Category Archives: curry

A simple pot of lentils

lentils

I found some pretty deep peace in a simple pot of lentils this week. It happened like this:

We’ve been hunkering down and making do/merry pretty well, all things considered – imagined Autobot space voyages to Pluto for magical ice, daytime baths, long read-alouds on the couch, good coffee and mugs of bone broth with ginger and cayenne – but it is also true that we’re still coming down from the joyous mayhem of presents and travel, that the weather outside is very grey and very wet, and that all four of us have massive, dizzying, ugly colds. To say I look forward to the moment when my husband walks in the door at the end of the day is a study in understatement.

Tuesday around 4pm: I get a text that a meeting is running long and he’ll be at least an hour late. I’m not mad, of course, but that doesn’t stop a knee jerk inner growl. I yawn and rub my temples, my daughter whimpers on my hip and wipes her snotty nose against my shoulder, and my son leaps off the table and lands with a ruthless thud. “Mom? What’s for dinner?”

Running on empty and knowing I’ve been by neither farm nor store since our return from the North Carolina mountains, I look in the fridge. Hmm. Lots of cheese. Very old milk. Three kinds of mustard. Pickle relish, yeast, simple syrup, tomato paste, miso, wrinkled grapes. Leftovers of indeterminate origin. It’s not looking good.

Popcorn and smoothies is not a terrible dinn– I begin to tell myself.

But I don’t want popcorn and smoothies I interrupt. I want something substantial and healing. I want protein. I want plants. Yes, you’re really tired. No, smoothies for dinner don’t make you a bad mom. Cook anyway.

I close the fridge. I think suddenly of the More-with-Less Cookbook, written by Doris Janzen Longacre and published by the Mennonite Central Committee in 1976 as an appeal to thrift in the kitchen and a call to arms against the global hunger crisis. I haven’t reached for it in a long time, but it is homely and modest and practical and that’s what I need tonight. I pull it down, find a recipe for Basic Cooked Lentils, and get to work.

Both kids are playing with the dog’s bowls under the kitchen table. I smile, put a couple cups of rice in the rice cooker, and slip out the back door, rummaging through our upright freezer out in the shed for some frozen chicken broth. I wrestle it out of its Ziploc armor, drop it into a big pot on the stove, and set the burner to high. I rinse a cup of lentils and as I agitate them in the sieve under running water I feel my mental fog lifting. The kids laugh and I hear dog food scatter and all I think is it feels good to feed my family. I add the lentils to the broth along with a bay leaf and a pinch of salt and turn everything down to a simmer. I look in the fridge again and surface with three leeks, shriveled and pretty gnarly but not rotten. Perfect. I put our big skillet on another burner and set half a stick of butter to melt in it. I peel away the (many) dried outer layers of the leeks and chop off their roots, slice them, rinse them well, and drop them in the skillet. My daughter clings to my leg with another soft whimper.

“Hello, sweet girl,” I say, hoisting her to my hip and kissing her forehead. “I know you want snuggles now. But I need to get dinner ready.” Like magic her brother appears with a big ball and a grin, and she turns to him with twinkling eyes, already wriggling free.

I step onto the back porch, where we often keep a crate or two of farm vegetables. I’m not hopeful because I know we haven’t filled the crates since our Christmas travels, but lo, there beneath a handful of wilted lettuce leaves sits one plump carrot – it looks a little tired, sure, but not so bad. I bring it inside, give it a quick scrub in the sink, dice it, and add it to the leeks along with another small knob of butter and some curry powder.

Miraculously – or perhaps because I am ignoring them – the kids don’t need anything. All the base components of the meal are cooking now, and I can turn to the tinier tasks of stirring, tasting, adjusting spices. My mind meanders pleasantly. I think of curries, of how little I know about authentic ones, of how much I love them anyway, of the lunchtime curries I ate at any of the half dozen little restaurants along East Sixth Street in the East Village and of the many approximations I’ve cobbled together at home. Almost seventeen years ago I bought two books from a man sitting on a quilt outside a train station in Chennai. One was Gandhi’s autobiography and the other was called Indian Cookery: for use in all countries, by E.P. Veerasawmy. For no good reason I haven’t cooked from it much (despite the back cover’s admonition that it “should be part of any cook-proud housewife’s library”!). But one big lesson from its first chapter has lingered with me for years: you must cook your curry powder or curry spices in the fat with your onions and garlic for several minutes, before adding any coconut milk or other liquids, to cook off their raw flavor. I’d like to learn more someday, I think, about how to really build layers of flavor in a curry. I think of the pact my husband and I make (and break) every year, to each pick a cuisine and cook from it once a week. Maybe this will be the year.

