Category Archives: Indian cookbooks

186 cookbooks – 7 days of lentils

This time I didn’t follow my usual pattern with this project to weed out cookbooks – one cookbook, one recipe. Hey, it’s my project; I get to make up the rules as I go along.

There I was, looking through Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries, when I realized that he was offering 7 different recipes for red lentils, and they all sounded easy and appealing.

All right, I decided. I’ll try them all. I’ve been testing lentil recipes for lunch almost every day since Wednesday a week ago. (And in the process, I discovered a way to make the cooking even quicker and simpler, though Mr. Iyer probably wouldn’t approve. He tells you to cook the lentils – it only takes a little over 20 minutes – while you prepare the seasoning mixture, and then combine them at the last minute. But it’s awkward to cook just one serving of lentils at a time. What I wound up doing was cooking enough for several days, refrigerating what I didn’t need for the recipe I was trying out that day, and then adding a serving worth of lentils to the seasonings each day and reheating them.)

All the seasoning mixtures are different, but the procedure is basically the same – chop or puree various vegetables and fry them in a little oil, adding different spices as the vegetables cook. Finally, add the lentils, and sometimes lime juice and cilantro at the end. Once you’ve cooked any of these recipes, the process for all of them will be simple and familiar.

But were they worth eating? Yes, almost all of them (and many people might like the one I didn’t care for). I didn’t like the red lentils with mint; but then, I don’t like mint very much in general. The lentils with bell pepper and the lentils with caramelized onions were good – so was the version I made of the lentils with gongura leaves (I can’t get gongura leaves, never saw any, and never heard of them before, so I followed Iyer’s advice to substitute spinach and lime juice); maybe with the correct greens it would be even better.

Then there were the lentils with chilis – hot but very good – and the lentils with ginger and garlic…mmm. And best of all, the lentils with tomatoes, lime juice, and scallions. The only word for them is “delicious”.

For those who care, all the lentil recipes are vegetarian – if you leave the optional butter out of the lentils with chilis, they’re all vegan. (Many of the recipes in this cookbook do include meat.) They’re cheap, too. I started this recipe test before reading about the Food Stamp Challenge, but these dishes have been a big help in staying under the $5/day ceiling.

It was amazing how different the seven dishes taste. They even look different. Several call for a little tomato, which turns the lentils an attractive pinkish color. The lentils with, well, spinach leaves not gongura leaves were very green from the spinach. Others were mostly the light yellow color of the cooked lentils with specks of other colors from the seasonings. And each of the seven could be cooked in less than half an hour.

By the way, I think I’ll keep this cookbook.

186 cookbooks – Well, the cover’s pretty

Both front and back. But I should have read the endorsements on the back of the cover more skeptically. “The food on Yamuna’s table looks great!” says Deborah Madison. Yes, she goes on to rave about the flavors and creativity. But I really ought to remember that when people praise cookbooks for pretty food, they’re likely to belong to the we-eat-with-our-eyes (and gum up our eyelashes?) school; the folks who brought the world mock guacamole made from mashed peas. Hey, as long as it’s the same color, isn’t that good enough?

Not hardly. Pretty food is nice, but there are several things that matter more. Is it healthy? Can you prepare it and have time for the rest of your life? How much does it cost? And the question of all questions, how does it taste? (In this case, not very good.)

Worse yet, the recipe I tried from Yamuna’s Table didn’t even end up looking pretty. I tried the “Cheesy Corn-stuffed Crepes with Ancho Chili – Tomato Sauce”. I like Indian food (and Mexican food, a closer match for this dish), and the recipe is full of good stuff – corn, cilantro, cheese, potatoes, tomatoes, cumin, pumpkin seeds, lime. And yet it came out of the oven a flaking, disintegrating mess that tasted blandly awful.

Part of the problem was her restaurant-style presentation. Usually, when you roll crepes or tortillas around a filling and oven-bake them, it helps to top the dish with a sauce that prevents things from drying out. I suppose that would have been too ordinary. Anyhow, we’re told to “spray the crepes with oil and bake until the stuffing is heated through”, then plate them in a puddle of the tomato – ancho sauce. The texture was not pleasant.

And neither was the taste, and this is where I find this cookbook useless.  Vegetarian food is fine. Food that avoids other specific ingredients is fine – one of my friends is a very good cook who just can’t eat onions or garlic. But the more things you exclude from your diet, the more challenging it is to come up with dishes that are enjoyable, especially for people who don’t share your list of restrictions.

What I didn’t realize when I bought Yamuna’s Table is that it adheres to an unusually limited variation on vegetarianism. Milk, and some cheeses, seem to be acceptable; but no eggs. No onions. No garlic. There may be other excluded seasonings I didn’t notice. What’s left is a lot of dull-tasting, very complicated dishes.

Maybe I’ll offer this one to my friend with the onion allergy. It’s no use to me, no matter how decorative the cover is.