Curried Lentils and Cod Cakes
Before we embark on today's journey of discovery into the little-known lands of fabulous side dishes and the entirely edible proteins they accompany, readers, I must divest myself of an explanation wrapped around a confession perched atop some irrelevant personal information. (People who suggest that I hide sentences containing unpleasant information behind sentences that no human being can parse are misguided, despite all the compelling evidence to the contrary.) After one of my recent periods of infrequent posting, one of my readers commented that he feared I had given up cooking because my doctor had ordered me to lose five hundred pounds. This conjecture, sadly, is untrue only in the particulars. My doctor has, in fact, directed me to lose a significant amount of weight, and, as a result, I have joined Weight Watchers. (I am tempted to say that I really do have to lose 500 lbs. -- even though doing so would violate the laws of physics in a real and impressive way -- just because I so love round numbers.)
While I understand the impulse behind personal diet blogs, I rather detest reading them, so rest assured that you will NOT be seeing entries along the lines of the following:
Tuesday, December 7, 2009. Days on diet: 4,623. Weight: 1,600 lbs. Weight lost today: 0.25 lbs. Cumulative weight lost: 0.50 lbs. Weight to lose: 499.5 lbs. Down another quarter pound today! Really starting to feel like I'm making progress. Tough morning, but at lunch I stopped after the fifth piece of fried chicken! V. tried to get me not to eat the sixth piece of chocolate cake after dinner, but, come on, it's Pearl Harbor Day. Our brave men didn't die in the Pacific for me to skip dessert.
I don't really want to get into a lot of detail about the diet, but I'll summarize a few points here so I'm not tempted to mention them later. Weight Watchers (hereinafter "WW") is a good plan for me because it's a sensible food plan, and there's excellent peer support. And let's just pretend that I said that last phrase without irony, and that "peer support" doesn't mean wading hip deep into a swamp of estrogen at WW meetings. Seriously, the people at a WW meeting are very nice, but what you really get from going there is one part feeling like you're on a (not necessarily safe) National Geographic expedition and two parts an intense desire to lose weight so that you can go hang out with men again.
Anyway. WW gives you a choice of two plans. One plan involves keeping careful track of everything you eat. As if. The other plan gives you a list of safe foods, allows you to eat as much of these safe foods as you wants, and allows you to eat a much smaller amount of foods that are not on the safe list. When I heard these options, I immediately knew that I wanted the second plan. For years, I've watched in envy on cooking competitions where the contestants were given a basket of ingredients and told to make a meal from those ingredients. The WW core plan is almost exactly the same thing. It's the perfect plan for the serious cook who wants to lose 500 (or whatever) pounds.
The real culinary benefit to being on a diet, however, is that I now have a good reason to prepare my own meals. For the last nearly three years, V. has, as a matter of course, prepared dinner. This situation has been terrifically convenient for me, but it does rather limit the amount of time that I spend cooking. And because I cannot bear to eat the same thing over and over for dinner (lunch is an entirely different matter, and so is snacking: it would appear that my tolerance and appetite for grilled pineapple are limitless), I'm forced to innovate.
Anyway, enough of that. This past weekend, I was in DC with a group of friends to catch one of the movies at the local gay film festival. The film was at nine, so we naturally met at 6:30 to argue about where we were going to eat. We ended up at Local Sixteen, on U Street, a few blocks from the theater. I hadn't brought much of a lunch that day, so I was very hungry by the time we finished deciding where to eat; walking to the restaurant; explaining to the host that while we were presently four, we would likely be six or seven by the time we were done; finding a suitable table; and arranging ourselves at the table so that one of the late arrivals would be forced to sit at the opposite end of the table from his new boyfriend whom we hadn't yet met. Local Sixteen is, it turns out, an okay place to eat, and it was certainly a big improvement over where we'd eaten before the movie a year ago. It's a sort of mixed American restaurant without a particularly opinionated menu, and it is moderately priced. As I was especially hungry, I decided to start with the asparagus soup and then finish with the king salmon with curried lentils. The soup was too acidic by about half, but I was pretty hungry, so it was okay. The salmon was acceptable but neither remarkably fresh nor remarkably well prepared.