I think of my enormous cookbook collection. I think of what a thrilling time this seems for cookbooks in general: vibrant, clever flavor combinations; deep explorations of single ingredients or techniques; endless options for all kinds of eaters; and of course the beauty of the books themselves. I don’t get to do it much these days, but I love to sit with a stack of cookbooks and a cup of tea.

There’s a clear trend right now toward clean, wholesome cooking, whether you tend toward marrow bones and raw milk and home cured bacon or collard wraps and almond milk and meal-sized salads (or all of it, like me!). But there’s also a clear trend toward luxury in book design: heavy matte paper, breathtaking full bleed photographs, obvious care and cleverness in layout. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

I think suddenly, absent any guilt or shame: what if I only had three or four cookbooks? I don’t mean what if I had to pick my three or four favorites from this crazy collection. I mean: what if, by choice or circumstance or culture, I just wasn’t into cookbooks? What if I was just a confident and unfussy home cook with a few worn references tucked on the counter between the coffee pot and the fridge? More-with-Less, maybe. The 1979 Fannie Farmer? A cookie book? What would that be like?

Our own little family straddles these questions of abundance and scarcity every day really: work that means access to the highest possible quality of produce and eggs and meat, smashed up against a pretty spartan budget everywhere else. Hmm. It’s a lot to think about, and tonight I am grateful to be muting the chatter and making some simple food with what I could rustle up.

I check the vegetables. The carrots aren’t quite done, and over in the pot, neither are the lentils. I scrape the curry mixture into the lentils and pour in another cup of broth. My phone buzzes again: another hour late. I put a lid on the pot, turn the heat to low, and gather my children into my arms.

Wishing you and yours a joyous new year. May your bellies and hearts be as full as mine.

* * *

A Simple Pot of Lentils
adapted from More-with-Less Cookbook, by Doris Janzen Longacre

I like this over rice or another grain. If you do too, get that started first. Then combine 2 1/2 cups broth or water and 1 cup rinsed lentils in a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and add a bay leaf and a pinch of salt.

In a large skillet, melt several tablespoons butter or warm several tablespoons olive oil over medium heat. Add an onion (chopped) or a large leek (sliced and very well rinsed) and anything else that sounds good or is lying around threatening to go to waste (chopped small) – a stalk of celery, a carrot, a red pepper, a few turnips maybe. Sauté until the vegetables begin to soften. Add some chopped garlic and continue to cook for another minute. Now add some spices or herbs. A tablespoon or two of curry powder is nice. Or try some thyme or rosemary and some black pepper. Italian flavors work great. Don’t skimp. Saute for a few minutes more and then scrape the vegetables into the pot of lentils. Add more broth or water if things seem dry. Taste the lentils. If they’re done, simmer everything for a few minutes more. If they’re not, bring everything back to a simmer, put a lid on the pot, and go read with your kids.

Adjust seasonings and serve over grains. Top with a dollop of yogurt or a squeeze of lemon juice and some chopped parsley, if you like.

(seven posts in seven forty-two days)

I’d like to sip my cider.

