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Basic lentil stew is exotic with Ethiopian spice blend

If your spice cabinet is organized and your grocery list looks a little different since reading my latest food section column, you’ve taken an important step down the spice road.

If you’re the adventurous type but can’t decide which route to take, consider Ethiopia. Chances are, you already may have some of the spices needed for its quintessential seasoning, “berbere.” The advantage of sourcing the others you need, along with New Mexico chiles, is that you can tone down the heat while compounding your own berbere. Merely buying a blend from a specialty store or online merchant doesn’t afford that flexibility.

And while berbere is a key ingredient in this traditional lentil stew, the flavor of “mesir wot” is almost sweet, owing to its extra infusion of cardamom, a spice often used in desserts. The method calls to mind risotto for frequent stirring while adding water a bit at a time. The lentils’ contact with the surface of the hot pan intensifies their flavor.

Consider this a main course, not just a side dish, in the name of “making every bite count,” according to the government’s latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Lentils are high in both vital nutrients and fiber, and they have no fat. If you’re really taking the new recommendations seriously, omit the optional sugar from this recipe, courtesy of Tribune News Service.

Mesir Wot

2 medium onions, peeled and chopped

4 tablespoons oil

5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

3 tablespoons berbere (see related recipe)

1 cup red lentils

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 to 2 pinches granulated sugar (optional)

Heat a large pan that is not nonstick over medium to medium-high heat. Add the onions (without oil) and cook, stirring frequently, to sweat out some moisture. When onions are translucent, after 5 to 10 minutes, add the oil. Saute a few more minutes, stirring frequently. Add the garlic; saute a few minutes more.

Add the cardamom, berbere and 2 tablespoons water. Lower heat to medium and cook, for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add more water if necessary to avoid sticking.

Add 1/4 cup water and the lentils. Stir almost continuously until water is absorbed. Continue adding water, 1/4 cup at a time, and stirring until it is absorbed; this lets lentils scorch on bottom a bit each time without burning. Continue cooking in this manner until lentils are fully cooked; you will need a total of 3 cups of water, more or less. Then top it off with enough water to give it the consistency of a thick sauce. Add the salt and, if using, the sugar.

Makes 5 servings.

Recipe from thespiceisland.blogspot.com

Tribune News Service photo