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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Rose Posca

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During and after college Aaron worked as a bartender. The places he worked at ranged from good to great, and he took to the work with a single-minded enthusiasm. Need someone to explain to stir or shake a cocktail? Curious about why a drink uses this specific bitter Italian liquor and not that nearly identical bitter Italian liquor? Have an opinion about jiggering in ounces verses measuring with milliliters versus free pouring? Aaron’s your guy. We have a bookcase in our dining room that’s filled with booze. There’s ancho chili liquor and local sour cherry cordial and approximately 50 types of bitters. There’s the stuff he’s made himself like Green Tea Vodka, Hibiscus Gin, and Popcorn Rum. He collects cocktail glasses, name drops cocktail historians, and chats up local bartenders about ratios. He’s been passionate about cocktails since we were able to legally drink.

I’m not passionate about cocktails. I appreciate a well-made drink, but usually choose a Manhattan or Sidecar over a deeply imaginative confection. But passion is sexy and fascinating, and in this case it’s deeply convenient. Aaron takes care of the drinks, and I manage the food. He carefully selects the wine for date nights and I roll out the pasta. At dinner parties he’s whipping up spicy Palomas while I bring cake. He suggests the brewery to meet up with friends and I make the snacks. We sit at the bar in restaurants, Aaron chatting up the bartenders and I investigating the menus. It’s a happy pairing (pun intentional) but it has its downside. I have made perhaps five cocktails in my entire life.

That may not seem notable to you. Let me just emphasize again I have a bookcase full of booze three feet from where I write this. There is all the equipment and resources that I could need, including dozens of cocktail books. And I have no aversion or hangups about alcohol. I just don’t ever put in the effort to make my own drinks. This habit extends to non-alcoholic drinks as well. We had friends over this weekend for the afternoon. I assumed we’d drink water. Aaron whipped up jasmine-lemongrass Arnold Palmers instead.

Sometimes, when I’m lucky, I get inspired rather than lazy by Aaron’s passion. This inspiration usually manifests in non-alcoholic beverages. Have you heard about posca ? It’s an ancient Roman drink, essentially vinegar, water, herbs, and perhaps sweeteners. There’s no known recipe, and the exact proportions have been lost to history. But I love the idea of it- tart brightness from vinegar, honey for sweetness, herbs to keep things interesting. It’s lemonade before lemonade, a refreshing summer drink.

For this posca I took a hint from my bartender husband and instead of honey made a rose syrup. The syrup is simple, floral, and brilliantly pink. I mixed it with apple cider vinegar (because apples and roses are botanically related. Science!), water, and ice. The drink is beautiful, ended up a pale shade of millennial pink and with a lovely, light blend of sweet and tart. It’s, as they say at my work, extremely quaffable. I’ve been drinking it in the sun while reading a master’s newest book and hiding from this terrifying news. If you need a spot of sunshine (and I certainly do), this rose posca performs admirably.

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Rose Posca

Dried rose petals can be found at health food stores and co-ops (mine sells them in the medicine section) as well as some spice stores. The formula I give here is to my taste. Feel free to play with the levels of vinegar, syrup, and water to make your house version of posca.

Serves 1

1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons dried rose petals
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

In a small saucepan combine the sugar with the rose petals and 1/2 cup water. Bring the sugar and water to a simmer, stirring once in a while to dissolve. Once the sugar is dissolved, set the syrup aside and let the rose petals steep. I found 2 hours gave me the strong rose presence I wanted, but if you have less time the syrup tastes of rose after 15 minutes. Strain into a clean jar. Refrigerate if not using right away.

To make the posca, combine 1 cup of water, the apple cider vinegar, and 1 1/2 tablespoons of the rose syrup in a glass with ice. Stir well. Drink in the sun.

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Mushroom Risotto with Salsa Verde

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There are stacks of books on my nightstand. Books for reference, books I’m halfway through, and books that I want to read next. Our dining room table is used less for, you know, dining, and more as a makeshift desk. It’s piled at this moment with fifteen books (actual truth. Not an exaggeration). That’s not counting the heaps of books in the living room, some in front of bookshelves where there’s no space left, some set apart so I remember they belong to a friend.

The internet is marvelous but books are magical. I know I’ve met a kindred soul when we both enthuse over the scent of books. Ink and paper and age make an enchanting perfume, one that I would bottle and spray on myself if I could. The best thing about books is what’s contained inside of them. There are lives not my own that I can dip into. There are daring stories. There are Opinions and Facts and Personalities that I get to linger with. And there’s knowledge.

