06 January 2011

Suggestive Recipes

I was drooling over the Recipe Redux column in the Times magazine the other day, thinking about making the vintage chocolate rum mousse and wondering whether it was worth investing in a blender (because our ancient yellowed plastic one died and never got replaced because, well, we never use it). But then I got to the reinvented version of the mousse recipe, wherein it had lost the chocolate and picked up some beets. Yeah, beets for dessert. Not only that, it involved a cream whipper, one of those devices that uses nitrous-oxide to make whipped cream - kind of like home-made ReddiWip (but oh so much better).

I asked Talbot whether readers might be daunted by a recipe that calls for an ISI dispenser. “We’ve grown and matured,” Talbot said, “and realized any recipe you put out there, no one really follows it. All it is is a suggestion: you might want to do this.”

That's when I started thinking about cooking and recipes, because that's exactly it. That's what I do - I use the printed recipe as a jumping off point, a suggestion. I substitute, I omit, I add.

I did that over the weekend. We'd received a book by Nigel Slater for Christmas - his Kitchen Diaries, which he describes as "an account of more or less everything I cooked in the course of a year, presented as an illustrated diary". The book moves chronologically through the year, so I started with January, and decided to make the New Year's Day dal and pumpkin soup on New Year's Day. But it called for pumpkin and cilantro and chili peppers, none of which I had. So I winged it.

Here's my version:

Dal and Sweet Potato soup,
adapted from a recipe of Nigel Slater's

For the soup:
1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
a walnut-sized knob of fresh ginger
1 cup + 2 T. red lentils
2 cups of water
4 cups of chicken stock
1 ¼ t. turmeric
1 ¼ t. chili powder
1 t. salt
5 smallish sweet potatoes (to make 2 cups cooked)

For the onion topping:
1 medium onion
2 T. oil
1 t. sugar

If you want to gild the lily:
¼ cup heavy cream

Peel the onion and chop it roughly. Peel and mince the garlic. Peel and chop the ginger. Put the onion, garlic and ginger in a medium-sized, heavy-based saucepan. Add the lentils and pour in water and stock. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down to an simmer. Stir in the turmeric and chili powder and salt, and leave to simmer, covered but with the lid cocked open, for 20 minutes.

While the soup is cooking, wash and microwave the sweet potatoes until they're done (you know your microwave - I used the "baked potato" setting, and a bowl covered with plastic wrap). When done, and cool enough to handle, peel them, and chop the flesh into fat chunks. Set aside.

Meanwhile, make the onion topping: peel the onions and cut them into fine rings. Cook them in the oil in a shallow pan until they start to color. Add the sugar. Continue cooking until the onions are a deep golden brown. Set aside.

Now, add the cooked sweet potato to the lentils, and puree the soup - either in a blender, or a food processor, or with a stick blender right in the pot. Be careful; it's hot.

Serve in deep bowls with a spoonful of the caramelized onions on top. If you're feeling indulgent, pour a spiral of heavy cream on top at the table.

Makes 4 good-sized bowls - or, serves two adults for dinner one night, and one adult lunch for the two following days.

The original recipe called for all water (no stock), pumpkin in place of the sweet potato, minced fresh cilantro at the end, but no heavy cream, and fresh chili peppers and garlic in the caramelized onions. So overall, I made rather a lot of changes, but I think the end result was very much in the spirit of Nigel's original.

I daresay that Nigel would approve.


YourFireAnt said...

Not have cilantro at hand??? I could not bear it. I'll send you some seeds. You put 'em in a pot of dirt and put it on a south-facing window sill. Water it now and then.



shrink on the couch said...

The soup sounds wonderful. I'm a recipe nip-and-tucker also. I've got a couple sweet potatoes on hand and my son has been on a lentil bean fetish for months. So this sounds like the perfect recipe for us, or variation thereof ;)

I love fresh cilantro to top off my tortilla soup - the coup de grace. My husband is the gardener and we've found it a challenge to keep cilantro on hand. It quickly goes to seed. Maybe it's the heat down here. I haven't tried growing indoors. Might have to put that on my summer to do list.

Anonymous said...

I've never been a huge fan of cilantro - but maybe it's because of heavy handedness.

I happen to have a butternut squash that is getting a soft spot; that ought to work fine in this recipe, too. The kids and i love lentils, and it's good to get a soup recipe that doesn't make a vat because the kids will balk at leftovers the third time. We're still eating Christmas minestrone, which scares me slightly, though Tony insists that vegetables can't go bad.

Rima said...

I daresay I might invite myself over for dinner some day. Lentils and sweet potatoes are two of my favorite things.

mayberry said...

I made up my own chili on New Year's Day and was really, unreasonably proud of myself (and it had sweet potatoes in it).

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

Unfortunately I ate my yearly allotment of heavy cream during Christmas--the reason I have a yearly allotment is that I LOVE it beyond all reason.

Janet said...

cilantro never grows for me...I must have anti-cilantro vibes or something.

AnnetteK said...

That sounds fab. I love to take a recipe and make it my own too. I just made a nice soup with a ham bone, lentils, and barley and now I wish I had thought to put in some sweet potato. :)

leanne said...

Your version sounds absolutely yummy. And now I have a hankering for soup.

Also I almost always make a recipe as written the first time. I usually can't bring myself to make tweaks until the second time I make it. One exception that stands out in my mind... when I found a pumpkin bread recipe and a review (actually several reviews) suggested reducing the sugar and adding chocolate chips. Add chocolate chips to something? Count me in.

Anonymous said...

So the snow is still not here, but I made the soup this afternoon anyway, subbing the squash. I think it could be sweeter, and the color is on the brown side, but it tastes great. Fiona declared it "the best" and Lorenzo wouldn't even put one spoonful in his mouth. I'm psyched because it's very healthful.