The days (and nights) are starting to get cooler, there’s a whiff of the approaching fall in the air, and I’m starting to crave heartier food. Know the feeling? The gazpachos and salads of summer’s prime are starting to seem a little less appealing, and I’m ready to start heating up the kitchen again.
The easiest fallback is the timeworn combination of beans and rice. I’ve got my favorites — at the top of the list are Mexican black beans and yellow-tinted white rice and that Southern staple of red beans and rice — but really, any legume can be employed, and any grain, for that matter. In fact, add a particular leafy element, and you’ve got the vegetarian holy trinity of beans, greens and grains.
The list of dishes that employ the three is long, and I’m seemingly drawn to every last one of them, but as usual, I’m always on the lookout for something surprising. I found it in a new cookbook by Indian chef Vikas Khanna of New York’s Junoon. He flavors green lentils with an unusual (to me, at least) combination of spices that connect India to Mexico: star anise, cardamom and chipotle. Along with chunks of onions, a little tomato and mounds of chopped spinach, the lentils taste deep and complex — just what I want this time of year.
And if we get hit by a heat wave, I can immediately imagine what to do: I’d keep the spinach raw and use the lentil mixture as a cold topping for a salad instead.
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Green Lentils With Spinach and Chipotle
This flavor-packed lentil dish uses a combination of Indian and Mexican spices, and the result is a particularly complex sort of comfort food. Servings: 4-6.
1 cup green lentils, sorted and rinsed
1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt, plus more as needed
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large red onion (about 12 ounces), cut into 1-inch dice
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 whole star anise
3 whole cardamom pods
1 large tomato (8 to 10 ounces), cored and chopped
1 teaspoon ground chipotle chili pepper
8 ounces fresh spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
Combine the lentils, 3 cups of water and 1 teaspoon of the salt in a medium saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low so the liquid is barely bubbling; cook, partially covered, until the lentils are tender, about 25 minutes. Drain them.
Pour the oil into a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, star anise and cardamom pods; cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture is fragrant and the onion begins to brown lightly around the edges, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the tomato and chipotle; reduce the heat to medium-low; cook, stirring, until the tomato breaks down and forms a sauce, 3 to 4 minutes.
Add the drained lentils and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt to the pan; cook, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are heated through and the flavors meld, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the spinach and cook briefly, just until it wilts. Taste, and add salt as needed.
Serve hot. Serve with rice or flatbread.
Adapted from Indian Harvest: Classic and Contemporary Vegetarian Dishes, by Vikas Khanna