When my family lived in Japan in the early 70s, I was introduced to osembei, the roasted rice crackers glossy with soy sauce, which had the added satisfaction of being crunchy. Japan was also where I developed a liking for the one-two-three-punch pucker of the sweet, sour, and salty Li Hing Mui, a shriveled mauve-colored plum. I could nibble on the fleshy perimeter of the seed for hours, like a mutant albino squirrel working at a nut.
Considering my history, it should come as no surprise that my biggest sin in the kitchen is over-salting. The rule about tasting the dish before reaching for the salt was made for people eating at my table. I have learned over the years to steady my hand, to consciously hold back, but there is still the occasional mishap when I’m spacing out thinking about something else, not tasting enough as I go, where (gasp!) even I think it is too salty. I can easily get carried away on a soup, for instance, but fortunately by throwing in some kind of starchy vegetable, grain or pasta, perhaps, they can be easily saved. That said, the following soup I made was perfectly seasoned. (I know, big salty lead-in and then I kill it. Creative license, baby.)
This soup will fill your house with the scent of warm spices, and hearty soup. Enjoy!
1 1/2 cups French green lentils
(or brown, or even split yellow or red lentils if that’s what you have in your pantry—keeping in mind they’ll make a thicker, creamier texture and cook quicker)
6 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 1/2 tsp. turmeric
3 Tbsp. butter, vegetable or coconut oil
1 large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
A pinch of freshly-ground nutmeg
1 (14oz) can coconut milk
A few handfuls fresh spinach (or frozen, thawed and squeeze-dried), chard or kale, washed, tough stems discarded and cut into ribbons (optional)
salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
Rinse the lentils and pick out any *debris. Combine them in a pot with the stock and turmeric and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat slightly and simmer until the lentils are soft, about 20 minutes.
While the lentils are cooking, heat the butter or oil in a smallish skillet and sauté the onion over medium heat, stirring frequently, until browned and caramelized in places, about 12-15 minutes. Add the garlic and spices and fry just until deeply aromatic, about 30 seconds. Scrape the contents of the skillet into the pot with the lentils, and add the coconut milk and optional greens. Bring everything back to a gentle boil and cook another 10 minutes, or until the flavors have blended and the greens are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve hot, or keep warm until everybody gets in one place and you’re ready to eat.
As the picture shows, I served it with homemade pita bread, but that recipe is for another time.
*Every recipe I’ve ever read using lentils says to “rinse and pick out any small stones or debris found” which makes one wonder who fell down on the stone pickin’ job, and what possible other ‘debris’ there could be in there…