It is hard, when the walnuts are cracking and rolling underfoot, and when the skies are one day so blue it hurts and the next like soft grey flannel, and when the leaves bank against the porch steps and the Virginia creeper goes ruby, not to get a little nostalgic. Are any of us immune?

walnut

I do miss things. I miss the crackle of the woodstove, and the pile of shoes drying out next to it, and the way my toddler learned to swing a hatchet at the woodpile under the watchful and loving tutelage of his father. I miss the dappled canopy of the walnut trees behind our house. I miss autumn potlucks, all kabocha squash and braised pork and cold beers. I miss the call of my goats from under the majestic old oak that stood sentinel on the hill, nodding its quiet reassurance north to where I was hanging laundry behind the house and west to the crew snipping winter squash from their vines. I miss the goats’ winter coats too, less shiny than their summer sheen and thick almost overnight with a cashmere undercoat. I miss the carpet of leaves and pine needles crunching underfoot on long walks through our woods with my child, and the moss and dirt under his fingernails as he plunged into the shallow creek in gleeful disregard of the growing chill. I miss the color of wild persimmons against an October sky, and our fire pit, and our fall carrots. I wonder how many leaves our young sugar maple, the one we planted up near the mailbox, put out this year.

fall carrots

wild persimmons

But it is also nigh on impossible to ignore fall up here in the Hudson Valley. It crept along quietly for awhile. Way back in early August I drove north along the Taconic to Rensselaer County and had to squint to be sure I was really seeing a few red leaves. One day in September I went to buy some corn for dinner at our local orchard’s farm store and half gallons of their first cider, pressed the night before, beckoned from an icy bin. When I drive to pick up my son from his preschool on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, I am often stopping behind elementary school buses, and kids hop to the pavement under slow-motion showers of ochre leaves. Most mornings call for jeans and a sweater, but by noon we can still trade our slippers for sandals. It won’t be long, though, before we dig through the closets for our boots and winter hats.

bumble

seconds

tawny

But I’m in no rush. Last winter was extremely hard. And there’s no getting around it – the one that’s coming promises to be pretty intense as well (I’m working on another post about it all; I’ll share it as soon as I can). And so I’d like to just hit pause for a spell, thank you very much. I’d like to curl like a cat in the warm lap of these golden afternoons. I’d like to kick through the leaves with my son. I’d like to sip my cider and scratch my head as I figure out how to make his requested pink furry mouse costume with a complete lack of sewing skills. I’d like to eat more cider donuts.

ochre

kabochas

I will even take a month of todays. It was cold and wet. We slurped soup in a diner while, back home, the steady rain cleaved the gravel driveway into tiny canyons. We dried off while we bought our groceries and when we pushed the cart to the car the rain had tapered off to a sweet drizzle, but in the 90 seconds it took to return the cart something shifted up in the clouds. I was soaked through to my skin when I climbed back in the car. We sat in the parking lot for a while, chuckling and waiting for the rain to let up enough to drive home.

Later he woke from his nap and climbed onto the bed where I sat writing. I closed my computer and I put my empty mug on the windowsill. He climbed into my lap and rested his head against my growing belly. I grinned in unspeakable delight to realize my two children were nearly cheek to cheek, and the littlest one even gave a swift thump, but I didn’t say a word. These are the last months when he doesn’t have to share me.

Then we trudged through tall wet grass to the basement for a butternut squash, and over to the barn for some onions and garlic. He curled up on the couch to watch some excavator videos (“With a grapple, Mom, but no operator, okay?”). I made this soup. It is like a fresh pot of coffee, or a handwritten letter, or the Amélie soundtrack, which is to say: always perfect.

Winter Squash Soup with Curry and Coconut Milk
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

You can use almost any kind of winter squash here – butternut, kabocha, red kuri, hubbard, anything sweet and tender. I really like the little kick this soup gets from the chili sauce, but you can certainly leave it out if you like. If you’re making this early in the fall from local squash, there’s a chance your squash hasn’t fully cured yet. It will still work, but the sugars won’t be as concentrated, so you might want to add another tablespoon or two of sweetener – taste before serving and adjust as needed. Finally, if you have a low- or no-salt curry powder, you’ll need to salt this soup. Taste just before serving and add additional salt as needed.

1 medium or large onion, chopped
1-4 cloves garlic (depending on your feelings about garlic), minced
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 winter squash, about 2 pounds, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 14-oz can unsweetened coconut milk
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon brown sugar, whole cane sugar, or maple syrup
1 tablespoon fish sauce or soy sauce
1 teaspoon Asian chili sauce (like Sriracha) (optional but recommended)
1/2 cup red lentils (optional; these give the soup a nice protein boost and cook quickly, but I often leave them out)

Warm a couple tablespoons of olive oil, coconut oil, or the fat of your choice in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and saute until they begin to soften, about five minutes. Add the garlic and cook another one to two minutes. Add the curry powder and saute a minute more.

