On his way to the kitchen, he stopped at the closet and took an accounting of the coats, then he hurried on to the kitchen, where everything was as it had been a few hours earlier. He was that future self he had many times foretold but always dismissed as an impossibility. It was dizzying. He had to steady himself on the counter. He wanted nothing more than to tell her everything about the evening now. What cruel fun. What meagre compensation. Her wedding ring and the one with the diamond remained on the counter, where she had left them before she started cooking.
Joshua Ferris (“The Dinner Party”)
A few days ago, I had one of those days that I refer to as a “home day.” On these days, I do all the things that I’ve managed to put off–dusting, sweeping the floor, going crazy with the Clorox spray/wipes (I like the assurance that things are really clean and that germs are being killed; I’ve tried certain “green” products and, frankly, I don’t think they get the job done. Kill the flu virus and/or other similar viruses and then we’re in business) and, more often than not, laundry. Although this may sound boring, the secret truth is that I relish these moments. “Home days” are glorious. I like when things sparkle and shine and a sense of freshness permeates the apartment.
One of the best thing about these days is that they often follow some major accomplishment–usually the completion of some paper or another. It’s as if a tiny window suddenly opens and, rather than sitting in front of a computer all day, you’re allowed to move and to have your day pass in a blur of activity. Granted, in this particular case, it’s not as if some paper has been well and truly completed, but one must celebrate the small stuff and allow for life to creep in in whatever form it can.
To top off the pleasant feeling of knowing that things were finally being put in order, I decided that it was high time I had a proper meal and chez moi at that. I was tired of subsisting on salads (even if yummy ones full of kumquats) and more than eager to try something new, hearty and that would provide a fair amount of leftovers.
In short, enter lentils. And not just any lentils, but simple, spicy Delhi-style lentils courtesy of Madhur Jaffrey, whose cookbook, “An Invitation to Indian Cooking“, I had borrowed from a friend back in July. While I did make Chana Masala in November, I can’t say that I’ve done justice to this gem of a cookbook, which I’ve looked at many times and, somehow or another, always ended up making something else for dinner. Needless to say, I’ve squandered a good thing. But no more!
Somehow, the mood was right; lulled into the domestic comfort that “home days” give me, I gamely got out a bag of lentils, brought my laptop into the kitchen so I could listen to a New Yorker Fiction podcast (the Joshua Ferris story quoted above) while cooking and set about filling my apartment with the simmering smell of cinnamon, cumin, bay leaves and lemons. If you have a well-stocked spice cabinet, making Indian dishes really is easy; I’m always pleasantly surprised by this because I expect it to be a massive undertaking and, instead, it’s the antithesis of high-maintenance cooking.
Maybe this just tells you that I don’t get out enough or that dissertating really can take over your life (or make you crazy), but it was honestly one of the nicest days I’d spent in a while. For me, it doesn’t get much better than literature, cleanliness and good food.
To change this recipe, all I did was add more bay leaves and bigger pieces of fresh ginger; I also left out asafetida since I didn’t have any in my pantry and had already been to the store once. The recipe was still tasty without this.
2 cups lentils
1 cinnamon stick, 2-3 inches long
2 bay leaves
5 cloves garlic, peeled
2 slices fresh, peeled ginger (1/2 inch thick)
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper (optional, but a nice addition in terms of flavor)
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil or usli ghee (I used vegetable oil)
1/2 tsp. whole cumin seeds
-Wash the lentils and drain.
-In a 4-quart pot, combine the lentils, 6 cups water, cinnamon stick, bay leaf, garlic cloves, ginger slices and turmeric and bring to a boil.
-Cover, lower heat and simmer gently until tender, about 30 to 45 minutes.
-Slice lemon into 5 or 6 rounds and remove seeds. Lift cover of pot and put in the lemon slices, salt, black pepper, and cayenne. Stir.
-Cover and simmer another 5 minutes. (At this point, I was disappointed to see that my lentils were sticking to the bottom of the pan; this, however, became a non-issue once I followed the next step.)
-Just before serving, heat the vegetable oil in a 4-6 inch skillet over medium high heat. When very hot, put in the cumin seeds.
-As soon as the cumin seeds darken, pour the contents over the lentils and stir.
-Get out the bread or rice, heap lentils upon them and enjoy!