Because of this marvel I can never stick to only one book at a time. There are too many things to read and learn. Some days I want to read novels, others memoirs, others poetry. And always cookbooks. One fascinating thing about choosing what to read is that when you’re reading multiple things they bleed into each other. There are connections to be found that would otherwise be undiscovered.

I recently found a deeply discounted copy of Alice Waters’ The Art of Simple Food at my local bookshop, and found I could not ignore its call to take it home. If you ever have the opportunity to read Waters’ work I would recommend that you take it. She speaks with efficiency about the dignity and grace of simple cooking. And I love anyone, especially as esteemed a chef and restauranteur as she is, who confesses that she’s a luddite in the kitchen, preferring a sharp knife and a mortar and pestle to anything with a plug.

At the same time I’ve been steadily working through Near and Far by Heidi Swanson, a book I’ve cooked from here before. Swanson is just as gracious as Waters, and with the same emphasis on good ingredients and good eating, but where Waters is classic Swanson is contemporary. She tops a dish of soba noodles and radishes with paprika, suggests substituting yuba skins

in for pasta, and adds nori to her granola. When I came across her recipe for grilled porcinis I remembered the chapter on rice I had just read in Waters’ book, and the quart of mushroom stock languishing in the freezer. Thus this risotto was born.

Risotto has a recipe for being finicky. It’s considered date night food, not something you’d make on a weeknight. Risotto does require attention, and it will make a killer date night. But risotto can also come together in half an hour without difficultly. While making this risotto I also purged my refrigerator of old food. That’s not something you can say about a fearsome beast of a dish.

Risotto is, at its core, comfort food. It’s creamy and tender and a perfect vehicle for toppings. Risotto will happily take leftovers and turn them into something divine. However, I will argue that these mushrooms in salsa verde are a perfect pairing for risotto. They’re concentrated in flavor from grilling and topped with a tangy, herbaceous dressing. The portobellos I used in lie of porcinis echo the taste of the mushroom stock, rich and savory without becoming heavy. It tastes of early spring- both the fresh bite and the richness not yet faded from winter, and the plate looks like spring- the brown of the earth with the greens and the purples that are always the first to arrive.

Happy Friday. Happy Spring. And to those who celebrate, Happy Easter and Happy Passover.

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Mushroom Risotto with Salsa Verde

If you don’t have mushroom stock then you can easily substitute whatever sort of broth you have on hand. Risotto is adaptable in this way. If you have a little less than 5 cups of stock, feel free to lengthen it with hot water. I have not tried this trick myself, but Waters swears that if you have no white wine (and no red wine or beer to stand in for it) then adding a tablespoon or two of white wine vinegar in with the first addition of stock gives the risotto the acidity it needs.

serves 4

adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters and Near and Far by Heidi Swanson

For the risotto

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 1/2 cup Arborio rice
5 cups mushroom stock
1/2 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper
1/3 cup grated Pecorino cheese

For the mushrooms

2 shallots, minced
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
2 portobello mushrooms, cleaned and cut into 1/2 inch slices
2 tablespoons thyme
1/4 cup chopped parsley
3 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for brushing mushrooms
salt and pepper

To make the risotto, melt two tablespoons of butter in a medium sized, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion and stir. Let the onion cook until it’s become soft and translucent but hasn’t taken on any color. Add the rice and stir well. Cook until the rice is becoming clear and is coated with the butter, but is not taking on any color.

While softening the onion and toasting the rice bring the stock to a boil in another pot. Once the stock is boiling turn off the heat. It will stay warm enough without any heat underneath it.

Once the rice is turning translucent add the wine. Stir well and let the wine simmer away. It should not take long for the wine to be absorbed. Once the wine has all cooked off add one cup of the stock, reduce the heat to low, and stir well.

Watch the risotto and stir often but not constantly. When almost all the stock has been absorbed add another 1/2 cup of stock and stir. Continue this way, watching the risotto and adding the stock as necessary. Your additions of stock should slow as the risotto cooks. Start tasting the risotto about 12 minutes into cooking the rice. The rice should be perfectly tender but not mushy. In my kitchen this took about 25 minutes. Once the rice is fully cooked add just enough broth to make it creamy but not soupy. You may not need all the stock. If for whatever reason you find you need more, feel free to stretch your stock with hot water. Stir in the final tablespoon of butter and the Pecorino cheese and season as necessary with salt and pepper.

