Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Festering Questions

It's freezing outside, and you want nothing more than to snuggle up with a steaming bowl of this soup, crusty bread to soak it all up, and your favorite TV show. Instead you are stuck reading through my blog to get to the damn recipe! Sheesh. Sorry dear readers, but bear with me. Girl's got something to say first.

I just watched a Tony Bourdain special re-run, called 'At The Table', where some interesting questions were being addressed. But I have to admit, not all of them were answered. Probably because everyone kept getting distracted by the gorgeous food (and wine, definitely blame the wine) Chef Wylie Dufresne was constantly plying them with. So I thought I'd be a virtual guest of Tony's and take on some of those questions.

About fast food joints, my take is that YES, they do have a place in our culinary world. Fast food is essentially food of convenience, and that is it. What's happened over the years is that the concept of 'convenience' has changed for many families. Busy moms and dads feel they don't have much choice other than stopping over for a family-size bucket of fried chicken on their way home from work. I get it, if I put myself in their shoes. To think of what to make for their family, something different everyday, that is interesting and nutritious, and can be made in a relatively short amount of time ... every single day ... that's hard! These days I'm a stay-at-home mom, and there are days when even my cooking mojo shuts down completely and I reach for the frozen pizza. But that's not the norm. And I believe that's how we should start viewing fast food - emergency food, last resort, back-up to my back-up. I'm of the opinion that fast food chains shouldn't be inside any city or town. The only place we should see them is along lonely stretches of highway, because those are the only circumstances when I enjoy eating a Big Mac or Whopper, and noisily sucking on a fake strawberry milkshake. Instead, there should be more places like Panera Bread in our cities, which is a much better option for busy parents and their hungry brood.

And just a bit of planning can resolve any issues concerning the "what the heck do I cook tonight?!" scenarios. There are lots of shows on TV that teach you how to cook for the entire week in one day. Personally that's not my current ideal, but I know it works for a lot of people. I also think people should try cooking different types of food, especially the kind that can last more than a day or two. I love Pakistani/Indian food for that very reason. I make two saalan (curries), one meat and one veg, and can easily have it two days in a row - with roti one day, rice the next. The third day you can either cook up something fresh or polish off the leftovers by making sandwiches out of them, or make a fantastic omelette out of them! That's also a great way of saving on food costs. The variety of food is amazing in my cuisine. I'm not bound by beef steaks and chicken breasts. I cook with goat, lamb and veal and every part of the chicken. 1 pound of ground beef can last for three separate meals for myself and the hubbs. And we're big eaters (by "we" I mean DH). I can make at least 10 different types of rice dishes, which are complete meals in themselves. I continuously incorporate hearty green veggies like spinach and broccoli and green beans and okra into my weekly menu. Some variety of daal (lentils) gets consumed at least once a week. And I keep it exciting by mixing up the spices and techniques I use. And guess what, you don't have to stick to one cuisine! You're only doing your palette a disservice. Mix it up by cooking pasta or risotto once a week. Learn one amazing dish from each major cuisine (Latino, French, Greek, Asian, American etc.) then add that to your weekly menu. Finally, bring in your friends. Get together with friends over a pot-luck dinner once in a while if you can.

Eat out! For goodness sakes, if you can afford, I highly recommend eating out once a week - just because it is a social activity, as much as a culinary necessity! Do it for the right reasons, and you'll enjoy it a lot more. Eating out should be a pleasurable, exciting activity. Try new places. Try new foods on the menu. Drive just a wee bit further to get to a restaurant once in a while. Stay a wee bit longer if you can. Talk about the food you're eating. Laugh. Make it memorable. Make it an activity, not a chore.

The next time your kids are whining in the back seat about being hungry, don't stop at the drive-thru. Imagine the beautiful memories they'll have of growing up in a home where mom or dad would quickly whip together basil pesto (store bought works!)-tomato-mozarella grilled paninis for lunch?!

*phew* There. I think I managed to get that successfully off my chest. End of rant.

Back to regular raving. About food of course. Look, look what I have for you today!
French Lentil & Orzo Soup (courtesy of the charming Chef Suvir Saran, from his book American Masala)
Serves 6-8

12 cups water
6 tbsp oil
2 tsp cumin seeds
3 dried red chillies
1/4 tsp ground peppercorns
1 large red onion, sliced
Salt to taste
2 cups French lentils
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 cup orzo pasta
Chopped fresh cilantro
Thick Greek yogurt
Lemon wedges
Toasted bread slices

1. Heat up your oil in a large pot, and brown the cumin seeds till they are dark, 2-3 mins.

2. Add the dried chillies and ground peppercorns and cook for 20 secs.

3. Add the onion and the salt, and cook till deeply caramelized, stirring often. Splash with a bit of water to keep the onions from sticking to the bottom of the pot. The more color you give your onions, the better the soup will taste and look.

4. Stir in the turmeric and the lentils. Pour in 2 cups of water and cook for 5 mins.

5. Add 10 more cups of water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover, and cook for 20 mins.

6. Stir in the orzo and bring soup back up to a boil. Cook uncovered for another 10 mins till orzo is ready, then turn off the heat. Let the soup stand for 30 mins - 2 hours so that it thickens. Taste for seasoning! Warm it up again before serving with fresh cilantro, a dollop of yogurt or sour cream, and lemon wedges. And DON'T forget the crusty bread!

Verdict: You have no idea how much I want this right now. Toast some well-buttered bread on your griddle. This soup deserves that. The mix of those tastes and textures is so comforting! The add-ons, like the cilantro, yogurt, and lemon, brighten up the flavors and make them sing. Just warms the cockles of your heart (which are where exactly?!). Like many soups, this one tastes better the next day, and the day after that.

See what I mean about making food that's really kind to your wallet and lasts a good long time? 'Nuff said. Dig in.