The cabinet over my sink is overflowing with spices, literally. They routinely tumble onto my head when I least expect it, a painful reminder that too many spices are gathering dust and losing flavor. I may be well stocked, but I am a creature of habit, and don’t experiment nearly enough with the coarse balsamic salt or crystallized ginger that I bought impulsively while shopping hungry. Getting adventurous with spices is the easiest and most dramatic way to get your cooking re-energized, but throwing in a new spice to possibly ruin dinner can be a little scary, especially when you’re in a hurry.
Some of my favorite dishes are the results of taking a walk on the wild side with spices. Our lime cumin skirt steak was a huge hit at our barbecue parties last summer. And this winter, my slow cooked sweet and spicy brisket redefined comfort food and brought great heat to our kitchen.
Taking exotic cooking classes is a great way to discover new spices in a more risk free manner. Last night, I stood in Mary Anne Mohanraj‘s kitchen along with ten other people (including Emily from West of the Loop), learning about Sri Lankan cuisine. Mary Ann’s shelf is a cook’s color palette, beautiful bright jars of turmeric, mustard seeds, garam masala, and long sticks of cinnamon. She let us loose in her kitchen, inviting us to breathe in the spices before throwing in generous pinches in the steaming pots at the stove. It was an intoxicating three hours, a deluge of colors, spices, and flavors.
My favorite dish of the night was the Coconut Lentils, excerpted from Charmaine Solomon’s Complete Asian Cookbook. I could happily eat this dish all week for lunch or as a bright and beautiful side to chicken or pork.
Mary Anne told me she will probably do another cooking class this spring. If you’re in the Chicago area, take a look at her website or email her for info. But these types of experiences are available where you least expect it. Keep your eyes out for demonstrations and cooking classes to immerse yourself in the smells and tastes of other cultures. You’ll come home with a belly full of new tastes, empowered to experiment with new spices in your weeknight dishes.
- 2 Cups of Red Lentils
- 2 Cups of Coconut Milk
- 1 Cup of Water (poured into the coconut milk can to make sure you get every last drop of yumminess)
- 1 dried red chili, broken into pieces (substitute 2 teaspoons of cayenne or my favorite Ancho Chili powder to bring down the heat a bit in an inauthentic way)
- 1 teaspoon of ground turmeric
- 1 Tablespoon of Ghee or vegetable oil
- 6 curry leaves (substitute 2 tablespoons of curry powder if you don't have curry leaves)
- 2 medium onions, finely sliced
- 2 inch stick of cinnamon
- 1 strip of lemon rind, or one stalk of lemongrass
- salt to taste
- optional: 2 teaspoons of pounded Maldive Fish
- Wash lentils until water is clean. Remove and throw away any lentils that float to the surface or any off color ones.
- Put cleaned lentils in a medium saucepan.
- Add coconut milk, chili, turmeric, and add water to cover the lentils.
- Bring to a boil, cover, and cook slowly until lentils are soft, adding more water if the level gets too low.
- In a separate saucepan, heat the ghee and fry the curry leaves, onions, cinnamon, and lemon rind (or lemon grass) until the onions are glistening and soft. Set half the onions aside to use as garnish.
- Add the lentils to the remaining onions in the pan. Toss. Salt to taste and simmer uncovered until the lentils are very soft and the consistency of liquidy oatmeal.