Monday, October 26, 2015

Red Lentils

The 2015 cookbook season swings into gear! Just out: This is Camino by Russell Moore and Allison Hopelain with Chris Colin. What a fantastic cookbook! After cooking for 21 years at Berkeley’s legendary Chez Panisse, Moore opened Camino in 2008 with his wife Allison in Oakland, California. Camino turns out delicious, exciting food from a magnificent 10-foot wide limestone fireplace equipped with a brasero and various grills and warming stones. Because Moore cooks exclusively with wood fires, I wondered how he would craft a cookbook for a general audience. This is Camino certainly includes a number of grilled dishes and a whole chapter that walks the reader through the process of cooking an entire meal over an outdoor fire. The cookbook, however, focuses more on Camino’s food philosophy rather than fire cooking.

Hopelain beautifully sums this up in her Introduction: “After a little more thought, it seemed clear that the essence of our cooking isn’t ultimately the fire. The fire’s simply a (huge, roaring) means to an end. At its heart, Camino is about an approach to food, one that can happen anywhere. Neither Russ nor I are grandmothers, but fundamentally ours is grandmotherly cooking. Specifically, a frugal grandmother who grew up in the Depression, had plenty of style, kept a sweet vegetable garden, and could shake a good cocktail.” Nice.

Any number of recipes in This is Camino’s exemplify the restaurant’s carefully sourced, straightforward fare: Tomato Salad with Yogurt and Herb Jam; Matsutake Mushroom and Fresh Flageolet Bean Ragoût with Oysters and Wild Nettles; Grilled Squid with Fresh Turmeric, Chiles and Radishes; Grilled Lamb Rack with Fresh Shell Beans, Tomatillos and Mint; Pork Shoulder Cooked with Milk, Lemon and Myrtle with Turnips; Tunisian Orange Cake with Dates and Yogurt; Amaro Cocktail; Nocino; and the Camino Negroni.

This is Camino also includes a number of Camino’s quintessential recipes that are dead simple to make: Egg Baked in Cream; Potatoes Fried in Duck Fat; and, one of my all-time favorites, Red Lentils. Although I’m not a vegetarian, I often opt for meatless dishes when dining at Camino because…the food sounds so tempting and ultimately tastes so delicious! I’m most happy when the menu includes a plate of Moore’s lentils, roasted mushrooms and an egg or two. Here’s Camino’s Red Lentil recipe, which makes about 5½ cups.

1 to 2 dried moderately hot chiles
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon brown mustard seeds
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 (1/8-inch-thick) slices unpeeled ginger
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
2½ cups red lentils (see note below)

Tear the chiles into manageable pieces, discarding the stems, and place them in a spice grinder. Pulse a few times to create a coarse powder.

Heat a pot over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and all of the mustard seeds. Swirl them around and cover the pot. In a few minutes, you should start hearing them begin to pop (kind of like Lilliputian popcorn). Once the popping begins to slow, take the pan off the heat and remove the lid. Here’s the tricky part: while everything is still hot, quickly add the garlic, ginger, and turmeric and stir immediately. You want the garlic and ginger to be coated in oil and you want the turmeric to sizzle a bit, but you don’t want any of it to get brown. I really don’t like burnt garlic and I especially don’t like burnt turmeric. So, after everything sizzles in the hot pan for 15 seconds or so, splash some water in there to stop the cooking.

Now add the lentils, some ground chile, a bit of salt, the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil (so you have both cooked mustard-y oil and uncooked fruity oil), and enough water to cover by about half an inch. Turn the heat up and bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer, and stir to break up the clumps of lentils. Continue to cook, adding splashes of water here and there if the lentils start to get too thick and poke out of the liquid. But don’t add so much water that the lentils get watery and soup-like—you can always add water later, but you can’t easily take it out.

After 15 minutes or so, the lentils should begin to fall apart. This usually happens unevenly, so keep stirring and tasting for doneness (and, of course, for salt, since you are tasting anyway). It’s nice if there is a little texture left in the lentils, but there should be absolutely no raw flavor or crunch. It will look like a lumpy, bright yellow purée. The whole thing should take about 30 to 40 minutes.

To serve, you may want to add a little more ground chile or olive oil. Red lentils can be made ahead, refrigerated, and reheated easily over medium heat with a splash of water.

What a well-written, informative recipe! It’s like Moore is standing with you stove-side and carefully walking you through the cooking process. If you like this approach to recipes, then you’ll love This is Camino.

A few notes. As Moore points out in his intro to this recipe, use peeled red lentils (sometimes packaged as masoor dal, pink lentils or split red lentils). The first few times I made this dish I didn’t have any whole dried chiles on hand, but I did have a jar of Maras Turkish Chile from Oaktown Spice, which is located in Oakland, California. (Good news: you can order from this great spice shop on-line and their shipping doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.) The Maras chile married beautifully with the lentils providing a warm, spicy flavor.  I used black instead of brown mustard seeds and the dish tasted delicious.

When I lived in California I was fortunate enough to eat at Camino five to six times every year. It’s an outstanding restaurant and This is Camino is a fabulous cookbook. When I visit family and friends in the Bay Area, I make it a point to eat at a couple of restaurants: Palmento a Dopo (née Dopo) and Camino. Now I can get my Camino fix here on my island in the Salish Sea.