Tag Archives: Braised

Smoky tea-braised lentils

In a world of coffee drinkers, Sam and I are tea fanatics. Our cupboards are bursting with tins and boxes, strainers and saucers. We drink black tea in the morning, green tea after dinner, and herbal tea late at night. We even have one of those fancy tea kettles that heats water to different temperatures for different types of tea.

I love cooking with tea–and with one tea in particular–almost as much as drinking it. Lapsang souchong tea is dried over wood fires, giving it a distinctive smoky flavor. Add some leaves or a bag to a pot of soup broth, and you’ve got something deeper and huskier than any non-meat broth I know. My new favorite trick? Cooking black lentils–sometimes called beluga lentils, because they resemble caviar when cooked–in a cauldron of smoky tea, tomatoes, and spices.

The recipe I adapted this from called for simmering everything together at once–lentils, tomatoes, the works. I’ve tried that, and don’t recommend it; the acid in the tomatoes keeps the lentils from softening. Instead, I use the method from my grandmother’s bean and tomato soup. In that recipe, you start simmering the legumes on their own, cook up a saucy tomato mix in a separate pan, then bring everything together towards the end of the cooking time. I added a handful of greens, too, which wilted down and made the whole dish more substantive.

At first taste, you might assume there’s meat in these lentils. It’s a nifty little trick, brought about by the marriage of smoky tea and glutamate-rich tomatoes. You could easily serve this as a standalone vegan meal–I have, and my omnivorous dinner guests loved it. If you eat eggs, these lentils are incredible with a poached or soft-boiled egg on top. And as with so many soups and stews, the flavor gets even better after some time in the fridge or freezer.

smoky tea lentils

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Pomegranate braised lamb shanks

Like a fair few folks I know, I don’t really get excited about meat. I’ll eat it, and enjoy it just fine, but it doesn’t ring my chimes the way, say, an over-medium egg yolk does. For me, at least, it’s a texture thing: I like the flavor and richness of meat, but not the way it feels under my teeth. For the most part, when I cook with meat, it’s as a component of a larger and more complex dish, rather than simply a piece of animal on a plate. The joy of a juicy, medium-rare steak or a lovely Sunday roast is mostly lost on me.

When that meat is braised, though, all bets are off. I love me a tender hunk of falling-apart meat. I grew up eating brisket braised in red wine every year for Passover, and it was basically the only time of year I’d willingly eat red meat. When a piece of tough, bone-in beef or lamb gets cooked for hours in a powerful liquid, it turns into something totally deserving of swoons. Stick a fork in, and the meat falls into tender strands. The liquid and the meat juices become thick, gelatinous, slow-moving on the tongue. There’s barely any chewing required, and so much more flavor and interest than a simple steak can muster.

Of all the braise-able cuts of meat, I think lamb shanks are my favorite. Cook a lamb shank for long enough, and the meat becomes soft, almost cushiony, and relaxes away from the bone. It’s juicier and gamier than many braised beef cuts I’ve had, and it plays remarkably well with explosive flavors from around the world. I’ve had a Thai curried lamb shank, and a Moroccan lamb shank tagine, both of which blew my mind. But when I wanted to make a special dinner for Sam recently, I decided to go for something simpler, using two of my favorite flavor partners with lamb: pomegranate and rosemary.

This is the kind of dish that takes practically forever to cook, but almost all the time is hands-off. I stuck the lamb in the oven for a few hours while I was working, and it perfumed my little dining room office most distractingly. You could turn up the oven temperature and braise for less time, but I love meat cooked like this, as slowly and gently as possible. You can reduce the braising liquid right down to a sticky glaze, if you want; I left mine a bit saucier, the better for spooning over couscous. Not only was the meat exactly how I love it–tender, plump, nearly falling apart–but the sauce itself was phenomenal, sweet and sour and slightly resiny from the rosemary. This one is a keeper.

pomegranate braised lamb shanks

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Passover 2011–where’s the beef?

I know, it’s not technically Passover anymore. Time to move on. But I couldn’t let this holiday season pass without talking, ever-so-quickly, about Molly, my Jew-cooking partner in crime.

Or, more specifically, her brisket.

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