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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Middle Eastern Lentils, Sweet Potato Biscuits, and a Seasoning Trick

Middle Eastern Lentils, Sweet Potato Biscuits, and a Seasoning Trick
by Victoria Challancin

Although for most cooks a recipe for cooking lentils is hardly necessary, sometimes it is nice to refresh your ideas about what might go into such a staple dish.

The day after Christmas was lazy.  No doubt about it.  Missing my family, I wanted to prepare something simple and comforting, hence lentils.  When I mentioned in my post on potato salad that recipes often morph as you are making them, changing their minds about what they originally wanted to be, I should have known that the same would happen with my Christmas Day lentils.  I think I just can't help myself.

In a recent conversation with my brother-in-law, Victor, I was reminded of lentil recipes that include greens--sometimes with a splash of vinegar or lemon juice (Greek- or Italian-Style).  I set out to make just that.  Lentils with Greens.  Of course, before I knew it my Middle Eastern cooking impulses took over and I made an old favorite using a recipe I had learned while living in Abu Dhabi many years ago.  At that time in my life I found this recipe rather exotic.  Now it is every day fare.  And comforting as well.  And who can resist easy-to-make, comforting, vaguely exotic food that just improves the next day?

Middle Eastern-Style Lentils with Tomatoes and Spinach
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)

2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 leek, white parts and pale green only, roughly chopped (or substitute an onion)
2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 heaping teaspoons ground coriander (preferably ground from freshly toasted coriander seeds)
1 heaping teaspoon ground cumin (preferably ground from freshly toasted cumin seeds)
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste (about 1/2 teaspoon)
2 cups dried lentils
4 cups water
1 14 1/2-oz can chopped tomatoes with juice
2 large bunches spinach, about 4 cups, roughly chopped
Sea salt, to taste
Natural yogurt, for serving

Heat the olive oil in a large pot.  Add the leeks and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add the garlic, ground coriander, ground cumin, and black pepper.  Cooking for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.  

Sautéing the leeks, garlic, and spices

Add the lentils, water, and tomatoes with their juice.  Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover, and simmer for 30 minutes, or until lentils are soft, but not mushy.  Add the spinach and more water if necessary (the lentils should be somewhat soupy).  Cover and cook for 5 minutes, then add salt to taste. Cook for an additional 2 minutes or until spinach is tender.

Serve with a dollop of natural yogurt.


Luckily, I had some left-over sweet potato biscuits to go with the lentils--just to add that touch of Southern comfort to our humble meal. I love it when cultures blend.  I love it when people blend as well.

To go with the ham we enjoyed at our friends' for Christmas dinner, I had made potato salad and sweet potato biscuits.  Originally, I had intended to make my Aunt Sibby's sweet potato biscuits, the best I have ever eaten, but when I checked my family recipe, I knew I couldn't post it here.  "Take some cooked sweet potatoes, add enough flour..."  well...that works for some cooks, but not all.  So I ended up using Paula Deen's measurements instead.  I miscalculated my timing and ended not rolling out the dough and cutting it.  I made drop biscuits instead, and just gently patted them into shape.  The photo with the smaller biscuits shows actual mini-drop biscuits, lovingly made on my Mom's old cookie sheet--for added flavor, a dollop of love, and cozy Christmas memories.

Sweet Potato Biscuits
(Recipe by Paula Deen, from Food Network)

Cook's Note:  I doubled this recipe, making 24 regular biscuits and 12 minis.  If you wanted to give these a Mexican twist, simply add some canned chipotle chiles in adobo to the potatoes when mashing/mixing them.


  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 heaping tablespoons sugar
  • 4 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup mashed cooked sweet potatoes
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) softened butter
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons milk (depending on the moisture of the potatoes)


Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate, large bowl, mix the sweet potatoes and butter. Add the flour mixture to the potato mixture and mix to make a soft dough. Then add milk a tablespoon at a time to mixture and continue to cut in. Turn the dough out onto a floured board and toss lightly until the outside of the dough looks smooth. Roll the dough out to 1/2-inch thick and cut with a biscuit cutter. Place the biscuits on a greased pan and coat tops with melted butter. Bake for about 15 minutes. (Watch your oven: If the biscuits are browning too fast, lower the temperature.)

Smaller, drop-style biscuits--on my Mom's old cookie sheet

Right out of the oven--because I couldn't wait

And now for the seasoning trick I promised.  Thirty-five years ago, after graduate school, I moved to Abu Dhabi.  Everything I saw, everyone I met, everything I was exposed to seemed exotic and fascinating to me.  And nothing more so than the new foods I encountered.  Thrilled by this new exposure to a world of spices previously unknown to me, I set out to learn to cook new dishes in new ways.  I hounded my friends and sometimes their cooks, about new recipes, new ingredients, new techniques.  And one small seasoning trick that I learned stuck with me--one small trick that always yields pleasant results, one small thing I have used over and over and over.  And here it is:

A Seasoning Trick
Often in Indian recipes and in the cooking of the Arabian Gulf, ground coriander seeds and ground cumin seeds team up.  But there is a perfect ratio that shines, a perfect blending of these two spices that yields a result that is bright and sharp from the coriander seeds as well as musky and deep from the cumin-- flavors that always speak to me of Gulf cooking.  The ratio?  Use two parts coriander seeds to one part cumin seeds.  That's it. But trust me, this works beautifully in an array of dishes.  Try toasting the seeds using the two-to-one ratio in a dry skillet.  Grind them in a spice- or clean coffee-grinder.  Add them to hot ghee, butter, or oil when preparing rice pilafs; add them in the same way to any grain dish (quinoa, barley, brown rice, etc).  Sauté them in the  ghee/butter/or oil and drizzle them over precooked vegetables--or coat vegetables before roasting with the same.  Use the same blend for seasoning chick peas.  Sauté onions, garlic, the spices, and tomatoes.  Use as is, or add rice and water and broth.  I dare say this same mix of spices could be added dry to the sweet potato biscuits for a slightly different flavor.  So many possibilites.  It's the ratio that counts.  It really is a perfect blend.


I am sending this post to the My Legume Love Affair #30, begun by Susan Wolfe of The Well-Seasoned Cook blog.  This month's host is Priya Mitharwal from her delightful blog from Rajisthan.  Visit Priya's blog for the December roundup of legume recipes from bloggers around the world.

Victoria Challancin
Flavors of the Sun International Cooking School
San Miguel de Allende, México

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

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