Add the squash, the coconut milk, the broth, the sugar, the fish or soy sauce, the chili sauce, and the lentils if using. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook until the squash is soft, about 30-40 minutes.

Puree the soup until it’s smooth and velvety. An immersion blender makes this easy (and safe!), but you can also puree the soup in batches in a food processor or blender – be careful! Or you can use a potato masher; the soup won’t be quite as smooth but will still taste delicious. Taste for salt and sweetness and adjust if necessary. Ladle the soup into big bowls, top with a dollop of plain yogurt or sour cream or a squeeze of lime juice, and serve with lots of bread!

(Want to make this in the slow cooker? Easy peasy. I actually wrote about this soup before.)

butternuts

Slow Cooker Winter Squash Soup with Curry and Coconut Milk

The following post first appeared over at Southside Kitchen Collective, a collaborative (and fairly sporadic) project on families and food that I ran for a little while. As we prepare for our move away from Southside Virginia, I’ve imported a few SKC posts into Coffee in the Woodshed — the more personal ones I wrote, about our experiences cooking and eating with our young son. I think they belong here as well.

This soup is really very good.

And after the initial effort and swearing required to peel your winter squash, it’s really no trouble at all – maybe twenty minutes of your time while your baby naps or your toddler hides the dog’s food under the living room couch and in your rain boots. Ahem.

I’m going to confess: my crockpot, a wedding gift, gathered dust for a few years after we got married. I wanted to use it, really I did … but I just didn’t know quite how to integrate it into my cooking.  I was 30 when I got married.  By that point I felt pretty confident in the kitchen, and I just didn’t understand what it could do that I couldn’t do.  Well … I have a two-year old now, and I get it.  Also, I love it.  LOVE it.

And it’s not just for soups and roasts! It’s my favorite way to cook a pot of beans, and did you know you can make jam in a slow cooker too?  Tales for another time.

For now let’s talk about the soup: it’s warm, it’s gorgeous, it’s a little spicy, and it’ll fill you right up.  Really quite the thing for these chilly October nights.

Slow Cooker Winter Squash Soup with Curry and Coconut Milk
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

You can use almost any kind of winter squash here.  Butternut is a classic, and we’ve also made it with a deep orange kabocha (that’s the squash in the photo at the top of this post). We really like the little kick this soup gets from the Asian chili sauce, but you can certainly leave it out if you like.  Finally, our curry powder is fairly salty and we like the soup as is, but if you have a low- or no-salt curry powder, you’ll probably need to add more salt. Taste before serving and add additional salt as needed.

1 winter squash, about 2 pounds, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium onion, chopped
1-4 cloves garlic (depending on your feelings about garlic!), minced
1 tablespoon brown sugar or whole cane sugar
1 tablespoon curry powder
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 14-oz can unsweetened coconut milk
1 tablespoon fish sauce or soy sauce
1 teaspoon Asian chili sauce (like Sriracha) (optional)

Combine all ingredients in slow cooker, cover, and cook on low 4-5 hours or high 2-3 hours. When the squash is soft, use an immersion blender to puree the soup until it’s smooth and velvety.  You can also puree the soup in batches in a food processor or blender – be careful!  Or you can use a potato masher; the soup won’t be quite as smooth but will still taste delicious.  Ladle the soup into big bowls, top with a dollop of plain yogurt or sour cream or a squeeze of lime juice, and serve with lots of bread!

Variation:
For a nice protein boost, add a cup of dry lentils at the beginning — very tasty!

This soup also comes together beautifully on the stovetop. It requires more tending but cooks up in about an hour. Saute the onion and garlic in some coconut oil or olive oil until soft, and then add the curry powder and continue to saute for about a minute, until nice and fragrant. Then add the rest of the ingredients, bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and cook until the squash is soft. Then use your immersion blender to proceed as above.

When the weather starts to turn, do you crave soup too? Leave your favorite recipe, or a link to a favorite recipe, in the comments!