NY Times - Dining In
March 2, 2005
AT MY TABLE | NIGELLA LAWSON
Colorful and Cheery, Food to Light a Gray Day
By NIGELLA LAWSON
IN the 1950's, not the most hallowed era in the kitchen, cookbooks often advised readers to add dashes of color to their cooking "for interest." I've often been wary of such advice, not least because too much attention to the decoration of food - the insistence on a garnish, for instance - seems to wander into what my maternal grandfather called the school of "landscape cookery."
But it would be silly to deny the importance of all but the taste of food. Looks matter, whether you think they should or not. Chefs, food lovers and advertisers have always known that you need to be beckoned to bite.
What I have come to understand is that how food looks as you prepare it can make as much difference to the cook as it does, on the plate, to the person who gets to eat it. When the skies are drab and life feels a little gray, I am absurdly cheered by the fresh brightness of a vibrantly orange dal, a red lentil stew spiced with turmeric, chili and ginger, and colored with sweet potatoes and tomatoes. Just seeing that mixture in the pan lifts my spirits.
It helps that a dal is simple to make: a bit of chopping and the stew all but cooks itself. And it can be made in advance and then reheated, always a bonus.
This dal makes a wonderful,
There is something so uplifting about a plate of this golden rice with a soft mound of orange dal at its center. If I can get some cracked coconut, I shave a little with a vegetable peeler, dropping those brown-edged white ribbons on the plate. And I love to add a cool, gorgeously green-flecked raita - a bowl of [soy] yogurt into which I've stirred some scallion, diced cucumber and freshly chopped cilantro - as a contrasting accompaniment.
When the season permits, you can change this dish into a jewel-studded pomegranate raita: simply substitute pomegranate seeds for the cucumber and cilantro. In either case remember to add a good pinch of salt to the yogurt.
And should you prefer to have a dairy-free relish, make a small salad of diced cucumber, pomegranate seeds or diced papaya or mango, along with some finely chopped scallion. Sprinkle it all with salt, and spritz it with lime juice. I like to have some sort of cooling relish because this dal is best when warmly spiced, and the rice, too, has its own aromatic depth. In cooking, in eating and in life, balance is everything.
As you may know, food so gloriously hued is good for you. Those anti-oxidants nutritionists are so keen for us to ingest are richly present in brightly colored foodstuffs. But this is not food you need to eat just because you think you should. This is food you cannot stop eating because it tastes so good.
Recipe: Red Lentil Dal
Time: 45 minutes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup finely chopped onion
2½ cups (10 ounces, about 1 medium) finely diced sweet potato
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 Thai or bird's-eye red chili
1 cup red lentils
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup canned chopped tomatoes
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Pieces of coconut flesh from a fresh coconut (optional).
1. In a large saucepan over medium-low heat, heat oil, and sauté onion until softened. Add sweet potato, and sauté for about 5 minutes. Add minced ginger and garlic; stir, and reduce heat to low.
2. Finely dice chili, keeping seeds if you wish to add more heat. Add chili, lentils, coriander, cumin, turmeric and ground ginger to pan. Stir until lentils are well coated with oil. Add tomatoes and 4 cups water. Raise heat to bring to a boil, then reduce heat until mixture is at a fast simmer. Cook uncovered until lentils and potatoes are soft, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes.
3. Season to taste with salt, and continue to simmer until mixture has thickened, about 10 minutes. Whisk dal to amalgamate lentils and sweet potatoes. If dal is too soupy, increase heat and cook for a little longer.
4. To serve, place dal in a serving bowl and sprinkle with chopped cilantro. If desired, shave thin strips of fresh coconut on top. Serve hot.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
Recipe: Bright Rice
Time: 30 minutes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ cup finely chopped onion
1 cup diced orange bell pepper
1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1¼ cups basmati rice
2½ cups vegetable broth
1 14-ounce can chickpeas, drained
Salt to taste.
1. In a large saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and bell pepper, and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add mustard seeds, turmeric, cloves and cinnamon, and sauté for 1 minute. Add rice and mix until well coated with oil.
2. Add vegetable broth and chickpeas. Stir briefly, and allow to return to a boil. Cover, and cook on lowest possible heat for 20 minutes. If rice has not absorbed all the liquid by then, cover pan with a clean dish towel and place lid over it. Allow to sit off the heat for 5 to 10 minutes. (This method may be used for keeping the rice warm and moist for up to half an hour.)
3. To serve, fluff rice with a fork, and add salt to taste.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings.
Recipe: Cucumber and Cilantro Raita
Time: 5 minutes
1 cup plain yogurt (substitute plain Silk soy yogurt)
Scant ½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons finely chopped scallion
½ cup finely diced peeled cucumber
¼ cup chopped cilantro.
In a medium bowl, combine yogurt and salt. Mix well. Add scallion, cucumber and cilantro. Mix again, and transfer to a small serving bowl.
Yield: 1¼ cups.