Hearty Lentil Stew with Yoghurt and Rich Cream

Served up in a beautiful Fiesta bowl.

I don’t like lentils.

I know they are healthy and, with rice, are supposedly a complete protein [although this article offers some interesting context to claims that plant-based foods like legumes lack the right kinds of amino acids to be considered “complete” proteins on their own].

But in reality, whether canned or dried and then home-cooked, lentils have always struck me as bland and textureless They remind me of the meals distributed at the many social-justice-oriented events I have attended over the years: morally unimpeachable and strenuously healthy–but flavourless, gas-inducing and somehow, as a result, more than a little bit soul-destroying.

Nonetheless, about a year ago I stopped in at my neighbour Rhea’s house and, as usual, smelled something amazing bubbling on her stove. When I asked what it was she told me it was lentil soup. LENTIL soup, I asked? Yes, she replied, and offered to share her recipe with me. The recipe turned out to be from a cookbook (unfortunately I have only an image of the recipe itself; I’ll add the title as soon as I get it from her) she had bought remaindered at Book City.  Rhea is not only an incredible cook; she also has a genius for identifying promising remaindered cookbooks, and I have come to trust her recommendations absolutely.

Beautiful vintage enameled cast iron Descoware (Belgium) dutch oven. I bought this from another neighbour for five bucks!

And so, unusually for me, every month or two I feel what for me is a very strange craving for lentils, and make a variation of the following recipe. It is adapted considerably from the instructions in Rhea’s cookbook, and could be altered even more to suit personal taste (I don’t use chiles in my version because I have a limited capacity to handle heat; perhaps in response, my husband almost invariably adds some sriracha sauce to his bowl). My version makes a large vat, suitable for several days of leftovers (like most stews, the flavours get richer over a day or two) or freezing. It is great with basmati rice or hearty bread. This is a great winter dish because it is so hearty; for a lighter summer offering, one could omit the cream and yoghurt.

As a note: in my view cardamom is the winning ingredient in this dish. Black or brown cardamom has a rich and smoky taste that adds quite a lot of depth to the dish. Buy it whole to preserve its freshness, crack it open and grind the seeds (discard husk) as needed in a mortar and pestle.

Enjoy! I’d love to hear about your variations on lentil dishes!

Print Recipe
Hearty Lentil Stew with Yoghurt and Rich Cream
A wonderful, hearty lentil stew
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
Ingredients
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour
Servings
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Grind spices (red pepper flakes, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom) together in a mortar and pestle.
  2. Melt butter in large heavy pot (I use a big oval cast iron Dutch oven) over medium heat. Stir in onions, garlic, spices and saute for five minutes until onions and garlic are translucent and aromatic.
  3. Add lentils and vegetable stock (add stock 1 cup at a time, as needed), bring briefly to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, stirring occasionally, for up to an hour. [Uncooked lentils will take longer; cooked lentils will require less stock.]
  4. When lentils are cooked and the stew seems 'ready,' add tomatoes and torn spinach and reduce heat.
  5. Mix cream and yoghurt together and swirl into pot. Remove from heat.
  6. Serve with basmati rice or hearty bread. This stew would also go well with chicken.

 

 

Treasure

On some mornings, especially mornings like this one, the ache to speak with my mother becomes a physical thing.

The cool air, the golden light, a faint crackle in the leaves: all portents of a shift in the season. The ripe tomatoes I picked and ate this morning, fresh from the vine, ripe and earthy and pulsating with light.

A garage sale around the corner at which for a few dollars I bought a pile of beautiful old books, a handful of old jewelry, a set of silver plate Apostle spoons, a vintage maple leaf scarf, a salt-and-pepper set made in Occupied Japan, two chunks of amethyst, and two mid-century calendars stuffed with kitchen advice and recipes.

Everything else that has happened in the five months since she died.

*

Twenty years ago, early every summer Saturday morning my mother and I would peel off in the car, either with my father or a next-door neighbour, to troll garage sales looking for treasure. The perfect yard sale morning, to both of us, would yield some interesting books, some ‘breakables’ (china, kitchenware, collectables), tools, some item of furniture, a little bit of jewelry, and at least one piece of art. Clothing, a carpet, a lamp, some useful household object or appliance, would be a bonus. On a perfect morning we came home with the car stuffed full. More than a few times another beloved neighbour brought home excess in his pick-up truck.

Many of the objects she bought were distributed to those who needed or wanted them, or were tucked away to be given as birthday or Christmas presents. The treasures, however, ended up in her cupboards and china cabinets or were hung on the wall.

And there they sat for two decades, admired but largely unused, their glitter growing dimmer, until after her death.

After her death I cleaned out her house and prepared it for sale. I packed all her clothes and arranged for their donation. I sorted her make-up and panty hose and medications and toiletries. I held an estate sale and sold her breakables and art. I packed her papers and brought them to my home, alongside all the things I could not bear to leave behind. As promised, I bore the burden of her death and, in doing so, came to realize that I would also bear the burden of her life.

*

In the five months since my mother died I have spent whole days in our garage, sorting and filing, or shredding as required, the paper detritus of her life. Financial records dating to the late 1960s. Letters, bills, research projects, consultant reports, manuscripts, publishing contracts, her peripatetic private journal. In doing so I have given a great deal of thought to the project of giving posthumous shape to her life.

A life is, of course, a narrative. It is a story we tell ourselves even before we transact it with others. But what becomes of that story when we die?

Often enough the story dies, too, memory being what it is.

*

I am not a person who forgets, which is not the only reason my mother asked me to be her literary executor. She also asked because I knew who she was.

This knowing is not precisely a source of comfort. It is actually, in some ways, a source of considerable anguish.

It is a source of anguish because I knew about her desires and, more particularly, her regrets. I knew how she served, and I knew what she gave up in order to do so.

