Sometimes, I start with a recipe. There are a lot of good recipes out there, you see. And no desire for newness or inclination towards creativity in the kitchen makes reinventing the wheel worthwhile (imho). There's also all that stuff from the first day of my Everyday Favorites series - that stuff about how trying to be really experimental seems at this point like a once-upon-a-time luxury whose sun set about the time my second child started eating solids. There are other people who actually have the time to be experimental with food and even get paid to do so - all for our benefit!
Here are my favorite places (cookbooks, this time) to find good recipes:
America's Test Kitchen Mega Tome - it's almost, almost full-proof. Good resource for how to do classics right. Sometimes things require a little more time than my typical Everyday Favorites slapdash approach, but always worth it.
The Art of Simple Food. Exactly what its title promises.
Around My French Table. Shockingly accessible. Uncompromisingly beautiful. Around Dorie Greenspan's French table, it's about skills and quality ingredients and good habits. All in the name of feeding the people you love and basking in the glow of their company. She makes you want to entertain.
The Breakfast Book. Old-fashioned pancakes-and-eggs perfection. It's the stuff bed-and-breakfast breakfasts are made of (and I say this only having had v. positive, albeit few, b&b experiences). This book has been a little neglected on account of our "strict avoidance" throughout the last two years, but as Beckett outgrows some of his food allergies and my husband and I grow a little more cavalier about what we allow him to try (don't worry, we're v. safe about it), I am hoping it will make a comeback.
In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite. Everyone calls this book welcoming, and that's exactly what it is. Melissa Clark (NY Times columnist and covert author of as many as half the cookbooks you own) is the kind of quirky you like in a best friend and the kind of bold you wish were yourself. I like her for all the reasons all the other bloggers like her, and also because I think she and I have strikingly similar palates.
These are all excellent cookbooks. The original recipe for the lentils came from that last one - which I'm going to go ahead and (channeling my inner Melissa Clark) boldly call my favorite cookbook of all time.
Melissa Clark's red lentil recipe is nearly perfect as written. She seasons hers with cumin and paprika, brightens them with a lot of lemon juice and chopped carrots, and includes enough liquid to call them soup. I made them as written several times and loved them (hence the several times). But I like my lentils thicker, less soupy. And as much as I love cumin, I like to mix it up with spices as often as I can (living three and a half blocks from a Penzey's will do this to you), so I messed around until I found my own bright, citrusy-curry assortment of spices. And of course I added a sweet potato and of course I tripled the fresh herbs and of course I threw in the zest of my lemon along with the juice. And of course I now make it this way all the time, because these red lentils are now, of course, perfect.
I make a pot of these early in the week and eat them for lunch for the next few days. They are good piping hot, straight from the pot. Or warm, slathered on toast. Or room temp, spread on a pita, with some fresh feta. Or over some brown rice or quinoa, topped with diced avocado and radishes and a drizzle of olive oil. They freeze well too, so if I'm tired of them after a couple days, I'll put what's left in an old yogurt container and freeze them until I crave them and/or have nothing to eat in my refrigerator.
Spiced Red Lentils with Sweet Potatoes
Makes ~4 cups
2 tablespoons olive oil or coconut oil
½ an onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, thinly sliced
½ cup other veggies you like, chopped (e.g. fennel, bell pepper, jalapeño if you want some heat)
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon tomato paste (optional, but nice)
1 teaspoon each: ground fenugreek seeds, ground galangal, ground coriander*
½ teaspoon each: salt and pepper
Zest and juice of 1 lime or lemon
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup water
1 cup red lentils
1 large sweet potato, scrubbed clean and cut into ½” dice
Large handful cilantro and/or mint (or, heck! the whole bunch!), finely chopped
* Could substitute either 2 teaspoons curry powder, or 1 teaspoon cumin + 1 teaspoon coriander + 1/2 teaspoon (smoked/hot/whatever you like) paprika
In a large pot, heat the oil over high heat. Add onions, carrot, celery, and other vegetables of choice, and cook for 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook 2 minutes. Add tomato paste, lime or lemon zest, salt, pepper, and spices of choice and sauté for 2 minutes longer.
Add broth, water and lentils. Bring to a simmer, then add sweet potatoes. Add a little more water if necessary – you want just enough to barely cover everything. Return to boil, then lower heat to medium-low, partially cover pot and simmer until lentils are soft, about 20-30 minutes. Give everything a good stir. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Remove from heat. Stir in lemon or lime juice and fresh herbs.