Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Alchemy of Lentils



Earlier today I was mulling over how to write a blog entry on the general topic of "surviving vs. thriving" in some way that wouldn't come off as too self-helpy and vague. And then I cooked lentils.

I was thinking about self-definition and how it can create or limit our (read "my") sense of the world. To be a survivor is good, even if it sucks that you had to survive something. It means you're strong and resourceful. (I had a whole riff going as I was making my way through the afternoon about being a social/emotional MacGyver.) But how, I wondered apropos of a situation I won't go into here now, does thinking of yourself as a survivor prevent you from *thriving* when you have the space and resources to do so? Maybe this is what a dear teacher of mine once called "the habit of poverty" when he admitted he didn't know how to use the bigger budget his program had been granted. We get so used to creatively making-do that we lose track of how much more we could do if only we were flush with support and real tools.

The dinner I cooked tonight complicates this question for me. We are sort of on austerity measures here in the T-H Collective right now (more on that perhaps some other time) so I didn't want to make an oh-yeah-that-thing-I-forgot-plus-6-other-things-and-a-spare-bottle-of-wine trips to the grocery store, not before payday anyway. But my cupboards look pretty bare. On first glance, there is tea and crackers and raisins and Nutella (Okay, so worse comes to worst, we can have a tea party. Fine.)

I rooted around and found some French lentils (little, fat, dark green lovely things) leftover in a baggie in the back of the cupboard, and I had a vegetable drawer harboring a third of a large, but slightly limp onion, 1 gnarled carrot, and some celery sticks leftover from someone's lunch last week. I also had one clove of garlic! And rice, I have rice on hand always. (I may run out of pasta, but I always have rice. At least we won't starve. I do think this way.)  And there were bits of extras -- an unfinished bag of sliced and seasoned "salad" almonds, 1 slice of ham, leftover tomato paste in a plastic tub in the fridge. Oh, and last week's "spare bottle of wine," along with some staples like vegetable broth base (The gloopy stuff in a jar that seems expensive compared to bouillon, but lasts forever and is infinitely better. Word to the wise.) and spices. Oh, and some orange peels also leftover from someone's lunch and then left on the counter in their lunch container rather than disposed of properly.

So without much ado, I was able to make Spanish-style lentils (from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian) -- I didn't have saffron, but I added some tumeric and cumin to the big dose of paprika (and I do have a tin of smoked paprika, so that's an advantage) and pretended like that would be similar. And I tossed in the orange peels and some tomato paste just because I could (and the do sound a little Spanish, right?). Then I made baked rice pilaf with a reserved bit of the limp onion and minced up ham and almonds. Finally, I did have some decent lettuce in the fridge, so David made a salad with vinaigrette while everything simmered and I read with the kids.

This meal was glorious. This is food to thrive on.

And this is peasant food (or "pleasant food," as O thought I said), the food of survivors. Yes, my pantry odds and ends may be a bit fancier or more plentiful than some. (I would argue though that modern convenience food lifestyles have impoverished our sense of the pantry ... then again, my first food guru, as a pre-teen probably, was the Frugal Gourmet ...) But really, very little went into this.

Lentils, which are cheap and humble, are also hugely nutritious, and very delicious. They transform surviving into thriving.

Reading: Onward with the Anshaw. Over time waxing poetic about lentils, so I still won't quote.

Writing: Limpingly

Dinner: Monday night pizza was Italian sausage, mushrooms, spinach and banana peppers -- with cheddar cheese because I forgot to buy mozzarella. Cheddar may have been better.

Soundtrack: As suggested by friends, I listened to the Gipsy Kings while preparing my Spanish-French lentils. I got lots of other suggestions too, which are duly noted and will be used in future food-music pairings.

Random thing: In the morning, the snow fell softly and slowly in great, puffy flakes. It did not look real. It looked like snow in an old timey movie.

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