We have been lucky enough to have a never-ending stream of visitors over the last month, which means that we’ve discovered a couple wonderful restaurants, and haven’t spent as much time in the kitchen. Among the highlights are Fig, a tiny fresh pasta and sandwiches restaurant right off the 101 in Atascadero (read: perfect for stopping for dinner on a drive to the bay area); Chocolate, where we ordered dessert consisting of a chocolate pot (fondue), hot chocolate (thick and delicious), and a “chocolate orgy” (sampler platter of chocolate desserts)… there were 10 of us; Olio Pizzeria, where we had the best pizza in town, ranging from carbonara to roasted vegetable; and finally Renaud’s Patisserie, where we occasionally spurge on the most delicious croissants I’ve ever eaten and we recently sat down for a delicious, cheesy Croque Monsieur
(“Béchamel sauce, Swiss cheese and choice of ham or sautéed mushrooms on homemade pain de mie”) as well as a couple desserts (we were sharing, I swear!). There have also been a couple memorable dinners with friends (photographs below), just in case you thought I’d given up on cooking completely. Unfortunately I forgot to bring my camera to the homemade pizza-fest, but as I “accidentally” bought too many tomatoes this morning at the farmer’s market, I see more pizza in our future.
In all the craziness of hosting friends and traveling, I returned to one of the first foods I ever learned to make (after scrambled eggs, pasta, and stir-fry). Dahl is like a thick, spiced version of lentil soup, and very easy to make. I no longer make it with a recipe, but the basic idea is to cook lentils in a spiced broth until they are very soft and the broth is mostly reduced. I change the spices I use every time, but usually include turmeric, coriander, and cumin. This time I used (clockwise from top in the above photograph) ground cloves, cayenne pepper, a biryani spice blend (allspice, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, ginger, rose powder), ground ginger, paprika, turmeric, and coriander. In place of brown lentils, I have used yellow split peas and red lentils, although the cooking times vary considerably based on how long it takes for the peas or lentils to break down.
My basic recipe is to saute a diced onion in about 1 tablespoon of olive oil until the onion is soft. Then I add the ground spices and mix them into the oil. The spices will burn very quickly if you don’t add more liquid, so I usually add 1-2 cups of lentils or split peas, stir to coat the lentils with the oil and spices, and immediately add a couple cups of water, vegetable broth, or chicken broth (I also add a couple bay leaves or dried curry leaves). I cook the lentils on a low flame until they are very soft and most of the water is either absorbed or evaporated. I keep my eye on it to see if it needs more water, and once the lentils are mostly cooked I add plenty of salt. To serve, ladle the dahl into soup bowls and squeeze in a little lemon juice and top with fresh herbs (such as fresh onions and chives) and perhaps some plain yogurt. It is important not to add the lemon juice before the dahl is done cooking, as the tartness will be substantially reduced. Tomatoes make a great addition to the cooking broth and spinach or swiss chard can be added right before the dahl is done (unlike the lentils, the greens are much better when not overcooked).
Here are a couple photographs from a recent dinner with friends. We baked a chicken with vegetables similar to last time, except I made a garlic and rosemary butter and rubbed it between the breast meat and the chicken skin, as well as all over the outside of the chicken. The white meat was deliciously tender and there wasn’t a bit of it left for lunch. We also made a roasted vegetable bake with zucchini, onions, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, basil, and cheese. We tried a locally made gouda cheese, but while delicious, it didn’t melt very well.