils are mashed. While the blender is whirling, add in the olive oil, lime juice, and 1/4 cup of water. Taste, and add any salt you deem necessary. Serve at room temperature, sprinkled with sesame seeds surrounded by crackers and crudités of choice.

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Skordalia


Before Aaron sold out and got a job with health insurance and a 401k and PTO with a big company, he was a bartender. He started when we were in college, and bartended more or less full time for 5 years. He had a knack for finding the best possible place for him at the time. When we were living in England he worked as a bar back at a high volume cocktail bar that we frequented with friends for the Alice in Wonderland themed drinks. In our sleepy college town he worked behind the bar at the hotel where presidential candidates stay during their tours of Iowa. When we moved to Minneapolis he finagled his way into a bar back role at a fine dining restaurant that held one of Minnesota’s three James Beard awards. That role eventually morphed into bartending. I used to stop in on my nights off with a book. I would sip on a cocktail Aaron would slide over to me, watching the people around the room revel.

Back then I was a preschool teacher. When I decided to make the change to cooking, I was able to find a good job for someone so green right away because of the connections Aaron had made bartending. We were young and just out of college, and spent most of our “extra” money on eating out. It was hard not to- there were so many options out there. We had so much to learn. It felt like we were playing catch up. And there was always a new place to try. Some we heard about from Aaron’s coworkers. Some were recommended to us by the servers and bartenders we had become friendly with from our many late nights. Other times Aaron might mention a place offhand he wanted to try. “They’re in NSBG,” he’d say.

NSBG was the North Star Bartender’s Guild, Minnesota’s version of a bartender’s union. They provided the option to buy health insurance and continuing education and put on Iron Bartender every year. Most restaurants that had strong bar programs had bartenders in the guild. After meetings Aaron would complain about the drama of it all. There was always bad blood between some restaurants, and that would manifest in sniping. But he would also get to try new spirits that were just started to be imported to the US, and once he got a free hat, so it seemed to be a fairly even trade.

One hot August night we were in Rochester, Minnesota, looking for a place to get dinner. Aaron mentioned a place nearby. “They’re in NSBG.” In fact, he elaborated, they were the only restaurant outside the Twin Cities to make the drive for meetings. It sounded good, and much better than the Olive Gardens that Yelp was turning up, so we hit up Zzest Restaurant.

It was already full dark when we arrived, but we were still shown to a wrought iron table in the patio. Patio is the wrong word for it, though- it was like a full garden. People were sitting in clusters, some sipping wine, some snacking on truffle oil popcorn. Laughter drifted in the air. When the server arrived we ordered generously, and included a starter called skordalia. “It’s like a mashed potato hummus,” he told us, and with a description like that, how could we resist?

It came, a smooth white mound. It was creamy and light and fluffy, filled with a brave amount of garlic. The menu proclaimed that it contained both potatoes and white beans, a combination I’ve not seen anywhere else. It was so good I ended up running my fingers over the finished plate to lick the last bites off. Everything we had that night was delicious, but only the memory of the skordalia has stayed with me.

I’ve only had skordalia at Zzest, but the memory has stuck with me. It lives in the small notebook I carry with me at all times, the list of ideas for here that just keeps growing and growing. After Easter I was scanning that notebook. I needed a way to use up potatoes. 15 pounds of potatoes is far too many for 5 people, it turns out. Among the other suspects (roast potatoes with mustard, loaded potato wedges, shepherd’s pie) skoralia stuck out. It was time to make mashed potato hummus.

It’s quite easy to make. You roast potatoes, mash, bash garlic, and mix. It’s deeply flavorful, garlic-y and savory and slightly sweet. It would be a great dip for a party, as it’s the rare combination of unique and comforting. I imagine it would also excel in any role that mashed potatoes are commonly stuck in.

Happy April! I’m wishing you all beautiful weather and delicious potatoes.

Skordalia

The recipe originally calls for “ground almonds”. I made the substitution for almond flour, as it’s the same thing just already conveniently made. If you don’t keep almond flour on hand and have a food processor, go ahead and grind those almonds yourself. Additionally, the original recipe called for 1 cup of olive oil (and no water). If you are braver than I, please try it and tell me what you think.

Adapted from this recipe from the Culinary Institute of America via Epicurious

Yield: About three cups

1 pound small, starchy potatoes (I used half white, half purple potatoes)
5 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg yolk
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup almond flour
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup water

To serve
Olive oil
Slivered almonds
Cut raw vegetables of choice, such as carrot batons and radish rounds
Crackers

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Prick the potatoes all over with a fork or small sharp knife. Roast the potatoes until tender. The time will depend on how large your potatoes are. Mine were quite small, and took about half an hour, but they may take an hour or more. Remove the potatoes when they’re tender, and set aside until they’re cool enough to touch. Once they’re cool enough to touch, place in a medium sized bowl and mash using a potato masher until tender.

In a mortar and pestle, or using a knife and cutting board, pound the garlic cloves with the salt until you have a smooth paste.

Add the garlic paste, yolk, pepper, almond flour, lemon, olive oil, and water to the smooth potato mash. Mix well and taste. Adjust the lemon, salt, and pepper according to taste, and if you’d like a looser consistency add more oil or water.

To serve, drizzle with olive oil and top with slivered almonds, and arrange vegetables and crackers as desired.

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