28 February 2010

Red Lentil Soup

It's such a wonderful time of year in Santa Barbara. Because of a whole lotta rain this year, the landscape is a lush green. The mountain slopes look gorgeous and the wild flowers are bountiful - especially the lupines. You see purple carpets of these delightful flowers all over the place. In our garden all the deciduous trees are blossoming, the heady scent of flowering jasmin surrounds the house, and the fragrant wisteria is flowering. We've been sipping wine in the jacuzzi late in the day and enjoying the calm early spring evenings. We've also done some beach walks to watch the sun set into the Pacific. At this time of the year I always feel a great appreciation for living where I do.

There've been quite a few food events recently to write about. Because of the terrific rain in our area, the chanterelle mushrooms have been plentiful. If only I knew where to go foraging for them! However, we can get then for under $10 a pound right now. I bought 5 pounds of these yellow beauties last week and have been enjoying heavenly meals everyday - chanterelles in fresh pasta, chanterelles in rissoto, pan roasted chanterelles added to a stew of pinto beans and potatoes with Indian spices, and just plain sauteed chanterelles on crusty bread. Wow! What a feast!

My book group met at my place last week. We had read Anthony Bourdain's A CHEF'S TOUR. It was a book about Bourdain's search for the perfect meal in the whole world. He traveled far and wide - to famous, well trammeled cities and to remote back of beyond hamlets. His adventurous nature and appreciation of the world's diverse people led him to trying out some pretty wild dishes. I won't go into that! The book was a reasonably good read. More of a cultural journey than a book about food. He concluded that there was no such thing as the perfect meal!!

For our meeting I served a red lentil soup (for which there was wild enthusiasm), a leek tart, and salad. For dessert we had spicy apple cake. Everyone wanted the recipe for the soup, so here it is:

You need: a cup of red lentils, a medium sized yam (or sweet potato), half a red onion, a tablespoon of fresh ginger and garlic (ground), a teaspoon each of cumin and coriander, half a teaspoon cayenne, half a teaspoon tumeric, and salt.
I used my pressure cooker to make this and it took less than half an hour!

Sautee onion in a saucepan, add cubed yams, and all the rest of the ingredients. Add 4 cups of water (or stock), and let this all cook together for about 20 minutes (8 minutes in a pressure cooker). When the yams are soft, use a hand blender to blend the soup mixture. Taste for seasoning. Add canola oil (or butter) into the soup. When serving top with some plain white yogurt and chopped cilantro (fresh coriander). This soup serves 5 - 6 people for a first course. It's a great one for the winter months.

I'm beginning to think about our spring garden. Hard to believe that it's already March.

15 February 2010

Glimpses of spring in Feb

It's a beautiful day - warm, sunny, cloudless sky, and a hint of a breeze. A perfect spring day in mid February to reassure us in Southern Cal that winter is on its way out. Yesterday, Valentine's Day, Daryl, his sister Glynis visiting from England, and I drove down to Los Angeles. Daryl and I have decided that the idea of "someone" telling us that we should be romantic on February 14 is ludicrous. So we spent the day enjoying Venice Beach and Santa Monica instead. Most of LA was out and about and there was a very summerlike atmosphere around. The highlight of the day was going to India Sweets and Spices to stock up on Indian groceries.
So, here's the funny thing. I've always been an adventurous cook, but steered away from Indian cuisine. Even though I love Indian food and was raised on it, I favored an Italian kitchen. Then something changed a few years ago. I met my wonderful, wonderful friend Premi. She is passionate about cooking and actually ran a restaurant for a few years. She, like me, is Asian Indian and grew up in South Africa, where Indians developed their own special cuisine from local ingredients. Premi has inspired me to reach out to my Indian roots and now most of the food I make is stuff I've learned from her.

I'm going to share in this blog one of my favorite recipes from her. It's for a rich, flavorful bread called Dokla which originated in the Indian state of Gujerath.
You'll need the following ingredients:
1 cup semolina, 1 cup plain yogurt, a bunch of chopped cilantro, a green serrano chilli, chopped, 2 crushed garlic cloves, half an onion, half cup frozen sweet corn, one teaspoon baking powder, half a teaspoon each of tumeric, cumin, coriander, and salt. All of these should be mixed together.

Spread mixture in a pan and bake in a preheated oven - 350 degrees F - for half an hour.
Sautee a teaspoon of black mustard seeds and cumin seeds in grapeseed oil and spread over the bread after it is baked. This bread can be served with a mint sauce.

