So, Sunday dinner was coming up and I had a problem on my hands. We we going to serve a new variety of smoked chicken (Americana), an eggplant salad (Mediterranean), smoked corn on the cob (also Americana), and……something. So what should that something be? The amount of food was not an issue. The eggplant salad seems to cover both the vegetable and side dish categories. But something else was needed. Should it be a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern style pilaf or should there be some type of bread represented at the table? The cruel reality that confronted me was this; if we were going to have bread, I needed something for that bread to do. In my opinion, bread without purpose is wasted bread. Since there was nothing for the bread to do while at the table (and, frankly I was a little tired of rice), I reached for the ever popular paste-of-legume strategy.
It is generally a good idea to have some form of carbohydrate represented at the table. This can be a potato, a squash, or a yam, but more commonly you see one of the three workhorses at our table; pasta, bread, rice. They are the purest representatives of family Carb, and are that family’s ambassadors. But none of these ambassadors can stand alone; they need staff. Pasta needs a sauce, rice needs a topping or a sauce, and bread needs a job. I consider bread to be the most industrious of the carbs, and one of the traditional jobs that it has is to mop up “stuff”. If your meal plan does not have anything to mop up, it is a good idea to provide it.
Enter the spiced legume dish. It is an elegant solution in that it provides something to dredge your bread through, adding character to the meal, yet leaving the cook a massive amount of room to mess with the blend of flavors that they roll out. It’s perfect. The cook gets to choose both the flavor of the base legume and also gets to fine-tune the spices used as accents. Yay! Sadly, I am often too lazy to work out the prefect balance on my own. Fortunately, I don’t have to do the hard work because others have walked this road for me. For example, Raghavan Iyer chronicled roughly over 80 tasty legume curries suitable for this role in his book 660 Curries. All I need to do is pick a flavor profile that compliments the spices in the other dishes. In Raghavan’s case, the quality of the recipes he presents is unparalleled. Although I commonly adjust the ingredients in most recipes to suit my own taste, it is difficult to justify altering some of his recipes at all. I can’t think of a single aspect that I would change.
The dish below is perfection in recipes. It is easy to prepare, and despite the high load of chilies, well balanced. The heat from the chilies is very prominent at first taste but mellows just prior to the time you would need medical attention or anything; so it’s all good. Another remarkable thing about this dish is the way that the muskiness of the lentils and the bite of the crushed black pepper interact. The interplay of these flavors really makes the dish and the amount of salt and sugar is right to set the stage for their interaction. Try it “as-is”. I would love to hear if you come up with a way to improve it. This ended up being perfect for the flavor combo we had on Sunday. I will get the eggplant salad and the smoked chicken dishes written up later in the week, as it really was a meal worthy of memorializing. Oh..did I mention there were chocolate dipped strawberries involved….
Note: The instructions in the recipe below are my own and a bit abbreviated and should get you close enough. Look up Raghavan’s book for the original.
- 1 cup lentils
- ½ tsp. ground turmeric
- 1 tsp. black peppercorns, crushed
- 6 to 8 Serrano chilies
- 2 Tbs. olive oil or butter
- 1 tsp. black or yellow mustard seeds
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- ¼ cup cilantro, finely chopped
- 1½ tsp. kosher salt
- 1 tsp. sugar
- Rinse the lentils and place in a saucepan with about 2½ cups of water. Add the turmeric and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until lentils are tender; about 20 minute.
- While lentils are cooking, crush black peppercorns in a mortar, add the chilies and smash to pulp.
- Heat oil/butter in a skillet and add the mustard seeds. Cook over medium high heat until mustard seeds begin to pop. Add garlic and cook until it begins to brown, add chili pulp and cook an additional 30 to 60 seconds. Be wary of the strong vapors from the chiles.
- When lentils are softened, add garlic-chili mixture and cook and additional 8 to 10 minutes, adding water to maintain desired consistency.
- Add salt, sugar, and cilantro at the end of cooking and remove from heat. Transfer to a bowl to serve.