I forgot the onions!

My friend Sandra, organizer extraordinaire, once said to me that whenever she’s organizing a meeting she makes sure to put some food on the table for people to share. She said that food can play a powerful role in bringing people together (or something like that; it was a long time ago).

Whatever the exact words, her idea that the simple act of sharing food has a powerful impact stuck with me. For me, the best thing about cooking has always been the way sharing a meal helps people come together, have a good time, and feel the love.

I find cooking really relaxing and fun, one of the few ways I get to express some creativity (given that I’m the world’s worst singer and can’t draw at all). I love to come home on a Friday evening and cook a meal with my partner Judy and spend the evening with her. The meal doesn’t have to be fancy, just something that we prepare with care. We often make pasta with broccoli rabe or some other green cooked in a little olive oil with garlic and hot pepper. We open a bottle of wine and wind down from the week together.

And I do find it relaxing. Still, everyone in our family can recall at least a few moments when I go, “OH, NO!” – most likely when I’m trying to slide a pizza that I’ve spent a few hours preparing into the oven, and it sticks to the peel.

One such moment occurred on New Year’s Eve. We had some friends over for dinner as we usually do. A chance to catch up with each other and talk about the state of the world as we pass into a new year – in this case, the multitude of ways that the Obama administration hasn’t been much better than the Bush fiasco, and how heartened we are by Occupy Wall Street. Not all of us were that hopeful, but still…

I started cooking early and made a couple of pizzas (a la Jim Lahey) as appetizers, and two galettes from a recipe given to me by my daughter and great cook, Naomi. Everyone thought they were amazing. Very rich, though; I wouldn’t make them too often. I also made a Palestinian lentil and rice dish that’s always a favorite, and Judy made one of her great salads. We were halfway through the meal. I put out the rice; everybody liked it, but it didn’t feel like anything special. All of a sudden, Judy says, “John, you forgot to put the onions on the rice!”

The thing is, the onions are what make the dish special. It’s a very simple recipe. Lentils and rice, a little cumin. But you caramelize a couple of big onions and sprinkle them on top and, lo and behold, the dish is amazing.

I had spent about a half hour sautéing the onions that afternoon. When they were a beautiful brown color, I took them out of the pan and put them on a plate between layers of paper towels to remove some of the oil, and there they sat.  I totally forgot to add them in when I put out the rice. I was bummed out. But, of course, no one else cared. We were all having too nice a time to worry about that. We finished the meal and walked up to the park to watch the fireworks.

That's the galette in the foreground and the Palestinian Rice and Lentils (desperately needing onions) in the rear

Here’s the recipe, with only slight modifications, from World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey…try it. I think you’ll like it. Just don’t forget the onions!

½ cup of lentils, picked over and washed
2 cups basmati rice, washed and drained
¼ cup of olive oil
2 large onions, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
Freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons salt

Soak the lentils for 3-4 hours. Drain.

Soak the rice in cold water for 30 minutes. Then drain.

While the rice is soaking, caramelize the onions. This takes a while. Heat the oil in a large pan and add the onions. Cook them over medium high heat at first and gradually turn down the heat as they get soft. When they turn brown, remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula, and spread them out on a paper towel to absorb the oil.

Turn the heat back to medium and add the drained lentils and rice to the remaining oil. Add the cumin, black pepper and salt. Sauté, stirring gently, for several minutes, so the rice gets coated with the onion flavored oil. Add 3 ½ cups of water and bring to a boil. Cover tightly, turn the heat down low, and cook for about 25 minutes. There’s some variability to the cooking time and the amount of water you need because of the lentils, so I make sure to check the rice at about 20 minutes and add some water if I need to.

Turn the lentils out into a serving platter, fluff them up, and sprinkle with the caramelized onions.

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Cabbie Cuisine

Over the past few months, I have taken to asking my cab drivers about their cooking. I have found it to be a foolproof way of comfortably tapping into a stranger’s personal history and passions.

At 5 am after the legendary blizzard in December, my sisters and I were riding in the only car service we could get to take us to LaGuardia to catch one of the only flights departing that morning so we could make it home to surprise our mother for her 60th birthday.  Amidst the drama of the snow and the darkness and the sleep deprivation, the driver and I fell into a conversation about kefir. I had recently abandoned my experiment producing my own kefir inspired by an article in Edible East End about the innumerable health benefits of this strange and ancient fermented yogurt drink.  As we drove up to the terminal he hurried to give me all of the details of his mother’s recipe for Armenian kefir soup. As intriguing as it was, all I can remember is cooking it with a whole onion in the pot…an idea that I love and want to try in some kind of soup for sure–imagine how tender and flavorful that onion would be once removed from the broth! But here’s a recipe for kefir soup appropriate for this season.

Uzbek Cold Kefir Soup

Months later, while heading to Detroit to help develop the curriculum for the Detroit Future Media Workshops, Tony (my cab driver) was suffering from allergies. I asked him about what remedies he uses and he explained that the most effective one he’s tried is some concoction devised of coconut milk and oak.  When he told me he sneezes more when he eats dairy, I shared with him the little bit I’ve learned about lactose intolerance.  I explained how as mammals, we are born with enzymes needed to break down our mother’s milk and that when we grow to be around 4 or 5 years old, most people’s bodies stop producing this enzyme given that most children should be weaned off their mother’s milk by this time.  There are a few communities in the world that have co-evolved with their herd animals (goats or cows) whose digestive systems have continued to produce the enzymes needed to break down lactose. However, most of the rest of the people in the world do not continue to produce these enzymes.  There’s a really helpful breakdown of this in Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

Tony’s charming and earnest response to my mini-lecture was, “What else do you know?” I laughed and told him that I don’t know much–that I just love food. He immediately became very animated and told me that he loves cooking.

Reflecting back on the conversation, I am struck by the questions he asked me–what spices do you use? What’s your favorite tomato sauce? How do you do your rice? How do you do your meat? He was excited to share his techniques and really curious about mine. I was tickled in particular by his questions about my preferred spices–I like the idea of that as a way of getting to know someone (“Hello, my name is Ora and I like paprika and ginger”).

After telling him that I refuse to buy prepared pasta sauce and explaining how I make it myself, I insisted on him sharing his rice cooking techniques.

This is how he broke it down with me very deliberately and passionately (my reflections in italics):

“First I wash the rice and get all the impurities off. Then I soak it again but not too much because you don’t want the rice to lose its strength. Then I get a pot really hot on the stove and I mash up garlic and adobo seasoning, add it to the pot with some oil–enough to cover the bottom of the pot. I add the rice and turn it so that it is coated and then add water that just covers the rice. I turn the rice a few times, taste the water and add salt when needed.”

(Here’s where things get complicated) “After the rice gets dried out (I’m not sure what that means) I put a plastic bag over the pot and then put the lid on. This is how it stays flavorful, firm, and separate. Not how you guys do it where it gets too mushy and wet and flavorless.” (I was confused about who he meant by “you guys”…white people? Italians? I had talked about my mother’s cuisine being from Italy…either way, it is true that I personally do not feel satisfied with my rice-making technique and it is often too mushy!)    

When I asked him about the plastic bag melting, he said it melts but it doesn’t get on the rice and that’s how he makes the rice stay strong and separate. I feel like I would need him to demo this for me before I tried this at home.  But I definitely feel like he’s provided me with some ideas for how to step up my rice cooking game.

So now I’ll put Tony’s question to all of you: How do you do your rice?