But the curried lentils were divine. I was relatively certain that I tasted coconut milk, and a variety of spices, but I wanted to know more, so I asked the waiter to find out what he could for me. He reported back that they had curry and coconut milk. Well, at least he didn't lie, and I suppose that a printed recipe was rather too much to hope for.
2 t. olive oil
3.5 c. water
1/4 c. finely diced onions
1/4 t. ground turmeric
1/2 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. red pepper flakes
1/2 t. fennel seeds
1/2 t. coriander seeds
1/2 t. kosher salt
1 T. chopped cilantro
2 cups dried lentils
1/2 c. coconut milk
Additional salt and pepper to taste
Put a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the olive oil. Put the water in a large glass bowl or measure, and microwave it to a simmer. Add the onions to the olive oil, stir, cover, and cook for three minutes.
Add the spices, salt, and cilantro to the pan and stir for a minute. Add the lentils and stir to coat lightly with the oil and spices. Add the coconut milk and stir for another minute.
Add about 2.5 cups of the hot water and stir. Bring the pan to the boil, then reduce to a simmer, and cover. Simmer until the lentils are tender, about thirty-five or forty minutes, stirring every ten minutes or so, and adding more water as necessary. Correct seasoning.
I'll be the first to admit that these lentils are not quite as good as the ones I had at Local Sixteen. But they are very good indeed, in spite of my having pulled the spice mixture out of thin air. I have never understood curries as well as I might if I, you know, did a little research, but my mixture worked pretty well. I reckon that a bit of fenugreek is also called for, but I somehow didn't have any. The red pepper flakes and the coconut milk balanced each other very well. If you wanted to make this dish even better, you could add more coconut milk. A can of coconut milk is fourteen ounces, so you could use half a can instead of half a cup, and you'd have something silkier and even more delicious. You might have to add a bit more spice, but you might not.
Don't be afraid of using the whole spices here. You could certainly grind them if you felt like it, but even without grinding, they somehow manage to disappear during the cooking so that you're only eating lentils; you won't bite into a whole fennel or coriander seed.
My fish cakes, alas, were not as wonderful as the curried lentils. They were still good, but they were a tiny bit dry, and the flavor profile was not quite what I wanted, largely because I didn't have any horseradish on hand. I had not thought that it was physically possible for me to be out of horseradish without the universe imploding, but recent evidence suggests otherwise. Or maybe the horseradish is hiding, I don't know which. In any case, I'm going to record the recipe as I made it, just so I'll know, but if you decide to try this, I beg you to swap out the mustard for horseradish, to use two limes, and to add a tablespoon of toasted (but not too dark) sesame oil. That's what I'm going to do the next time. I will probably also try with another fish next time, which will necessitate a name change. The cakes are fine with Cod, but I'm going to use whatever similar fish comes in a big bag in the freezer this week at Costco.
1.5 lbs cod fillets
4 cups water
1/4 t. turmeric
1/4 t. celery seed
1/2 t. peppercorns
1 t. salt
1 pod green cardamom, crushed
1 potato, about 10 ounces
1 T. diced onion
1 t. mustard
1/2 t. salt
Ground pepper, to taste.
If your cod fillets are frozen, defrost them.
In a heavy saucepan or skillet, combine the water, onion, turmeric, celery seed, peppercorns, and salt. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for about five minutes. Add the cod fillets, bring the water back to the simmer, cover, and simmer for about eight minutes. Turn off the heat and let cool. Pull out the cod and refrigerate it. Strain the poaching liquid and reserve for another use.
Bake the potato in either the microwave or in a conventional oven. Let it cool enough to handle. Cut it in half and scoop out the inside with a spoon. Leave the flesh in a bowl to cool. Put the potato skin into the food processor along with the onion, cilantro, and the juice of the lime, and pulse until finely chopped. Break the cod into pieces and add it to the food processor along with the mustard, salt, and pepper. Pulse until somewhat mixed, then add the eggs and pulse again until thoroughly mixed.
Mash the potatoes, then add them to the food processor, and pulse until the potatoes are incorporated.
Put a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add a spritz of olive oil. Rinse your hands in cold water, and form the fish mixture into twelve patties. Put as many of them as will fill comfortably in the skillet. Fry 3.5 minutes on each side. Spritz with additional olive oil between batches.