Only one place attracted her attention: a small Korean grocery with fruits and vegetables set outside on plywood stands--colorful piles of oranges, tomatoes, and cucumbers, almost unnaturally clean and bright. Nina read the sign on the box of tomatoes: SUNRIPE. She was still learning English, and every new expression seemed exciting and full of great meaning: SUNRIPE brought to mind a vegetable patch on a summer afternoon, the smell of the rich soil heated by the sun, pale-green branches sagging under heavy tomatoes bursting with juice.
-Lara Vapnyar (Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love)
Adjusting to the post-vacation life is never easy. There are things to be done, responsibilities to be resumed and, most importantly, the feeling that something has gone awry. Upon resuming your regular routine, it's as if you've lost sight of perhaps your best possible self, the self that you could be--if only you didn't have so much stress and a list of things to do that stretches from here to Mexico (if not eternity). And while it may sound crazy, ever since I returned from my summer adventures (New York post coming soon), I've been dogged by the feeling that summer--at least for me--is over, that I've had my fun and it's now time to get serious. Kind of a sad state of affairs, right?
If you haven' t stopped reading because I've depressed you immensely with this talk of a dwindling summer (please, ignore the crazy lady behind the curtain), let me assure you that there is a silver lining in this tale of woe. And it comes in the shape of corn: sweet, golden corn. For me, this grain, which we Americans love to pretend is a vegetable, has always been a summer staple. My mother and I used to stop at roadside stands in southwestern Pennsylvania, emerging from the cold car into the muggy heat so as to look for the sweetest ears possible. Often we were successful, but sometimes we just weren't; it's hard to know what lies beneath the husk and corn, like most things in life, is best when freshly picked. But even the occasional less than thrilling ear of corn didn't take away from the fact that the very act of eating it was one of summer's quintessential pleasures.
So, when I was at the market a few days ago, looking around and mentally trying to plan out the menu for the next week, I saw row upon row of corn and suddenly remembered that, dissertation deadlines aside, summer is still upon us in all of its bountiful glory. With that thought in mind, I decided to buy several ears.
While I do believe that most summer vegetables can basically stand alone and still taste wonderful (a topic that has been under discussion recently), I had something special in mind for this corn--something that went beyond the usual smearing on of butter and the sprinkling of salt. Back in May, a dear friend sent me At Home with Madhur Jaffrey for my birthday and, when I was flipping through it, a recipe for Toor Dal with Corn caught my eye. I've eaten a lot of Indian food in my day, but, as far as I can remember, I hadn't ever seen anything with corn on the cob. It seemed worth trying (I've had success with Madhur's lentil recipes before) and was, in general, a remarkably easy dish to make. The most difficult thing is breaking the ear of corn into pieces; even with my sharpest knives, I've had no success. Instead, I've had to turn to my (well, the Greek's, actually) sheer man power and break it with my hands.
This is now the second time I've made this dish and, each time I do, I like it more and more. It's both sunny and summery; I enjoy the bright play of colors--really, the many shades of yellow--that comes from juxtaposing red lentils (I use these instead of Toor Dal and they lose their red color as they cook) with yellow ears of corn. Its taste, too, is refreshing, running from the tangy to the sweet. The tang comes from the lemon and the toasted cumin seeds, while the sweetness comes from the sugar that you stir in when you add the corn and also from the corn itself. And it's a surprisingly light dish, one that works well with other vegetables and a steaming pot of plain Basmati rice.
When I came home a few nights ago from the library, worrying about the seeming lack of time and the quickly approaching semester, but also pleased with my dissertation progress for the day, I decided it was time not only for some therapeutic cooking (my reward!), but also for a meal that would bring me back to the present. Before I knew it, I had several pots and pans going: one with rice, one with red lentils and corn and another with a product of my imagination: kale, coconut flakes, garlic and Saffola oil. In short, summer on a plate and just the thing to bring me back to the sweetness of the present.
Red Lentils with Corn
Yields roughly 4 servings
Adapted from At Home with Madhur Jaffrey
As I mentioned above, I've used only red lentils when making this recipe, but you can use, as Madhur suggests, either Toor Dal (toovar dal and arhar dal) or any kind of split pea. The only difference is cooking time--red lentils cook faster than both toor dal and split peas. Because of my feeling that food shouldn't be painful to eat, I use only 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper and 1 dried hot red chili; these things, however, are a matter of taste and can easily be adjusted. I would recommend that the spice not be overpowering, though; the lovely thing about this dish is the way that the different flavors come together. If any one flavor profile dominated, something would be lost.
And, finally, regarding a few ingredients: I was out of both ghee and canola oil, so I opted to use Saffola Oil, which is light and has a mild flavor. I'm personally against using olive oil in Indian dishes--the flavor is too strong--but it's an option if that's all you have on hand. Also, despite my best intentions to go to the Indian grocery store and get some asafetida, a powdered gum resin with an oniony-garlicky flavor, I haven't made it there yet. So, when it came time to fry the oil and to add 1/8 teaspoon asafetida, I opted to use one crushed clove of fresh garlic instead. Onion or garlic powder would have worked, too, but were strangely missing; I clearly need to get to the grocery store!
1 cup red lentils, rinsed and drained, with the damaged lentils removed
4 cups water
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 ear fresh corn, cut equally into 4 segments
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/4-3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons Saffola oil
3 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon whole brown mustard seeds
1 whole dried hot red chili
1 clove garlic, crushed
-Put the lentils and 4 cups water in a medium pan. Bring to a boil and remove the froth that rises to the top.
-Turn heat to medium-low and add the turmeric.
-Stir, cover partially and simmer gently for about 30-40 minutes (if you prefer your lentils to be only just soft, but with a little texture, they should be ready at about 30 minutes; if you prefer them to be extra soft and less textured, an extra 10 minutes or so will do the trick--especially with red lentils).
-Add the corn pieces, salt, cayenne, sugar and lemon juice and stir.
-Again, cover partially and simmer gently for an additional 10-15 minutes.
-Once the lentils and corn are done cooking, heat the Saffola oil in a small skillet.
-As soon as it is very hot, basically sizzling, add the garlic (make sure to cook the garlic in a cluster so that it doesn't burn), cloves, cumin, mustard seed and chili(es).
-Once the mustard seeds start to pop, add the contents of the skillet to the pot with the lentils.
-Stir, pour into a large bowl and serve. Enjoy the taste of summer!