Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Most Revealing Meal

As I was cooking dinner tonight, I realized that the dish I was preparing was very revealing, though I don't mean to say that the little french lentils were scandalously rubenesque or that the spices were showing too much cleavage. I mean that a simple meal of a lentil salad says a lot about the way I eat, the way I shop for food, and the cooking habits and stories I've developed over the years. I thought it'd be fun to break down the elements of the meal to give you a glimpse, a tease, a revealing peep into my little world.

The lentils: I can't believe I've never talked about lentils. I just ran a search of the Lemonbasil archives, and I've typed the word "lentil" into these posts a grand total of ZERO times. Not once. Considering how often I eat lentils, I'm actually a little embarrassed. My parents could tell you about the countless times I've informed them over the phone that I'd eaten lentils and rice for lunch (or dinner, or breakfast, or all three...). Although there were indeed times when I ate them because my fridge was empty and I was left to rummage through my non-perishables for sustenance, the majority of the meals of lentils have been made because I simply love them. I love how humble and filling they are. I love the way they perform differently depending on how you cook them. Al dente, they're perfect for salads; cook them longer and they turn into the creamiest soups and daal. Alright, I also love how cheap they are. I bought these gorgeous french Puy lentils for $1.29 a pound at the International Food Supply on SE Stark and 80th, and they'll last forever. They will take on any flavor, adding their own peppery earthiness to anything I cook them in, and they look like river stones, smoothed and tumbled... what is not to love about these gorgeous little guys? I cook them in broth (usually 1.5 cups of lentils to 3.5 cups of broth) with a bit of cumin, coriander, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and a diced onion for about 25 minutes. Oh, the broth, you ask? Well...

The broth: Even though I can't really compost up here on the ninth floor (even though I'm sure my two patio tomato plants would love it if I bought one of those fancy indoor composters) I do keep a big, sturdy snap-lidded plastic container in my freezer to throw in anything and everything that can go into a broth. Onion skins, Parmesan rinds, herb stems, lemon peels, chicken bones, celery bottoms... it all goes into the bin. Once it fills up, I throw the whole thing into my huge stock pot fitted with a smaller strainer pot (elegant phrasing, I know... what are those called?), cover it all with water, add some fresh garlic, and boil the hell out of it. After a few hours, I've got a decent broth that I use for everything from deglazing a pan to, yes, cooking rice or lentils. It's always a little different, and I end up making a lot of it, so I store it in the big glass jugs my olive oil comes in. Which brings us to...

The olive oil: When my parents are in town, we eat out. Yes, we're all major cooks, and in our separate lives we're in our own kitchens preparing 9 meals out of 10. But put us together, especially in Portland, and we turn into restaurant FIENDS. Breakfast, brunch, lunch, snacks, dinner... I show them the places I've been writing about and shooting, they take me to their favorites, and by the end of a long weekend we're over-sodiumed and empty-walleted, but very, very happy. During one of those filling visits, my dad and I went to Ya Hala, my favorite Lebanese restaurant, and ordered up the mezza platter and some fattoush. One bite of the hummus and we just had to ask the server where the restaurant bought their olive oil. Turns out the owners also operated the little international food supply place right next door, called, quite logically, International Food Supply. The olive oil brand was Saifan, and it came in big 1.5 liter glass jugs. This was January, and I've already gone through three jugs. It's that good. And because I started going up there to get my olive oil, I found that they have a great spice collection, the cheapest cured olives, the best yogurt, and a good assortment of nuts, dried fruit, and lentils. Outside of the farmers markets, I shop here more than anywhere else in the city. It's a tiny place, but they have what I need, and I get to chat with the owner about what size bulghur to buy and our shared love for the little vacuum-packed bags of peeled chestnuts.

The method:
I call this my kitchen-sink tabouli, and I probably make it a few times a month. My friends know that my favorite foods are tabouli and toast, in that order. Depending on the season, what's in my fridge, what's growing in my garden, and who I'm cooking for, it has endless variations, grounded mostly by the parsley. Sometimes, like tonight, it gets cashews, cherries, carrots, celery, and these amazing "diva" cucumbers from the farmers' market that I've been hoarding every week. They are a local variant on those Persian cucumbers that you don't have to peel or seed, and they are killer. I eat so many of these, they're like my version of potato chips. Anyway, it all goes into a bowl with lots of parsley, lemon juice, garlic, some mint, more garlic, cumin, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a little bit of garlic. Other times it will get some feta, or rice, or chickpeas, or currants, or grape tomatoes, or little pieces of pita. It's the kind of food I could eat for every meal, and sometimes I do. It's briny, crunchy, and satisfying. Plus, it keeps in the fridge for days.

According to my friend Matt, writing a food blog is 80% about the food and 20% about stroking my ego. Fair enough, but I also know it's about realizing that life is good when you take the time to notice that every ingredient has a story. I may live alone, but when I cook a meal full of habits and stories, I'm there with my dad, and my friends at the market, and the farmers, and the cows, and the olive trees... And you. So thanks for that.

Eat well.

(Also, the beautiful blue bowl above and and the earthy one below were both made by my insanely talented friend Karah Bruce-Larkin)


  1. Hmm... looks like I'll be making a trip to International Food Supply soon to try that olive oil (and to stock up on everything else). I've been halfheartedly looking for a good recipe for cold lentil salad. We're stocked to the brim with them, and it's too hot (finally!) for soup. :)

  2. It's one of those recipe-less things, though I tend to follow the flavor profiles and ratios of this book when I'm doing middle eastern flavors. It's amazing:

    Let me know what you find up on Stark - and look for the little bags of chestnuts, they are like $1.29 and SO GOOD. They are over by the baked goods. And get the Labneh Kefir yogurt cheese! The blue brand is the best.

  3. I wonder how that olive oil would fare on pizza...

  4. Adam - I tend to like buttery-er (butterier? butterful?) olive oils, so this one isn't too grassy, but it still has a lot of great oliveness to it. Damn, I'm making up words left and right. I seriously put this oil on EVERYTHING. The only things I use butter for are baking, frying eggs, and buttering toast. Well, that's not really true because I've started to use ghee as well, but I haven't made it a habit yet :)

  5. Allison - I'm always on the hunt for the best olive oil for my pizzas. So far I've really enjoyed this kalamata olive oil from Greece (the name of the brand escapes me), but I still feel I've had better (or perhaps, more appropriate) olive oil at places like Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix and Di Fara in New York. I'm really curious to give this one a shot. Is there any fruitiness to it?

  6. Saifan is made from Green Koura olives from Lebanon, and it's really thick and clean tasting, really low acid and yes, it's pretty fruity. The best part about it is the aftertaste, it has none of that bitterness that Italian oils can have.

    If you're interested in trying it out, they sell smaller bottles so you don't have to go all in on your first buy.

  7. Smart girl to keep a "compost" pile in your freezer! Nothing, but nothing is better than homemade stocks.
    I'll look into the olive oil...sounds excellent. Aren't you lucky to have found such a great source for it AND deal with an owner full of information.
    As for lentils, I love them too. Cold in a salad, or warm under some fish, I love 'em!

  8. Allison- You are the best: sharing the a to z about your cooking and sources, photos and chats about lentils, broth and Saifan olive oil. Yay for comments!

  9. Alison thank you for stopping by Coeur de La!!! Your site is BEAUTIFUL!!! I will be bookmarking this :) My husband and I are headed to Portland in late July for a mini road trip ... maybe you can give me some places to go, hike, explore and of course places with yummy things to eat. Much love!

  10. Allison, will you post some pictures of your "diva" cucumbers?

  11. Caroline - Thank you! I'd love to give you some tips about places to go (and eat) in Portland. Shoot me an email at and let me know what kinds of foods you like, what price range you're looking for, and what kind of activities you like!

    Casey - Cuke Picture posted, which was easy because I just ate the same thing for breakfast.

  12. Allison: we cooked the arugala briefly with garlic, scallions, soy sauce when it was not fresh enough for the salad: yummy!

  13. your photos are looking amazing!
    And I think I need to eat more lentils! mmmmmm