When it comes to quality and quantity of flavor for your dollar, it is hard to beat a butt.

Despite what you might think, pork butt is not the pig’s “butt.” Rather than coming from the piggy posterior, what we call “butt” comes from the shoulder. The misleading label of “butt” comes from the fact that in old England, less desired cuts of the pig like shoulder–the ones that didn’t come from “high on the hog”–were packed away in barrels, or butts. Despite this disrespect from 18th century and earlier English eaters, much of the world has long recognized that with proper cooking, pork shoulder provides some of the tastiest meat an animal can offer.

Whether in southern barbecued pulled pork, Latin carnitas,  Italian mini-porchetta roasts, Vietnamese char siu or thit kho, Chinese, German, or many other cusines and preperations, pork shoulder is a favorite of the family table. The secret is long, slow cooking that renders the otherwise tough meat finger-tender while releasing the flavor packed in by well used muscles and assorted bones. This long cooking can be done by braising, slow roasting, smoking, or (in a few cases) simmering.

Faced with just such a piece of shoulder Friday morning, I had to decide which method and flavors to use. We had picked up the “shoulder blade roast” (part of the butt) from our local grocery store on sale for $1.89 a pound. It was bone in, and weighed a little over 5 pounds (2.6 k). In the summer I would have cooked it in my smoker with apple wood for 12-14 hours and had great southern pulled pork. Since it was far too cold and wet outside for comfortable smoking, I decided I would put on a rub and slow roast it indoors. But what flavors to use?

Usually, I look to a single culture for inspiration when I’m cooking. I love a meal that not only tastes yummy, but evokes a place and a people. Besides, there are reasons why the classics are classics–they work great. Friday though, I found myself taking flavors and ideas from different cuisines. I started with base of fresh roasted cumin and coriander seeds, a combination that is shared by many cultures, notably on the Indian subcontinent and in Latin America. I steered south and added smoked paprika and powdered chipotle peppers, along with the onion and garlic powders I would have used in a southern US barbecue  rub. I then slow roasted it for hours (recipe follows) let it cool, and “pulled” it into tasty shreds of tender yumminess. If I had wanted, instead of pulling the pork for sandwiches, I could have served it as a roast with side dishes, used it in a pesole, or used it for pretty much anything that calls for delicious, tender meat.

I decided on Vietnamese banh mi inspired sandwiches.

I then pickled some sweet onions with some jalapeno, made a chili-roasted garlic mayo, located a baguette along with some avocado, cilantro, lettuce, and tomato, and prepared to make some amazing sandwiches. They were delicious. We ate them that night, the next day Jeanie brought some to her mother’s to have with her for lunch, we ate them for dinner again on Sunday, and there will be plenty left for lunch today.

Thus, my shoulder had the Mexican/southern US  influenced pork, in sandwiches inspired by Vietnamese banh mi with a French-Italian influenced mayonnaise. While wholly not traditional of anywhere, they were authentically delicious.

Slow Roasted Pork Shoulder

Rub:

  • 2 tbsp coriander seeds (I buy both of these seeds at an Indian grocery for a fraction of what they would cost me at a supermarket)
  • 2 tbsp cumin seeds
  • 4 tbsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp onion powder
  • 1 tsp chipotle powder
  • 2 tbsp kosher salt
  • 2 tbsp raw sugar (or brown sugar)

Put the coriander seeds in a small, dry frying pan over medium heat until the scent fills the room. Grind in a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder. Move it to a small bowl. Do the same with the cumin seeds. Add the rest of the ingredients to the bowl and mix with a fork.

Pork:

  • Rub (above)
  • 1 pork butt or shoulder roast, around 5-6 pounds
  • 1 cup of water

Preheat oven to 300°F. Dry the roast and rub the rub into it on all sides, trying to even out the distribution of the larger grains so some sides are not left with just paprika. Put roast on a rack in a roasting pan and add the water to the bottom so the juices don’t dry out and burn.

Place roast in oven. After 30 minutes, reduce heat to 275°F and cover roast with lid or foil.. continue roasting until pork is almost fork tender, about 3 hours. Remove lid or foil and roast until tender enough that a fork can pull it apart with a little effort, about another hour. Let the roast cool and then use your fingers to “pull” it into shreds. Meanwhile, degrease the pan juices and reduce by half to use when heating up pork.

