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The rolling blackouts that we were expecting in California this summer brought back memories. When I was growing up in India blackouts were a norm. Two or three times a week, during the day and sometimes at night, electricity was turned off. We were used to it and were prepared for it. My father replenished batteries in the flashlights. My grandmother had lanterns ready, the kind available today at chic stores in America. Once a week she polished the glass with a muslin cloth dipped in vinegar, trimmed the wick, and refilled the lanterns with kerosene. Then the lanterns were kept in a safe place, ready for use.
During power outages my mother didn’t like to spend time in the kitchen. She made some quick-fix meals. One of my favorite dishes was Indian-style pasta cooked with lentils and fragrant spices. In a large heavy pot she made a zesty spice-infused oil seasoning. Then she added the lentils, more spices and herbs and water. Then the chapati dough was rolled out and cut into diamonds. She transferred the dough into the pot and simmered gently. This was a meal in itself.
As we ate together, we discussed the events of the day. The centerpiece on the table was my grandmother’s lantern. In a way we used the blackouts as an opportunity for the whole family to reconnect.
Tips on Conserving Energy
• Soak rice, lentils and beans overnight in water to reduce cooking time.
• Rice soaked in water for an hour will cook in less than 10 minutes in a rice cooker.
• Beans and lentils cook to a butter-soft texture in almost half the time in a pressure cooker.
• I make a large batch of spice infused oil seasoning and use in various dishes.
Indian-Style Pasta with Lentils
Delicate whole-wheat pasta diamonds team up with slowly simmered lentils in a satisfying dish. The pasta is chapati dough (whole wheat flour and water), rolled thin and cut into shapes that cook instantly in the fragrant lentil stew. This entree is both substantial and nourishing. Though not essential, an aromatic red wine makes an excellent accompaniment.
3 tablespoons mild vegetable oil
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
¼ teaspoon turmeric
¼ cup toor dal* or yellow split peas, cleaned, rinsed and drained
4 cups water
1 recipe whole-wheat dough (recipe follows)
flour for dusting
¾ to 1 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons fresh Madras curry powder
1¼ teaspoon salt
Grated Swiss cheese or melted ghee*
Heat oil in a heavy skillet or Dutch oven on medium heat and add the mustard seeds. When the seeds sizzle and splutter, add the turmeric. Stir and cook a few seconds until aromatic. Add lentils and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium.
While the lentil mixture is coming to a boil, place a ball of dough on a floured surface and roll to a 5-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick, dusting with flour as necessary. With a sharp knife, cut the dough into 1-inch diamonds (or ½ inch wide strips). Lift the diamonds with your hands and drop carefully into the simmering lentil mixture. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Add cayenne, curry powder, and salt to the pot. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is absorbed and lentils are fully cooked and soft. Turn off the heat and let stand covered for 5 minutes. To serve, spoon into deep plates. Serve piping hot with a sprinkling of cheese or a trickle of ghee. Makes 6 servings.
*Available at Indian markets and some supermarkets.
Variation: Linguini, tortellini or ravioli can be substituted in place of chapati dough, for an Italian pasta dish with an Indian accent.
Whole Wheat Flatbread Dough
I prefer to use a combination of flours to match the texture of Indian chapati flour. However, if you have access to an Indian market, you can use chapati flour instead.
¾ cup whole wheat flour
¼ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup water
To make the dough in a food processor: Add the flours to the work bowl. Pour in ¼ cup water and process on low speed until the dough begins to pull from sides of the bowl. If motor slows, stop the machine and redistribute partially formed dough. While machine is running, gradually add the remaining water through the feed tube in a steady stream. Process until the dough pulls together into a ball and begins to clean the sides of the bowl.
With a heavy-duty mixer: Add the flours to the work bowl. Pour in ¼ cup water and beat with the dough hook on medium speed. Add the remaining water and beat until the dough is medium-soft and pulls cleanly from sides of the bowl.
By hand: Combine the flours in a large mixing bowl. Make a well in the center and add the water. Mix with your hands until the dough holds together.
The dough should be medium-soft and slightly sticky at this point, and hold an impression of your fingertips when pressed. Form the dough into a smooth ball. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes. Lightly oil your hands, place the dough onto a work surface and knead for a few minutes until the dough is smooth. Divide the dough into 4 equal portions; roll each portion between your palms to form into a smooth ball, flatten slightly, and put on a plate and cover.
Laxmi Hiremath is a cookbook author, and contributes regularly to the food section of the San Francisco Chronicle. At the request of readers she will continue to write occasional columns for India Currents.