I knew all this because my mother and I were, are, very much alike.

Our kindredness was not always a source of solace, but it was always there, the undercurrent to our discussions about writing, our perspectives on politics and people, even our garage sale going.

And this is why, especially on mornings like this one, the ache to speak with her becomes a physical thing.

Because she too would sense the currents in the air, the shifting of the seasons. She too would gloat over a pile of garage sale treasures: the musty, leathery smell of old books; the slippery feel of tarnished metal and its promise of restoration. And she too would feel the compulsion to write about it all, to capture some trace of these ephemeral moments: the golden light, the drift of wind through the leaves, the taste of ripe tomatoes, incandescent with sunlight and warm from the vine. And the task of giving shape to memory, of holding together the pieces of the story.

The Return of Chartreuse

greencrayons_1_11Feb2016Years ago, as a child and young teen, I would occasionally read books in which the colour chartreuse was mentioned, almost always disparagingly. In the pre-internet age it was not something one could just Google, and it never occurred to me to look it up in the Encyclopaedia Britannica or any of the large dictionaries we had at home. As a result, for years I equated ‘chartreuse’ simply with “ugly colour.” In my mind it inhabited a hidden section on the colour wheel somewhere near “puce,” whose particular hue was similarly  a mystery (it turns out that “puce” comes from French, to which it translates literally as “flea;” hence the unpleasant squashed-red-brown it denotes.

Chartreuse, I have learned, is a liqueur produced by French monks of the Carthusian Order since 1737. The liqueur–reportedly distilled from 130 herbs steeped in alcohol–takes its name from the Chartreuse mountains in the Grenoble region of southeast France. The mountains are beautiful and verdant, and seem to glow in the very green-and-yellow shades that give both Chartreuse liqueur (which comes in both green and yellow) and the colour its name.

And somehow, in the manner of all things, the colour chartreuse eventually made its way to America as an affectation, first as a jellied dish made with Chartreuse liqueur (somewhat infamously, it was reportedly served as a First Class dessert on the Titanic) and later, as a staple of the Hollywood Regency style of interior design popularized by Dorothy Draper.

By the seventies, chartreuse–still in wide use in both fashion and interior design–had become a kind of caricature of itself. In 1972 Crayola introduced a chartreuse crayon as part of its fluorescent series, enabling children to combine incompatible colours as well as any grown-up hippie might–but even then more muted shades of green (most notoriously avocado) and contrasting primary colours had begun to dominate the design world. By the eighties chartreuse was distinctly dated, and in 1990 Crayola quietly withdrew the chartreuse crayon (the new name was ‘laser lemon’).

Recollections of my late seventies-to-mid-eighties childhood are, of course, redolent with memories of avocado, and from time to time at a thrift store I still come across (and bring home) the odd brightly-hued polyester dress in chartreuse and, say, deep purple.

Not that I think of it as chartreuse, a colour whose overuse followed by denigration and cultural erasure has been so complete that the word has never been a natural part of my vocabulary.

*

This morning I dug through my daughter’s box of crayons, looking for chartreuse. I found it in a crayon labeled “green-yellow.” This is actually an utterly accurate description of chartreuse, which exists precisely at the midpoint of green and yellow.

While picking through my daughter’s crayons, I began thinking about the names Crayola chooses for its colours, and started to see them as cultural artifacts. Current colours, such as “fuzzy wuzzy brown” and “macaroni and cheese” seem to suit the current generation of children raised on daycare and cartoons about as well as “chartreuse” and “maize” might have fit kids growing up in the seventies.

Crayola has a long history of renaming its crayons, and sometimes this has been done done for obviously good reasons. At the same time, while records (of controversies, if nothing else) exist for these somewhat politicized changes, the subtle shifts in uncontroversial colour names arguably tell an equally important story. [Scholars interested in a critical assessment of Crayola colour changes, including the “flesh” controversy, might want to read Lorna Roth’s fascinating essay, “Home on the Range: Kids, Visual Culture, and Cognitive Equity” in Cultural Studies<->Critical Methodologies,; 9(2): 141-148 (2009).]

There is apparently a move afoot to abandon colour names. While I (and presumably IKEA) can see the obvious utility to such a thing, I think abandoning colour names entirely would be a terrible shame. Crayon (and paint and design) colours are meaningful cultural artifacts. They are records of our shifting preoccupations, and proclivities, and aspirations.

I wonder, a little, how future crayons will be named. I can easily imagine Chador or Raven, or Masala (in place of burnt sienna), or Polar for the pale blue shade of Arctic ocean meltwater currently called light blue.

I wonder, too, if some of the old colours might make a return. Chartreuse, for example, has made a hipster-ironic reappearance in the design world. The liqueur for which the colour is named has also come to the attention of Brooklynites tired of Absinthe and, reportedly, Jagermeister. Soon enough, Chartreuse jelly will undoubtedly appear on the menus at Waldorf Schools all across the land, and at some point Crayola will have no choice but to dredge up Chartreuse from the archives.

Perhaps at the same time it will make a little bit of room for puce.

Stopping by Woods

Early morning; the hour before dawn. And the house is silent; the cedars dark shapes and stillness under their weight of snow.

And here am I, words at the ready, (now formally) writing another book. The sense of propulsion and purpose, an idea unfurling into its essence. All these living ideas, assuming their shape.

Unlike the Imagining Toronto book, which announced itself like an architectural edifice, this new project is taking shape in a different way. It unfolds like something fully organic. The pieces of it stir and rustle against one another, and it is hardly a surprise to see that they are green.

My hands in the soil; the smell of earth. That green universe; the one I have always waited for, drifts outward and opens a little.

I look up, and suddenly the sky is filled with light.