A couple days ago - Saturday - we went to the beach to watch the sunset. Premi, Sri, Daryl, Glynis, and I carried a picnic and crisp sparkling wine out to the Ellwood Bluffs. Oh, PK, Sri's dog, came along too! We found a splendid spot right at the edge of a cliff to lay out our picnic and watch the sun sinking into the water. The view in front of us - an endless stretch of rolling waves, golden sand, an orange horizon, an elegant leggy egret at the water's edge, and the sun, a glowing ball hovering over the water, then beginning its disappearance. Wow, it was quite special.
Premi made methi roti (fenugreek leaves stuffed into flat bread and cooked on a griddle) and a mint dip for our picnic. It was really special and seemed a perfect match for our wine. Glynis tried to capture the moment by clicking her camera over and over again. But, I don't think photos could do justice to how special it was.

07 February 2010


I was on top of the world all week because of the many current news items on No Child Left Behind. Sounds like there are going to be some major changes. Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, is being interviewed by everyone and he seems to have some grand ideas. Now, I don't agree with all he's saying - that stuff about linking teacher quality to test performance, and raising standards so that every child graduates from high school being college ready, etc - hmmm(!) - but, I'm glad education and the NCLB Act is on the table for discussion. I'm such an optimist that any hint of change cheers me up.

Well, I needed to say that before getting to the main topic with food as the focus.

I've been going a bit mushroom crazy in the last couple weeks. Because of the terrific rain we've been having, the chanterrelles - my favorite mushroom - this year are plentiful. Glynis, my sister-in-law visiting from England, and I have been going to the Saturday morning farmer's market downtown where I load up on chanterrelles. The great thing about these extremely flavorful 'shrooms is that they are so easy to prepare. Sauteed in grapeseed oil, and seasoned with thyme, salt, and black pepper, they are superb. I've also been getting other mushrooms - oysters, shitake, and portabellas - about once a week. These I prepare with Indian spices - masala, cumin, and freshly ground coriander. They make a great stuffing for roti wraps.

Last night we had some friends over for dinner. I served up an elaborate vegetable biryani and dhal. Great comfort food on a chilly, wintry evening. You can make biryani by simply adding the special spices to vegetables and rice and stirring it all together in a pan, or you could go the route that requires many steps. I sometimes yearn for the food my mum cooked so I thought I would try for her style of biryani. Before embarking on this ambitious feat you need to make sure your playlist includes your favorite music. I listen to opera - Puccini, never Wagner - when making biryani. I ought to be listening to Ravi Shankar, I guess, but - oh well ....

The basic ingredients are a selection of vegetables, Basmati rice, French green lentils, spices, and yogurt. The spices include cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, cardamom, cumin, coriander, and fennel seeds. These have to be roasted, then ground fine. For veggies I used carrots, cauliflower, peas, and a few types of mushrooms. I lightly sauteed the mushrooms and steamed the carrots and tossed these in a big bowl. The cauliflower had to be in small pieces and added to the bowl. Then came the following: a big scoop of plain yogurt, chopped garlic, grated ginger, chopped fresh green chili, chopped cilantro (fresh coriander), juice from a couple lemons, some tumeric, the mixture of roasted, ground spices, and salt. Toss everything in the bowl together. (I'm now in instructor mode). Next, boil the rice, but only until it is nearly fully cooked. Boil the lentils. Now it's time to layer the dish. I used a large, ceramic roasting pan to assemble the ingredients. Put a third of the rice at the bottom, add a third of the lentils. Toss half the vegetable mixture over this. Add the rest of the rice and lentils to the bowl of vegetables. Pour in some Canola oil to the mixture, then add it to the big roasting pan. Sautee an onion in a skillet until it is golden brown. Layer this over the rice mixture. Cover with a sheet of foil and put in a moderately preheated oven for an hour.
I served this biryani with dhal. I boiled yellow split peas in my pressure cook for 15 minutes. To give it it's distinctive 'dhal' flavor you do the following:
Sautee half an onion in hot oil. Add mustards seeds, cumin seeds, and red chili flakes. Stir this mixture into the boiled split peas (which should be mushy). Add veg broth to get the right consistency. Let this simmer for a few minutes. Add some crushed garlic and few lumps of butter or ghee or something of that ilk (I'm refering to noncholesterol, healthy stuff - not lard, or margarine, or nasty chemicals that look like butter!).

Well, needless to say, everyone was quite complimentary. Personally, I felt I hadn't added enough spices and the mixture should have been more moist. But, I certainly enjoyed my day.

It's Sunday evening and the work week looms ahead.