October 5, 2011

Interpreter of Ma'lentils

From the kitchen my mother brought forth the succession of dishes: lentils with fried onions, green beans with coconut, fish cooked with raisins in a yogurt sauce. I followed with the water glasses, and the plate of lemon wedges, and the chili peppers, purchased on monthly trips to Chinatown and stored by the pound in the freezer, which they liked to snap open and crush into their food.
—"When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine," Jhumpa Lahiri
A select few things in life — good books, dear friends, and lentil stew among them — are undeniably wonderful upon first experience, but grow even better with age. I waited several years to reread Lahiri's lovely short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, and even though I remember how enchanting it was the first time, it was even better the second time.

Sure looks healthy, eh?
Lahiri often mentions dal and/or lentils in her writing. I don't know how to make dal, but a friend and I made a terrific pot of lentil stew during Hurricane Irene that — like Lahiri's stories — was even more enjoyable the second time around (the next morning).

Unlike beans, lentils are pretty low-maintenance legumes; you don't have to soak them overnight before cooking them. Just rinse and drain beforehand. They also have about twice as much iron as other legumes. Woohoo!

Aside from the lentils, you can use whatever vegetables you want. I've had success with Napa cabbage, regular cabbage, celery, potatoes...you name it. However, I think the carrots, onions, and garlic are non-negotiable ingredients. If you're not a fan of shiitake mushrooms (they can be a bit aggressive in flavor), just omit them. I adore them in this soup, though; their texture allows them to perfectly soak up the delicious broth. When eaten with rice, this stew is a complete protein dish.

Shiitake Lentil Stew*
Part 1: Non-legume plants
2 onions, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tomato, chopped
2 carrots, cut into small chunks
6 button mushrooms, quartered
6 dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated in warm water and chopped into bite-sized pieces (stems removed)
Part 2: The other stuff
1 1/2 cups lentils
4 1/2 cups water or vegetable/chicken stock
1/2 can tomato paste
2 tbsp ketchup
1 tsp ground cumin
salt and white pepper

Saute the vegetables from part 1 in a pan over medium-high heat until fragrant, about 10-15 minutes. Then add the ingredients for part 2 and stir and cover. Bring to a boil and stir again, then lower the heat to low and let simmer for about an hour (or less, depending on how soft or firm you like your lentils).

Serve with a drizzle of Sriracha sauce.

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