Pulses (essentially edible legumes that are dried then cooked in water, like beans and split peas) are a little bit like the right kind of man. They may not seem very sexy or interesting at first glance. They are practical and good for you, but easy to overlook in favor of less “boring” choices. But they are reliable. Always there when you need them. They never disappoint, and if you take the time to get to know them they may, in fact, far exceed your expectations. You might find yourself coming back to them over and over again. You might even find that, once you have eyes to see it, they are more attractive than you could have imagined.
It took me a long time to appreciate beans. Being Orthodox, of course I had eaten them from time to time. But I always thought of them as something incidental, something you threw in or tacked on to a meal to add a little protein during a fast. It wasn’t until I started trying to fast again when my first child was a toddler (pregnant and nursing women are not required to fast) that I began to see pulses as food that one might eat on purpose, as the centerpiece of a satisfying meal. For some reason, it was much harder to resume fasting in my late twenties than it had been to start fasting in my early teens. Fortunately, a friend had given me Cynthia Lair’s lovely cookbook, Feeding The Whole Family, as a gift. The first time I followed her instructions for cooking dry beans from scratch, I was surprised to find that they actually tasted good. Since then I have made Indian dals redolent with spices, smoky pintos with Mexican rice, creamy, savory Georgian lobiani (literally bean bread), and so many more traditional and not-so traditional dishes that feature flavorful, fantastic pulses. But perhaps my favorite pulse of all is the humble lentil. It is cheap, quick and easy to cook, and incredibly nutritious, but that isn’t why I love it. I love lentils because they remind me to be grateful. They can be dressed up beautifully with spices, sauces, chutneys, or loads of caramelized onions, but they are essentially a staple food for poor people the world over. When I am tired of fasting and don’t particularly want any of the foods I am allowed to eat, it helps me to remember that what I consider fasting food is just a normal meal for many people in other parts of the world (and has been for a very long time, according to this book). They not only eat it, they prepare it with care, they enjoy it, and they are happy to have enough. I am not better than those millions of other people. I am not separate from the rest of humanity. Other people have loved and suffered, prayed and laughed, and been sustained by plain, simple foods shared in gratitude. I am happy to be reminded that I am one of them.
Simple Lenten Lentils
There are many lovely ways to make lentils more exciting, but this isn’t one of them. This is easy, simple food, appropriate for the first week of Lent. If you want to dress it up a bit you can always top it with chutney, any kind of sauce, or a sweet, spicy, vinegary relish.
1 cup dry lentils
1 1/2 cups rice
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 cinnamon stick *
1-2 tsp garam masala*
1 tsp salt
5 1/2 – 6 cups water (less water for fluffy, separate grains, more for thick and stew-like – use less water if you are using white rice)
*For a different flavor try a bay leaf + 1/2 tsp thyme or 1 tsp chili powder + 1/2 tsp smoked paprika in place of the cinnamon and garam masala.
1. Sort through lentils, removing any stones. Rinse lentils and rice two or three times with cool water.
2. Heat a 3-4 quart pot over medium heat. Add onions and salt. Cook until the onions begin to brown, stirring occasionally. You can add a little bit of water if they begin to stick. Add lentils, rice, and spices. Stir to combine thoroughly. Slowly poor in water, scraping any browned onion off the bottom of the pan. (For a one-pot meal you can also add 1-2 cups of diced vegetables, such as carrots or sweet potatoes).
3. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat until the mixture is gently simmering. Cover the pot and cook until all of the water is absorbed. Remove from heat. Allow to sit 5-10 minutes. Fluff with a fork, and serve.
If you are using oil you can add a little to your pot to prevent the onions from sticking. However, it is actually traditional in parts of India and and Africa to brown very finely chopped onions in a dry pan before adding oil. Your pan may need a bit more scrubbing, but it does work just fine.