Onion Pickles: (must make ahead)

  • 1large or 2 medium onions
  • 1 jalepeno
  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1 tbsp coriander seeds
  • 2 cloves

Heat vinegar and water in a saucepan over medium high heat. Add the sugar and salt and stir until dissolved and mixture comes to a boil. Slice onions and jalapeno and pack them in a clean container with a tight fitting lid. Pour in the liquid, being sure to cover all the onions and peppers. Seal, cool, and store in the refrigerator for at least several hours and up to many days.

Roasted Garlic and Chili Mayo:

  • 1 head garlic
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2-3 tbsp chili sauce
  • 1/3 cup mayo

Preheat oven to 400°F. With a paring knife, cut the end off  the end of the garlic head that is opposite the root. make sure that each clove has had the end cut off, leaving it exposed. Drizzle the open ends with the olive oil and wrap the head in foil. Put in the oven and roast for 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.

Put the other ingredients in a bowl and unwrap the garlic. Squeeze 6-8 cloves into the bowl, mashing and mixing with a fork. Use the rest of the garlic for other uses.

To Assemble Sandwiches:

Reheat pork, if desired, in a covered pan with a little of the reserved pan juices or water over medium low heat.

Cut baguettes in half with a serrated knife and spread with garlic chili mayo. Lay on pork and onion pickle. Add other ingredients as desired, including fresh cilantro, lettuce, avocado, and/or tomato. Cucumber, ham, cheese, and/or arugula would also be wonderful.

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Brine is Not the Solution!

December 23, 2010

If you read most of the current word on roasting birds and pork, you come away believing that if you don’t brine, your final product will be dry, tough and flavorless. Brining is no longer promoted as a trend or a trick of the trade, it is now preached as roasting gospel. It is part of virtually all magazine recipes. Praise of brining has been sung so long and so loud, that most people don’t even question it anymore.

Well, I do. In fact, I am an anti-briner! I think brining makes a bird taste like it came from a cheap supermarket deli, or worse, makes it taste like ham! It lessens the inherent flavor of your turkey, pork, chicken or whatever, and, to my palate, often gives it an unnatural texture.  To me, that is unforgivable, given that I and millions of others have regularly cooked birds and meats without brining, and produced finished products that are quite moist while maintaining much more natural flavor than their saline drowned cousins. I suggest that the only reason many people think brined birds taste better is because they didn’t properly season their meat when they cooked it without the brine. Either that or they are confusing moister meat for more flavorful meat.

Just what does brining do? It does a couple of things. First, it changes some of the proteins in your food. It breaks down some, and alters others. This is said to contribute to tenderness for one thing, but to my taste, it makes a natural product feel processed. Second, it causes a fluid exchange. This exchange, along with the protein fiddling, does end up keeping more water in your meat, so it can contribute to moistness. But is that good? While you end up with more water, salt, and other additives in your final product, you always lose some of the natural fluids in the exchange process–it cannot be helped. I contend that it is not better to have more fluid in your bird, if that fluid has less of the bird’s natural juices–and therefore flavor–even if it has more chef-added flavorings.

I challenge all you briners to try a recipe that gives a moist bird without brining, and compare that to your brined product. Make sure you have properly salted your non-brined bird, and make sure you are judging not only by moisture volume, but also by overall natural texture and flavor. I think you will be surprised!

Brine is never the solution!

No Cash in the Trash

November 10, 2010

Anything is too expensive if you are throwing it away. The great deal I got on those two English cucumbers for $1.50 turned into the most I’d ever paid when we only ate half of one before the rest went bad. A loaf of artisan bread is a bit of a stretch for our tight budget at $4.00, but if we toss out two thirds of the loaf, the cost per slice is out of reach. Why go to all the trouble of finding great deals if I’m going to turn them into bad ones once I get the food home?

Luckily, I learn fast. Using things properly has become a big part of our frugal living. We strive to use it all. You pay for everything you take home, you should use everything. Even trimmings can be a large part of the cost of some foods. Bones, skins, and stalks are paid for, but often discarded. Obviously, this is something to avoid.

But changing our cooking habits to be more careful about waste has not only saved us money, it has made our meals healthier, tastier, and more emotionally satisfying. Not only that, it demonstrates respect for the once living food.

Here are some of the main changes we have made to avoid waste.