While the risotto is cooking, make the salsa verde and mushrooms. Place the shallots in a small bowl and cover with the white wine vinegar. Let the shallots hang out in the vinegar while preparing the mushrooms.

Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat, and brush the mushrooms on both sides with olive oil. Once the grill pan is hot place the mushrooms on the pan to sear and cook on each side for about 3 minutes, or until the mushrooms start to shrink just a bit and have definite grill marks. Place to the side.

In a small bowl, combine the shallots, vinegar, thyme, parsley, and olive oil. Taste, and season with salt and pepper as necessary. Toss the mushrooms in the salsa verde.

To serve, create a bed of the risotto on a plate and top with the mushrooms and salsa verde. Serve hot.

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Mujadara

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I first made mujadara in college. I spent senior year living with friends in a run down house half a mile from campus. When my dad came to help me move into the house he just looked at me and shook his head. It was dirty, but more than that it was rickety. It felt vaguely illegal to live there, even with paying rent and electricity. The landlord had no interest in maintaining something that he felt that college students would just ruin. Our roof was damaged by hail the year before. When my friend Hannah signed the lease he promised, on his word, that he would fix it. Conveniently written into the lease was that he was under no obligation make any repairs that were not written into the lease. It was a disappointingly adult lesson in the perils of promises.

But I loved that house. I loved the small yard where we strung a laundry line between two trees and our neighbors who allowed us to use their compost pile. I loved the front porch where we’d sit on summer nights and eat dinner, drinking wine out of mason jars. I loved my room, the first and only space I’ve ever had to myself with its mint green walls, sloping ceilings, and countertop where I kept my very own electric kettle. I didn’t love the creepy cellar underneath the house, but I loved the night when we invited all our friends over, got drunk, and painted the walls of the cellar.

We had one small kitchen between six girls. There were always fights about dishes and who used up the milk and didn’t replace it. But it was also a place where we’d study and catch up and share meals. Meals like mujarada were always on the stove- easy and cheap and delicious, and ideal to prepared while studying.

Mujadara. It’s a musical name for such a simple dish. Mujadara is made up essentially of four ingredients- olive oil, onions, lentils, and rice. It’s cheap and easy and mad delicious. I first heard of mujadara during that magical year of college from Orangette by Molly Wizenburg, whose elegant and clever writing paved the way for the abundance of food blogs we have today.

When I was in college I made mujadara much the way Molly describes. Now that I’m an adult and share my space with one person, not five and have a slightly larger grocery budget I add spices to the mix. Cumin, cardamamom, and cinnamon all accentuate the rich sweetness of caramelized onions. Bay leaves layer the earthy taste of lentils. Kept the same are the deeply caramelized onions, soft lentils, and tender rice. It’s comfort food in a deep way- you keep watch over a pot on the stove and just let it work its magic. I still use the same two and a half quart dutch oven and the same burnt wooden spoon. Across the years mujadara still is a celebration of things good and simple.

Mujadara

The base of this dish is the deeply caramelized onions. Don’t be afraid here- just keep an eye on the onions and stir occasionally. The color is where all the flavor lies. Ideally you’ll take these just to the teetering edge of burnt.

adapted from Orangette

serves 4

1/4 cup olive oil
2 yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 cup green lentils, picked through for rocks
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup long grain brown rice
salt

In a large, heavy bottomed pot with a lid warm the olive oil over medium low. Add the onions and stir to coat. Cook, stirring as often as necessary, until the onions are deeply caramelized. If they start to brown on the bottom of the pot make sure to scrape the brown bits up- that’s where all the flavor is. Depending on a whole gauntlet of features from your onions to your pot to your medium low heat, this could be anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour.

While the onions are cooking add the lentils and the bay leaves to a pot and cover generously with water. Bring the lentils to a boil, then cook for twenty minutes. They should be tender by this point. Drain, remove the bay leaves, and set aside.

Once the onions are dark amber and soft stir in the cumin, cardamom, and cinnamon. Add the lentils and rice and a half teaspoon of rice. Stir well, then add in 2 cups of water. Bring the pot to a boil, then cover with the lid and reduce the heat to a simmer.

