Darn that polar express that rips through the northern half of this country during these months. A high temperature of 10-degrees Fahrenheit leaves nothing on my doorstep that is fresh, green and vibrant. And, while I can go and find fresh herbs locally that have been shipped from lands south and west of the Mason/Dixon Line they offer precious little in the way of flavor. So, in order to get my fix of aromatic pleasure I tend to play heavily with spices during the winter. Yes, I have a couple different pestos squirreled away in my freezer that I have been dipping into that I try to parcel out over the depressing winter – they are in part anti-depressants so full of summer for me.
I keep at any given time a dozen or so different spices. It is my tendency to buy them whole, and grind to order so as to get the maximum fragrance into my dish. To that end, I would advise to store spices in a cool, dark place, like the freezer, and that way their potency will last years. Buy a spice or two that pushes the culinary envelope – right now I am a bit obsessed with black cardamom (the north Indian relative to its more floral scented, celadon hued cousin), smoked paprika (both Spanish and Cuban), and turmeric (it is believed to be a highly prized medicinal spice). Like the alchemist of yore I fiddle in my kitchen laboratory in search of a golden combination.
Spiced Red Lentils and Vegetables – serves 6 to 8
1 cup red lentils – soaked in water for 2 hours
1 tablespoon grated ginger
3 garlic cloves – finely minced
1 tablespoon powdered tamarind
2 teaspoons powder turmeric
3 whole black cardamom
1-teaspoon coriander seed
1/4-teaspoon whole black pepper
1 to 2 dried red Thai chilies
1 cup chopped canned tomato
1 onion – roughly chopped
3 celery ribs – cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1 medium carrot – cut into 1/4-inch pieces
3/4-pound fresh or frozen cut pumpkin
1 chayote squash – cut into 1/4-inch pieces
Drain the lentils.
Grind all the spices.
In a three-quart saucepan melt the butter over a medium heat, and add the ginger. Cook the ginger for a few minutes – you will smell the aromatic release. Then add in the garlic, and all the ground spices into the pot; cooking the mixture for a few minutes longer. Mix the tomato, onion, celery, carrot and soaked lentils. Sir in 4 cups of water, and bring everything to the boil. Reduce the heat to low, and simmer for one hour. After an hour add in the pumpkin and salt, and simmer for another hour.
Then add the chayote. Cook for another 15 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve with a garnish of orange if desired.