Sometimes the inspiration for a dish comes from unexpected places. For instance, this week’s dinner evolved from an initial craving for one ingredient that then grew into a particular condiment which itself required a main course to enhance. The meal that resulted came out pretty well, in my humble opinion, but might never have occurred to me under a different chain of events. While cooks tend to think from centerpiece to sides, finding the perfect compliment to an intriguing garnish can be equally successful, and often more imaginative!
The story of Indian Lentil Stew Sweet Potatoes started with a generous gift of rhubarb from a colleague’s backyard. Immediately, the wheels started turning. What to do with rhubarb…? I racked my brain for something out of the ordinary, then suddenly, I tasted the tart zing of aromatic rhubarb chutney, and felt a shiver of gustatory anticipation. Then, slightly deflated, I realized this intriguingly unusual pickle required something more substantial as an edible vehicle.
The sweet pucker of chutney pairs well with spicy Asian food, and is traditionally associated with Indian cuisine. I wanted to whip up a tender dal, but I felt an urge to give this flavor palette an unexpected slant. Biking to the store, a second epiphany struck: lentil stew is essentially Indian chili, and chili goes great on baked potatoes, and sweet potatoes are even better than regular potatoes! There you have it: the birth of a new (and significantly healthier) comfort food. You be the judge of its success!
This week, instead of weaving some tenuously-related tale of science or adventure, I decided to focus on individual ingredients because each of these foods is so fascinatingly unique.
Let’s start at the beginning, with rhubarb. Although it makes a wonderful filling for crisp and a refreshing jam, it is not a fruit. The part of rhubarb we eat forms the sturdy stalks of an herbaceous vegetable that thrives here in the Pacific Northwest. My first exposure to it was in Alaska, where its wild relatives grow to Alaska-sized explosions of crimson-stemmed fronds.
However, it may not win any awards for the friendliest plant. Its flesh contains several times the oxalic acid of beets, which helps account for its mouth-smacking acidity, and eating its leaves can kill you. However, soaking the chopped stalks before cooking dilutes the oxalates, and prevents heartburn in those who are prone. And after you sprinkle the innocuous cubes with sugar and bake them into a sauce of simpering gooeyness, you might just join the proud ranks of the devoted.
Now on to lentils. Food scientist Harold McGee claims they were the first legume cultivated by humans. These disc-shaped pods might feel heavy for their size because they are one-third protein. The remainder contains heart-healthy dietary fiber and important nutrients.
But the true virtue of lentils lies in their speedy preparation. Unlike other legumes which require soaking and extended cooking, lentils soften in just 30-45 minutes of simmering, making them a practical weeknight alternative. A hidden implication is that they soak up flavor remarkably well. Unlike chickpeas or kidney beans, which let’s face it, always taste like themselves on the inside, the tender, hearty texture of lentils can take on the vivid colors of wine, stock, and spices.
Last but not least, we turn to the sweet potato. It may surprise you to learn that it is unrelated to conventional potatoes, and instead falls into the morning glory family. And don’t even think about lumping it together with yams. Sweet potato flesh ranges from white to orange to purple, and spans an equally wide range of sweetness and texture.
Health gurus often tout the outstanding benefits of sweet potatoes, which may seem elusive at first glance. After all, in the basic nutritional categories, sweet potatoes and white potatoes come out in a draw. However, the former contain a multitude of beneficial vitamins, flavonoids, and carotenoids that collectively lower blood sugar, fight cancer, and reduce arthritis. How about that for a food that tastes like candy? Just remember to buy organic and eat the skin!
For the recipe below, try to find a starchy variety, like Japanese sweet potatoes. In general, these will have lighter-colored flesh. Starch is the secret ingredient to a perfect baked potato, one that strikes a fine balance between dry fluffiness and rich moisture. The starch molecules expand and absorb water, creating a light, airy medium to smother in lentil stew. Baked potatoes make an interesting base for many toppings, so consider this an invitation to think beyond sour cream and onions to a whole world of potato pairings.
3 Japanese sweet potatoes
Salt and pepper
2 tbsp. cooking oil
1 onion, chopped
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. turmeric
⅛ tsp. cayenne
½ tsp. coriander
½ tsp. fenugreek
⅛ tsp. cardamom
6 cloves, ground in a mortar and pestle
1” ginger, grated
2. c. red lentils
4 c. vegetable stock
¾ c. red wine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 jalapeno, minced
2 curry leaves (optional)
2 c. peas
Cilantro and sour cream or yogurt for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Wash the potatoes, then rub them with olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on a baking sheet and cook for 1½ to 2 hours (the longer, the better!).
Heat the cooking oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes.
Add the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce to a simmer, and cook for ~40 minutes until tender.
Remove curry leaves, cut potatoes in half, and ladle the stew on top. Garnish with chopped cilantro, sour cream or yogurt, and rhubarb chutney.
1 tbsp. cooking oil
3 cloves garlic, grated
1” ginger, grated
1 jalapeno, minced
½ tsp. cumin
¼ tsp. fenugreek
¼ tsp. coriander
pinch o’ cayenne
10 cloves, ground in mortar and pestle
1 c. water
¼ c. cider vinegar
2 c. rhubarb, presoaked and chopped
½ c. raisins
1 apple, diced
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. paprika (optional, for color)
Dice the rhubarb and soak in cold water for 20 minutes. Discard the soaking water before cooking.
Heat oil over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Add garlic, ginger, japaleno, and spices. Cook for 1-2 minutes until fragrant.
Add the remaining ingredients, bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring frequently, for 20 minutes or so, until the rhubarb and apple disintegrate.