At twenty minutes, check the mujadara- you’re looking for the water to be absorbed without the pot being dry and the rice to be tender. If it isn’t there yet, return the cover and and continue cooking. If the water is absorbed and the rice isn’t tender yet, add more water and continue cooking and checking periodically.

Once the rice is tender and the water absorbed, taste your mujadara and add salt as necessary. Serve warm.

 

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Shakshuka

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This week I’ve been hanging with my dear friend Sara. We met in junior high when we attended different schools but the same youth group. She wasn’t yet my friend when our youth director showed us The Sixth Sense as a treat and I called my parents to take me home (still haven’t seen it). But we became friends in spite of my scaredy-cat tendencies. And we’ve stayed friends for over half our lives. She’s spent the week staying on a nest of sleeping bags in my living room, where we’ve occupied our time taking Buzzfeed quizzes, arguing about movies, and taking long walks around the lakes. And cooking.

Sara, my oldest friend, my penpal for almost 10 years, and owner of a key to my parent’s house, has Celiac’s disease. And so we’ve spent a lot of time in the kitchen together cooking and eating together. We went out for arepas one night and Italian another. There have been occasional impromptu dances to Earth, Wind, and Fire. She organized all the magnetic poetry on the fridge by type of speech. We made these beans and tomato sauce, threw together a lentil soup, and tried out some earl grey macaroons (verdict- delicious, but not very earl grey-y…). And there was shakshuka. Because what better way to celebrate a close friend’s visit than with tomatoes and peppers and onions and eggs?

Shakshuka is a North African dish that’s essentially eggs poached in a sauce of tomato and peppers. As with all straightforward sounding dishes, there’s a world of variations available. I found my recipe in Yotam Ottolenghi’s brilliant (and classic) book Plenty, which may be the first cookbook I ever obsessed over. I know I’m not alone in this. I used to carry Plenty around with me in my purse JUST IN CASE someone hadn’t seen it yet. I was insufferable. I still am.

I’ve heard the mark of friendship isn’t liking each other but understanding each other. I think there’s some truth to that. But when you’re lucky you have people who like and understand you. I’m lucky. I have friends like Sara, who doesn’t laugh or roll her eyes when I decide that the perfect writing outfit is leather leggings and Aaron’s sweater. She drags me bra shopping and makes sure to bring backup sizes. We debate what makes Pride and Prejudice a great novel, the love story or the social commentary, and still swoon together when Elizabeth and Darcy touch hands. We annoy each other with our music choices, and then both belt out Backstreet Boys in the car. There are many gifts of friendship, but one of the best is that it can make you more open to your shared joys and sorrows.

And that makes sharing a meal, breaking the (metaphorical) bread together, that much more sweet.

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Shakshuka

The spice and herbs here are flexible- you could up the cayenne pepper, add hot peppers, and change out the herbs. Cilantro, thyme, and chives would all be excellent. The saffron here is optional- the shakshuka will still be fantastic even if saffron runs a bit too dear.

adapted from Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi

serves 4

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/4 cup olive oil
2 onions, sliced
2 red bell peppers, sliced
2 yellow bell peppers, sliced
2 tablespoons chopped oregano
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 bay leaves
1 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
pinch saffron (optional)
scant 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
salt and black pepper
juice of 1/2 a lemon
8 eggs

In a large pan over medium high heat add the cumin seeds. Toast them, stirring often, until they start to smell fragrant and get dark, about 2 minutes. Add the olive oil and the onions and sauté for 5 minutes, until the onions are soft.  Add both the peppers, the oregano, and the parsley and stir well. Continue to sauté for 10 minutes, until the peppers are soft.

Add the canned tomatoes, saffron, cayenne, and a good pinch of both salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low and bring the sauce to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or until the sauce has reached the same consistency as pasta sauce. If you need to cook it a bit further to get it there, or add water to get that result, do what you need to do. Add the lemon juice and taste, then adjust seasonings as necessary. It should taste bold.

This can all be done ahead of time. To serve the shakshuka, place a portion into a skillet and warm it. Make as many nests in the tangle of peppers as you want eggs, then crack an egg into each nest. I find it easiest to crack an egg into a small bowl, then slip it into the nest. Season each egg with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low, and cover the skillet. Cook the eggs until they are set to your liking, starting to check at about the 6 minute mark and then for every 2 minutes after. Serve with a generous sprinkle of parsley.

 

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