My lifestyle lately has been a bit weird. My partner is travelling a lot because of work, and I’ve been mainly alone with my cats, spending weekends off to reach him wherever he is. I’m still trying to put together my thoughts on all the things I’ve seen. I’ve seen a lot of friends, and this always feels good. I guess a positive side of this crazy lifestyle of ours is that, although there is no place I can go to where all my friends are, there are a lot of places where some friends are. That’s good, isn’t it?
In this period I cooked much less at home: I am not used to cooking for myself alone, although I like to try now and again some ‘extreme’ experiments when no one is there to watch. Being out at weekends means that long, complex projects are not feasible. I ate out many times when travelling. I had really great food, and the funny part is that all of it was ‘ethnic’ food, although I was travelling around Europe. For someone coming from Italy, whose food is indeed seen as ‘ethnic’ in the rest of the world (the first time I found they store Italian ingredients at Tesco in the ‘world’ section, I did not know whether to laugh or cry, it just seemed so weird to me), this is very positive. There is much more in Italian cooking than greasy pizza and overcooked pasta, and this is true for all other food of the world. I felt a tangible wave of energy coming from these restaurants. They were all original, with high quality ingredients, populated by locals and by co-nationals alike (my number one criteria for choosing ethnic food when I don’t have recommendations).
One of the best dinners was at an Eritrean restaurant in Geneva. Geneva is weirdly full of ‘non official’ places: bars that look like normal houses from outside, a restaurant you can only access by entering in the toilet of another, official restaurant… I did not expect that in one of the more expensive and formal cities in the world. The Eritrean restaurant was not that excessive: at least it looked like a proper legal establishment, although it lactually was just an old bar with just one room, and not a very big one. Since it is always very crowded, we reserved a place and got to sit very close to each other, which is only a good thing. In Eritrea you eat with your hands. The role of plate, fork and knife is played by the bread, a spongy, sour-fermented pancake called injera. At the center of the bread, covering one big communal plate (this is why it is good to sit very tight, so everyone has access to food), the rest of the meal is served: a stew, in this place you could choose between beef, chicken and lentils, and a few vegetables. I almost argued with one of my best friends: I never noticed how quickly he eats until we had to share one single dish and he was always picking from my side! Communal eating may bring out a few nasty surprises.
We tried both beef and lentils and although I liked the beef stew a lot, it was the lentil one I could not wait to reproduce. Hot and spicy, not in the least bit greasy, it had a haunting, complex flavour I could not pin. I definitely want to make injera, but I have not managed to track down teff flour yet, so I have put this project on hold. If you have teff flour you most likely already know how to make injera, however if you are curious, have a look here for a method. There is a less traditional recipe for it also on ‘Good to the grain’ (which I can’t wait to try of course) .
But what made me rush to the kitchen as soon as I could was the lentil stew. I turned again to Sasha’s for information on Eritrean food. Her reader’s note about the technique of making an onion paste was a revelation. That was the flavour. While I was eating the stew, I knew there were spices in it, the typical mix called berbere. But the richness and the thickness of the sauce reminded me of Hungarian goulash, and I was confused because the lentils were vegetarian. Now I know. The onion paste thickens, gives body and depth to the lentils. It is a brilliant technique, and I can see millions of uses for it, wherever the strong, sweet flavour of onions will work, more or less everything in my book.
I was really happy today when I nailed it down at the first try. The spices tasted a bit different – I think the ones at the restaurant were roasted before grinding and contained definitely less chilli. But still, I really loved my version (I would not cut back the chilli at all, although the next time I’ll give the spices a quick roast). I was very proud of my network of sources, this great ‘blog’ world, so effective in teaching me about food I would not have known otherwise.
The recipe is not difficult at all. The only big problem is the crying involved in cooking the onion paste. I tried the bread trick discussed at Chocolate and Zucchini, but it did not work too well, unfortunately. Ventilation was the only relief available. It does get better after a few minutes, anyway. For some reason the lentils took ages to cook – a good half an hour with a pressure cooker. I never believed in the theory of not salting your pulses before cooking, but I never do it anyway (I nearly always add salt at the end); this time I did add some salt at the beginning and this may have caused the long cooking time, so maybe in the end the theory is true. Another theory is that the acidity of tomatoes causes lentils to cook much slower. I do occasionally cook lentils and tomatoes together and have not noticed it so far. Anyway, a reason more to be happy to have used a pressure cooker. s
I served the stew with some sourdough bread, but any carb will work, rice, potatoes… Of course injera would be the ideal match, with its slightly sour and nutty flavour and spongy consistency. I paired the stew with some sautéed spinach and yoghurt, like they did at the restaurant. They were a perfect finish for one of the best lentil stews I’ve ever made. I’m sharing this recipe with My Legume Love Affair number 36, the brilliant event founded by Susan of The Well-Seasoned Cook and hosted this month by Aqua at Served with Love.
Eritrean lentil stew with onion paste
Note: as a shortcut you can probably mix a ready-made curry powder and chilli powder in equal parts to replace berbere , but it won’t taste as rich. Anyway it is a great time investment to make this powder, it works with a lot of things and has a fantastic flavour.
For the spice mix (berbere):
1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds
1 tsp cumin
1 Tbsp paprika
1/4 tsp peppercorns
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
5 whole allspice balls
1/4 tsp cardamom seeds (removed from pods)
3- 4 tablespoons chilli powder
For the stew:
2 sweet, large red onions
200 gr small, dark lentils
1 can peeled or crushed tomatoes
3 teaspoons berbere (this yields quite hot a stew)
1 tablespoon clarified butter, or vegetable oil
For the spices (makes much more than what you’ll need): Grind al the spices together. I have bought a coffee grinder dedicated to the task and I can’t recommend it enough. Before that I made do with mortar and pestle.
For the stew: Chop the onions very finely, until they are almost a paste. I did it with a hand blender, trying not to overdo it. Grating them will work as well, or just use a knife and a lot of patience. Heat a pot with a good, heavy bottom (I used my pressure cooker). Add the onions without any fat, and keep stirring the paste over medium heat. The water will evaporate (making you cry, yes) and the paste will thicken and darken. After about ten minutes of almost constant stirring the paste will start sticking to the bottom of the pan. At this point add the fat of your choice (I used clarified butter), the lentils, tomatoes with their juices (crush them with your fingers a bit if they are whole), and as much berbere’ as you dare. Close the pressure cooker, or cover with a lid and keep simmering until the lentils are just this side of soft. Don’t overcook them, you don’t want them turned into a mash. Serve with some yoghurt and wilted spinach, and any carb of your choice. Leftovers are just as good.