Making stock regularly

We make stock at least once a week, often twice. It  provides us with a ready base for soups and sauces and is used for cooking rice and some pastas. We use:

  • Necks and wing tips collected from whole chickens which we roast or cut up that are saved in a bag in the freezer
  • Bones from roasted poultry, and some red meat cuts
  • vegetable scraps from onions (including skins), carrot, celery, lettuce, beans, greens, mushroom stalks, parsnips, rutabagas, leeks, and tomatoes
  • vegetables like those above that are wilted or past their prime but not moldy or rotten
  • Fresh parsley and thyme stalks

Use leftover pasta

We like the Italian trick of using leftover pasta in a frittata. Lightly beat six or so eggs and add the leftover pasta. Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a large, oven-safe saute or frying pan over medium heat. Add the egg mixture and stir around the bottom occaisonally until eggs are set most of the way through. Put a little Parmesan cheese on top and put under a preheated broiler until the top is browned. Remove and serve hot or at room temperature.

Cube leftover bread and save in freezer or paper bag

Use it for dry or fresh bread crumbs for adding to ground meat dishes or for breading, for croutons in soup or salads, for bread pudding, or for making panzanella (I saute bread cubes in a little garlic and oil until browned and add cherry tomatoes, chunks of cucumber, a few kalamata olives, a little fresh basil, and maybe pieces of bell pepper and/or feta, dressed with a little vinaigrette).

Use leftover rice

Sure you can stuff eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and the like. Yeah, you can make fry rice cakes or make fried rice, but in the end, rice pudding is the only way to go. For one cup leftover cooked rice, add it to two cups milk and bring to a simmer in a saucepan. In a casserole dish, mix 2 eggs, 1/4 cup sugar, 1/2tsp. vanilla, and 1/3 tsp. cinnamon and 1/4 to 1/2 cup raisins, to taste. Add slowly to milk mixture and cook for about 5 minutes. Return to cassarole dish and bake in a 350° F oven for about 20 mintues.

Also:

  • Most stews and soups are better the next day, or even the day after that.
  • Label and freeze what you won’t eat.
  • Leftover chicken, turkey and salmon make great chicken, turkey or salmon salad sandwiches, as well as being great in stuffed vegetables, cabbage leaves, wraps, or pasta dishes.
  • Some things, like pot roast and meatloaf, are so good in sandwiches that we plan leftovers.
  • Don’t dress more green salad than you know you will use. It’s easy to dress more if you need it, and once dressed it won’t store well.
  • Minestrone is a great refrigerator emptier!
  • Plan menus based on what you have, before you buy something else.
  • Not enough of something for an entree? Make a lot of little dishes. It’s fun in restaurants, it’s fun at home too.
  • Hash is a forgotten joy. Leftover potatoes, meats and some veggies combine into yummy hash. Just fry it up together, add some Worcestershire, cream, ketchup, Tabasco, and or other seasonings and drop a poached egg on top for breakfast, brunch or dinner the next day. Sausage is a particular favorite of ours for hash.

It may have been 71°F yesterday, but it is still Autumn, and that means I want hearty fall food. Fall is one of the best seasons for eating, with the harvest still going strong and the wild rich with fish, game and mushrooms for responsible taking. To me, fall food should be warming, comforting, and evoke the fields, orchards, and cool gardens of the season. The combination of old fashioned roots like  parsnips (and the reliable carrot), freshly picked apples, and braised pork, seems a perfect expression of this season.

We had three pork chops left over from a bulk package we bought, three parsnips we had picked up because they were on sale, and a couple honey crisp apples on which we had splurged (I don’t recommend wasting Honey Crisp on cooking, but if you do, this expensive super variety does quite well). We decided that a braise or a stew would be the perfect use for these oh-so-autumnal ingredients.

You may be unfamiliar with parsnips, since they are too often overlooked these days. Grown in cold climates, frost is necessary for them to develop their sweet flavor. They not only look like white carrots, but are closely related. In fact, the two seem to have been sometimes spoken of as one vegetable in classical times, back when carrots were either white or purple. Parsnips are sweeter than carrots, and also richer in vitamins, being particularly high in potassium and dietary fiber.

It was a great dinner, and there was even a chop left over for the next day, which I made into a sandwich that was so tender it risked falling down my front. I ate it with the last few batons of parsnip and carrot on the side–YUMMY!

Braised Pork Chops with Apples, Parsnips and Carrots.

  • 4 pork chops, loin is fine for this, save the rib chops for sauteing.
  • 3 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 2 inch long, 1/2 inch wide batons
  • 4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2 inch long, 1/2 inch wide batons
  • 2 large apples suitable for cooking, peeled, cored, and cut into 1/2 inch wide slices
  • 1`Large onion, peeled and cut into wedges like the apples
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
  • 1 cup chicken broth, approx.
  • 1 glass dry white wine
  • 1/2  tsp dried thyme, or 1 tbsp fresh
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper as needed

Preheat oven to 275°F.  In a large oven proof pan with a lid, brown the pork chops (seasoned with salt and pepper) in the olive oil and remove. Add the onions and saute for a few minutes until transparent. Add the garlic, carrots, parsnips, and thyme. cook for about 5 minutes and add the apples, cooking for another 5 minutes.  Return the pork chops to the pan, add the wine and broth, bring to a simmer, put on the lid, and move to the oven. Cook for 2 hours or until tender. Adjust seasoning and serve.

 

Dinner the other night was a comedy of errors. Luckily, like most comedies, it had a happy ending.

It started with our weekly trip to the supermarket. That’s right, once a week my wife Jeanie and I go grocery shopping together. We see what is on sale, what produce and fish are fresh and available, and plan our weekly menu as we fill our cart with almost everything we will need until the next weekly outing. During the week we try to limit stops at the grocery store to picking up things like fresh-baked bread or fresh vegetables that might not be at their peak if purchased days ahead. We not only find that shopping this way saves us a lot of money, we actually enjoy it, looking  forward to this shared time providing for our home and family. I highly recommend shopping with someone if you can. It’s a cooperative, creative, constructive time, spent with someone you love.

As I was saying, Jeanie and I were doing our weekly shopping, and  we eventually made it to the meat department. I saw that top round steak was on sale and told Jeanie I might like to get some. I had recently seen Anne Burrell on the Food Network making small braciole with top round and was anxious to try it. I had always used flank steak, making larger braciole and cutting them into pin-wheel slices, but her top round minis looked both intriguing and fun.

If you don’t know braciole  you have got to try this dish. It is pronounced Sicilian style: bra’zhul (or to put it another way, just say “bra jewel” in your best comic French accent and stress the first syllable of the last word).  Braciole (the singular braciola is almost never used) are Italian-American dishes made from braising steaks, pounded, stuffed, tied, browned fast, and then simmered slowly–usually in wine-rich tomato sauce. In Italy, this dish is the rough equivalent of the wide-spread Italian involtini or the Sicilian farsumagru.

Anyway, back at the meat counter, Jeanie and I searched the bin for the advertised top round without finding any. It was still too early for the meat-cutter to be on the clock, so we made some other purchases and continued shopping.  At some point when we separated to pick up something we had forgotten in an aisle already covered, Jeanie returned to say she had talked to the meat-cutter and he was preparing a large package of the steaks for us while we continued to shop. Just as we reached were finishing in produce, the man showed up in his whites to call Jeanie back to pick up the prepared package of beefy goodness. When she returned, I saw that what she held was a giant package of three huge, half-inch thick boneless round steaks.

Now there is a big difference between a top round steak and a round steak. True, both are cut from the round primal, but a round steak is basically a horizontal slice of the entire beef thigh, containing not only a piece of the top round, but also the bottom round, and the eye of round. Now, there is nothing wrong with a round steak–unless you want to make something like braciole. The problem is that the various muscles don’t form a continuous piece of meat, but some are only loosely connected, and not connected at all on one side, making the stuffing and rolling of such a steak problematic at best.

I explained to Jeanie why they wouldn’t work for what I had in mind, and she blushed, reluctantly offering to take them back to the meat-cutter and see if she could get what I wanted, but I looked at her pretty pink face and happily relented, saying we would find a good use for these now that we had them–and besides, at $1.79 a pound, they were a very good deal.

So, back at home I had a decision to make. The steaks were too thin for london broil or most other things I would usually make with round steaks. I briefly considered cutting the top round section from each of the steaks and proceeding as I had planned, but that would not have left me with enough mini-braciole to make a satisfying meal. I considered cutting them up for stew, but my heart was set on braciole. For one thing we had made some simple tomato sauce earlier in the week and I had saved a portion just for that purpose. I also had the left-over ends of two italian bread loaves waiting to be turned into crumbs for the stuffing.

I decided to go ahead with the braciole, making one large roll and dealing with the gaps in the steak the best I could.

I chopped a small onion and started it sauteing in some olive oil on low heat until transparent. I cut the crust off of the bread, cubed it and put it in some milk to soak and soften. Then I started some water to hard boil a couple of eggs, adding the eggs to the cold water and timing 10 minutes of slow simmer once the water began to bubble.  When the eggs were done I cooled them immediately to stop the cooking. The onions were turned off when transparent and soft.

I then took out some plastic wrap and laid the steak on it. The full round steak was too wide for the wrap, so I had to double it, laying one sheet partially over the other to make it wider. I put the largest of the round steaks on it and folded over the extra end so that it was totally covered with extra room on all sides. Picking up the brass duck-head bookend that I use as a meat pounder, I began to pound and push, a motion that both flattens and spreads the steak outward. I used a method to deal with the gaps in the steak that I had used before with some success, laying one edge of the split over the other and trying to pound them together. It seemed to be working as I pounded, but I had my doubts about it holding up when I went to roll and tie the steak.

Once the steak was pounded out, I seasoned it with salt and pepper, rubbed it with olive oil, and spread on two crushed cloves of garlic. I then squeezed out the bread a bit, put it in a bowl with about a half cup of grated Parmesan cheese, a half cup of grated provolone, and the sautéed onions. I peeled and chopped the hard-boiled eggs and added those, mixing it all up well. I spread this carefully over the steak, leaving a little space on all sides.

I had to take a break before attempting to roll it all up, my disability limiting my cooking time to shorter stages, even on a good day. After I built up stamina (and courage) I pulled out my kitchen twine and scissors and prepared to roll the steak. By using the plastic wrap to help rolling, as I would with sushi, I was able to get it to stay together pretty well. I began to tie it quickly and carefully, trying to move it as little as possible. It all seemed to go very well, leaving me with a fairly tight, jelly roll looking piece of stuffed meat that looked fit for company–until I turned it a bit and saw a narrow but long fissure running  down most of its length. I sighed and shrugged, hoping it would do.

I heated some vegetable oil in a large frying pan and dried the roll thoroughly with paper towels so it would not stick (a too often skipped and too often untaught rule). Once the oil was shimmering and hot, I laid in the roll, careful not to turn it until it browned enough to start to release from the bottom (another  vital cooking rule that for some reason is seldom mentioned in cookbooks or cooking shows). I browned it on all sides and then set it in a long enameled roasting pan with a lid. I poured on the tomato sauce I had made earlier in the week (about 2 cups or a little more) and a large glass of red wine, covered it, and put it in a preheated 300° oven. I turned down the heat to 275° after about 20 minutes, and down to 250° later when I saw it was simmering well.

I usually cook braciole for about two and a half hours, but for some reason I let this go for about 3 hours, occasionally removing the lid to check the simmer and spoon sauce over the roll. When it was time to serve, we had prepared some spaghetti noodles to share its sauce, along with a simple “salad” of some sliced crisp cucumber. Jeanie removed the pan from the oven while the pasta drained and I removed the lid, immediately savoring the wonderful aroma that filled the kitchen. The roll looked good, and I probed at it with a serving spoon, feeling it fall apart almost at the touch. I had over cooked it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, spoon tender beef in wine tomato sauce is wonderful, but the idea of braciole is to get pin-wheels of beef and stuffing, which means stopping just short of the “falling apart at the touch” stage. In addition, about a third of the stuffing had seeped out my fissure and into the sauce. It was not what I was going for. However, instead of dwelling on the “mis-steak” I removed the strings from the roll and served it almost like a true Bolagnaese over the pasta. It was delicious, a meal rich with beef flavor, tender texture, rich tomato sauce flavored in the pot with wine and meat, and perfectly cooked pasta (thanks to Jeanie’s prowess). It was the best thing I have eaten in weeks.

So, while a failure when judged by my original goal, the meal was a success by any other test, as well as a great learning experience. Best of all, when I cook the other two steaks that wait in the freezer, I can skip the pounding, rolling, and stuffing and still end up with the wonderful meal that emerged from our errors–unless I decide it’s another night for a culinary comedy of errors.

My Recent Absence

May 5, 2010

For those of you who don’t know, I am currently having some medical problems which occasionally make it difficult for me to shop, cook, research, and even write in this blog. I apologize for my recent absence from this blog, and am glad to be well enough to be sharing these ideas with you again. Thank you for your patience and your continued support.

 Lentils are nearly the perfect food. Comforting, hearty, healthy, cheap, and quick to prepare, it is no wonder they have been a staple in so many cuisines. They look odd to those unfortunate enough to be unfamiliar with them, some colors resembling manufactured candies more than beans. A lentil looks a lot like an optical lens, and this is not surprising, since the latin word for lentil is lens. What is surprising to many is that the legume was not named after the optical device, but rather, it was the other way around. The two share the same word in many languages even today.

Most of us in the West know lentils mainly from the wonderful soups they make. These are warming, filling, frugal treasures, something to look forward to on a cold winter day. There are many recipes for them, from vegetarian to meaty, from simple to complex. My favorite is rich with sausage, but doesn’t hide the earthy flavor of the lentils themselves. Most of us already have our favorite lentil soup recipe, and many exist in cookbooks and on the web, so I have decided to focus on other uses of these delightful discs.

A pulse, lentils have more complete protein than any other vegetables except soy beans and hemp, and when served with rice lentils provide all of the essential amino acids. Because of this, they are a very important part of many vegetarian cuisines. They come in many varieties and colors. While they can be used somewhat interchangeably, there will be differences in texture and flavor. Some colors of lentils are merely the hulled versions of different colored ones.

Here are three lentil dishes I highly recommend. One is Mediterranean, one is Middle eastern, and one is Indian. While some of these recipes include ingredients that are not inexpensive, those are usually spices that are good to have on hand for adding flavor to many inexpensive meals. When judging the overall cost, remember that when using the lentil, you can use less or no meat, while still satisfying all but the most stubborn carnivores.

Lentil Salad With Tomato, Cucumber, and Herbs

  • 1 cup dried lentils (preferably red French lentils or another type that keep their shape well)
  • 1 large garlic clove, chopped
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 cups tomatoes,  diced
  • 1 medium red onion, diced
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, and chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh herbs (such as parsley, dill, basil, mint, cilantro, I like parsley and dill. More than 2 may be muddled)
  • 3 tbsp red-wine vinegar, or to taste
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt and black pepper to taste
  • 1/3 cup crumbled feta (optional)

Bring 4 cups water to a boil in a 2-quart heavy saucepan. Add lentils, garlic, and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and reduce heat to a bare simmer. Cook uncovered until lentils are just tender, 15 to 25 minutes. Drain and transfer to a serving bowl.  Add remaining ingredients, toss gently until mixed, and chill slightly.

Mujadarrah

  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large white onion, sliced into rings
  • 1 1/3 cups uncooked green lentils or substitute other lentils
  • 3/4 cup uncooked long-grain white rice
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup plain yogurt
  • Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Stir in the onions, and cook about 10 minutes, until browned. Remove from heat, and set aside.

    Place lentils in a medium saucepan with enough lightly salted water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer about 15 minutes. Stir rice and enough water to cover into the saucepan with the lentils. Season with salt and pepper. Cover saucepan, and continue to simmer 15 to 20 minutes, watching to make sure it does not dry out, until rice and lentils are tender.

    Mix half the onions into the lentil mixture. Top with yogurt or sour cream and remaining onions to serve.

    Dal Palak/Lentils with Spinach

    Ingredients:

    • 1 bunch spinach, washed thoroughly and roughly torn
    • 1 medium tomato, finely chopped(optional)
    • 3/4 cup yellow mung (or moong) dal, or substitute other lentils
    • 1 tbsp oil/ghee/butter
    • 1 tbsp grated ginger
    • salt to taste
    • 3/4 teaspoon sugar
    • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
    • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
    • 1/2 teaspoon red chili powder (optional)
    • 2 fresh green chili pepper
    • a pinch of hing/asafoetida (optional–Also called “devil’s dung,” Jainists use this to replace the garlic and onions that they are not allowed to use. It is related to the famous ancient greek/roman spice silphium. Be careful with this if you are not used to it. Too much can spoil a dish and the smell can be overpowering and stay with you. It does reduce flatulence and is purported to aid in digestion)
    • 4 cups water (may be a little bit more if needed)
    • fresh lemon

    In a dry thick bottomed skillet, lightly roast the mung dal/lentils till they are fragrant and golden. Wash them in cold water.

    In a large pot over medium-high heat combine the dal and water. Bring to a boil, then add the turmeric and salt, ginger, 1 green chili,  slit or broken. Reduce the heat, and simmer about 45 minutes.  Add the spinach  and simmer until the lentils are  soft, about 15 minutes more, until lentils are done. The lentils should not dry up while cooking, but retain a soupy consistency. Add more water if needed. Remove from heat when the lentils are cooked and soft but not mushy.

    In another pan, heat the oil/ghee/butter and add cumin seeds.  Toss seeds around a few minutes until they sizzle. Add the green chili and asafoetida/hing if you’re using it and fry for about half a minute.

    Add the red chili  powder and the tomatoes and cook till the tomatoes are mushy.  Add the cooked lentils and spinach to this pan, cover and  allow to cook/simmer for another ten minutes. Taste, and season with more salt if needed.

    Squeeze some fresh lemon juice on the top before serving.