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We're thrilled to announce a new biweekly column from Nicholas Day: On cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.
I have just taken inventory of my apartment and found: 1) a gloriously, emphatically pregnant wife; 2) a three-year-old whose diet looks like the USDA’s new food plate, but with raw dough where the vegetables should be; and 3) a pantry full of dried beans.
Also, a lot of wooden velcro-ed fruit, which never ripens.
This column will talk a lot about cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of. But my problem right now is with the child who isn’t underfoot yet. For complicated gestational reasons, the pregnant member of the household needs to eat a lot of beans. It’s the placenta’s fault.
Look up “beans” in any index and you will find yourself uninspired. Beans and inspiration are antithetical. There are no cookbooks for beans that actually make you want to cook beans, which seems like the lowest bar a cookbook has to clear.
“Beans have a good reputation,” Alan Davidson tells us. This is the only place in the Oxford Companion to Food where Alan Davidson is wrong: there are few more discouraging words in the culinary vocabulary than beans. I do not say this proudly. I know I am supposed to prize beans as the soul of proper peasant cooking; I know beans, with some help, supply a good quantity of the world’s protein. Beans are honest, unfancy, forthright. If your car needs fixing, the beans will help you. Will the sun-dried tomatoes help you? They will not.
Not liking beans is like not liking your really nice next door neighbor just because he happens to be boring. It feels like a moral failing.
Harold McGee tells us that beans are difficult to digest because they are full of carbohydrates that are actually indigestible. This is the only place in On Food and Cooking where Harold McGee is wrong. Beans are hard to digest because they’re embittered by the fact that everyone prefers lentils. The winner of Food52’s Best Beans contest? A recipe with lentils.
I gladly admit that the distinction between beans and lentils is semi-artificial. My definition, which may or may not be technically Linnaean, is that beans are what won’t be ready for dinner, lentils are what will. Dried beans are the sworn enemy of the family cook with no foresight. But lentils are a double agent: ostensibly a legume, secretly on your side.
People have been doing exquisite things with lentils since prehistory and a lot of those things are subsumed under the baggy heading of dal. (A lot of beans that aren’t lentils are subsumed under dal, for that matter.) As our freezer will testify, I would be happy to spend the rest of my life making lentils from the subcontinent. There are few things more satisfying straight from the freezer than dal. The spices hold out against the cold. Add rice, a simple raita, eat.
It’s easy to get an emphatically pregnant wife to eat dal. But how do you get a preschooler to eat dal?
First, you don’t try very hard. (This often works.) Second, you lower the spice, raise the sweetness, and learn to live with yourself. In Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries—a very good cookbook that, minus 300 or so recipes, could have been great—there’s a chana dal with golden raisins (chana dal being yellow split peas, of course, and technically not lentils, except according to my definition). Even with fewer chiles and zero black cumin, it is a riot of good taste. And a life-saving dinner for another night after this one.
Sweet-Hot Chana Dal with Golden Raisins
Adapted from Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries
1 cup chana dal (yellow split peas)
½ teaspoons ground turmeric
3 tablespoons ghee
1 red onion (or two if you have it), halved lengthwise and thinly sliced
½ cup golden raisins
3 dried bay leaves
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons ginger, minced
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
1 cup chopped tomato
1 serrano chile (if without sensitive palates, quadruple), minced
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon garam masala
See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.
Photos by James Ransom