We really liked beans at home: lentils, adzuki, garbanzo, split pea, kidney, black eye, these are just a few that come to mind. Though the bean dish varied, I think we mostly ate them with brown rice and a handful of chopped parsley. There were big pots of dal with spices, or the black, lava-like bowls of creamy adzuki, or the split pea soup with vegetable broth in the winter. But ever since I started to cook for myself, I’ve abandoned beans, aside from the canned chickpeas that I rinse and stir into salads or pasta from time to time. I was always admonished by my mother to soak beans overnight before cooking, better for your digestion, she says, but then again she likes to soak everything. It’s not for nothing that we are obsessed with taking baths in our family. Anyway, because it is difficult to plan when you are seventeen, eighteen, nineteen years old, especially to plan a meal a day in advance, I was always too afraid to cook beans without soaking. I thought something terrible might happen. The same way I always peel tomatoes for tomato sauce, and even red peppers if I have the time –childhood habits are hard to shed.
I had a roommate in college who made the most delicious pots of lentils cooked with chunks of carrots and garlic and onions, and sometimes chicken. We ate from the stove, usually late at night, peering through our large kitchen windows into the neighbor’s garden. Philadelphia got dark at night.
Why did my mother and I eat so many beans? Maybe because we didn’t eat meat, or maybe because everyone seemed to be cooking them at the health retreats we went to: There was so much ladling and slurping and spooning and mixing rice with those protein packed pebbles. Recently I asked my mother for her dal recipe, but instead she replied: “I don’t like to cook dal anymore because then I have all these leftovers sitting in the fridge” She sounded annoyed, the way she is when I spread my clutter in the living room. My mother often cooks small portions as she lives alone and she likes to keep everything extremely fresh (and orderly). She gave me an alternative. A side dish of red lentils, inspired by a meal a friend of hers cooked this summer at a Buddhist retreat. We cooked it together last weekend.
The red lentil dish is very simple and elegant. We don’t usually associate grace with beans, there’s a sense of feeding a large group of hungry people or storing tubs in the freezer, but this recipe feeds two and the result is beautiful if served in dainty bowls. The trick here is cutting. The vegetables need to be cut very, very small, and with a knife. This, according to my mother, is of utmost importance; otherwise you lose the flavor of the vegetables. I asked if I could use a mandoline and she gasped. So the dish requires patience and a good eye for precision. But otherwise, the ingredients are easy to come across. We ate it as a side dish with other small plates (eggplant with ginger and mirin, bok choy, miso soup, norimaki, and quick pickles), but I imagine the red lentils would pair well with brown rice and parsley. Although it was a side, I ate my entire bowl with a spoon before even touching the other foods.
The recipe goes something along these lines:
1 cup red lentils
1/2 red onion
1 celery rib
Extra virgin olive oil
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. salt
Shoyu (soy sauce)
Rinse the lentils, drain, and spread on a plate and set aside to dry. Meanwhile, chop the onion, celery and fennel very, very thin. You want to make the tiniest cubes.
In a large sauté pan heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Over medium heat fry the lentils in the olive oil for a few minutes. You want them to toast. Boil water in a kettle while lentils fry. Continue stirring, making sure they don’t burn. After fifteen minutes or so add the onion, celery, and fennel. Continue to cook and stir for a few minutes. Add the turmeric and cumin and salt. Pour enough boiling water to just cover the lentils. Cover and cook for ten to fifteen minutes until tender. You want the lentils to be a little firm, not soft and mushy. Then remove the cover and let dry out over medium heat, stirring carefully. Add a few drops of shoyu to taste. I find that this is always the missing flavor.
You can serve the lentils warm or at room temperature, with parsley sprinkled on top.
The peeled tomato: