Winter in Summer, Summer in Belly

Yesterday's challenge was "A Taste of Summer/Winter." I assume that's an either/or, depending on your hemisphere, but (per my last guilt-addled post) I decided to do both.

Taking the word "taste" literally, I wanted to focus on a few foods finding their way to our table for this long Australia Day weekend. While everyone else is wandering around in the sun sizzling their sausages (no, really, "sausage sizzles" are de rigeur here for community events), we're holed up in the air conditioning with a list of movies, a rotation of board games, and Mike's Famous Lentils. It may as well be a blizzard outside.

I always think of lentils as a wintry food, and I don't know why, given that for most of my life lentils were "those sad, pasty things that generally unwashed college students wearing corduroy eat." When Indian cuisine enlightened my tongue in my mid-30s, everything changed. Even so, with cheap-n-tasty Indian restaurants galore in Las Vegas, it wasn't until Australia that dal became part of our home menus. (Dal, and most other foods. Oh Vegas. You spoiled us so.)

Mike's Lentils

Please trust in the deliciousness here, for I know my photo here isn't selling it. The thing about lentils is that they look like lentils and are thus hard to photograph attractively unless you fuss about with "styling" them, perhaps as a dollop draped across the edge of a bit of puffy naan, ringed with streaks of cilantro chutney against slightly faded red Fiestaware, all set upon a pale, weathered picnic table. Or maybe an ironic Formica kiddie bench, juxtaposed with a discontinued Lego figurine wearing an apron? In the distance, a one-winged crow sings. Hmm. (Pretension is harder than it looks.)

Sure, that photo looks like brown and also some brown and there's some brown, but really it encompasses three kinds of lentils: black, French green, and red.

Now, normally, if you wanted to know Mike's recipe for lentil happiness, you would have to be a close friend or family member or just someone on the street who happened to be in a whispered conversation about legumes when Mike walked by and spidey-sensed a lentil conversation starter.

But in the interest of being a good online citizen who contributes original content (and also so Mike will stop yelling at Facebook whenever he tries to scroll through all of last year's posts to find where he shared his ad-libbed recipe), I shall reveal the secret instructions here. These are taken word for word from a message Mike pasted to himself in Skype so he could refer to it on the iPad while cooking.

(I should mention that Mike doesn't know I'm posting this, but only because he's asleep. I'm pretty sure he's okay with me sharing. It's not like he's Chocolateria San Churro, refusing to tell people how they make their Mock Mojitos. Mark my words, CSC: I shall reverse engineer your delicious concoctions, or something very like it, or possibly something nothing like it at all!)

Mike's Impromptu Dhal

2 cups of green ("French style") lentils
1 cup of some other lentils (I use black or regular green ones - slightly larger and flatter than the French style) (He added red to this recent batch just to use them up. -S.)
About a can of some sort of beans - I used pinto but borlotti or kidney are fine
1 large can of diced tomato (Aussie can sizes are different; I think if you are in the US, you want around 20 ounces for the large can, not 28. -S.)
2 tablespoons of butter
Olive oil
About half a cup of milk
1 onion
1 teaspoon of flour
1 tablespoon of sugar
Heaped teaspoon of ginger paste
Heaped teaspoon of garlic paste
Heaped teaspoon of chilli powder
Heaped teaspoon of cumin
Heaped teaspoon of garam masala
A good big pinch of fenugreek leaves
3 cups of water
2 cups of vegetable stock
Half a chipotle pepper. (Optional, but it gives it a smokey flavour - order them from dried in bags - you won't regret it)
Salt to taste


1. Stick all lentils in a pressure cooker along with the 5 cups of water. (I know the ingredient list says "3" - so not sure which he means here. Maybe I'll remember to ask him and edit this after he wakes. -S.) Bring to pressure and cook for 8 minutes. Lentils should be soft but not broken up/mushy. If you don't have a pressure cooker, lentils may be cooked the normal way. (If you don't have a pressure cooker, you're really missing out. -S.) Set these aside in the pot they cooked in.

2. In a frying pan, melt the butter and add the chopped onion and set it cooking till it is nicely clear and caramelised.

3. While onions are starting to cook, add a good dash of olive oil so it isn't too dry, and make a space in part of the pan and add your ginger paste and garlic paste - let it cook for a couple of minutes.

4. Toss cumin, chilli powder, garam masala, and crushed-up fenugreek leaves on top of the cooking garlic/ginger mix. Add your chipotle pepper (if you're using it) at this stage, too. Let the spices temper for a few minutes, stirring as needed.

5. By this time the onions should be cooked. Add flour and sugar and salt and mix entire contents of pan together in the butter for a couple more minutes.

6. Pour in the can of diced tomato and mix in with onion/spice mix well. Let it stew away in the pan for another few minutes.

7. Bring the lentils pot back to the heat and pour entire contents of frying pan into the lentil mix. Also add your beans and milk.

8. Mix it all together well and simmer for 15-20 minutes if you're in a hurry - an hour is better. Add extra salt if you need it.

Serve with basmati rice.

The result, I promise, is heavenly enough to be served year-round.

Bonus photo! Here's a pic that Mike took of the lentils, rice, some samosas from the local Indian grocer (frozen but surprisingly good), and a delicious variation of paneer butter masala that Mike fiddled around with today:


What? You want that recipe, too? (Yes, you do.)

Okay, word-for-wordish from Mike's Facebook status update (see, he loves to share):

Paneer Butter Masala

2-4 tablespoons butter
2 tsp of garlic paste
2 tsp of ginger paste
2 tsp (1 if you'd like it milder) chilli powder
1 tsp turmeric
1 large onion
1 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
2 cups of tomato puree (puree canned or fresh tomatoes)
150ml of milk
1 tablespoon of sugar
a big (tablespoon-sized) pinch of Fenugreek leaves
a handful of roasted cashews (I went with honey roasted)
half a kilo or so of paneer (that's fresh cheese to any as-yet-uninitiated Indian fans -S.)

1.Puree your onion into a thick paste.

2. Melt a good slab of butter (2-4 tablespoons) in your pan

3. Add the onion puree and the ginger and garlic pastes. Mix together.

4. Add chilli powder, salt to taste, and turmeric. Mix up into a thick, reddish paste and let it cook (stirring regularly so it doesn't burn) for 5-8 minutes.

5. Add cumin and coriander and mix into the paste.

6. Add the tomato puree and mix it all together well.

7. Crumble up the fenugreek into the mix and add the sugar - mix up well.

8. Gradually add the milk, stirring in.

9. Add the paneer - the exact amount is up to you. I like a lot of gravy so I don't want it to dominate. You can always add more later if you have leftover gravy.

10. Process the cashews into a paste (it might be a bit chunky). Toss it into the mix and stir it all in, bring it back to boil and let it bubble (while stirring) for a few minutes and then you're done.

On the summer side of things, the possibilities were more obvious.

Sicilian Olive Bucket

Sicilian olives? (Where has this velvety tang been all my life?)

Mike Works His Chil(l)is

Mike examining his chil(l)i's flowers? Nothing says summer like working the farm. I think? Farmville didn't really prepare me to lecture on agriculture.

Our Strays

A break from food to consider which of our local strays best symbolically represents summer or winter?

(AKA shameless insertion of animal photos.)

Patio Prize

Nah, it has to be this flavoursome/flavorful (depending on which member of the household you ask) Patio Prize tomato. To be honest, I think Patio Prizes taste a little better than our heirloom Tigerellas, but then the Tigerellas are so small, it's hard to say.

I probably won't post today's challenge until tomorrow (or later, or much later), so I'll sign off to wish you - whoever you are, wherever you are - a very happy Australia Day. I don't know if that's a thing people do here, but now I'm here, and I say that's what we're going to do: Eat spicy lentils and fresh tomatoes and express well wishes. And play games and watch movies, for this time next week, it will be the night before the first day of school. (And I suspect the chef be bracing and revving with far less wholesome fare.)

26 January 2014 |