Friday, November 5, 2010

Red stuff?

This week's Torah reading, Parshat Toledot, leaves open many questions.  Which brother is really meant to serve which (the text is oracular and ambiguous)? Why is there room for only one blessing in the house of Isaac?  Does Jacob really fool Isaac with his cheesy disguise?  But in my mind, one question surmounts all the others.  How did lentil stew become the red stuff that Esau demanded in exchange for his birthright, without red pepper or tomato, which are new world ingredients and not available at all in the Middle East until the sixteenth century?

I have been worrying about this for over 30 years, and I am no closer to a solution.  Red, or actually salmon colored skinned lentils turn yellow with cooking.  Well-browned onions are, well, brown.  I can't imagine beets doing anything for this dish.  Part of the answer may lie in the semantic range of the word adom, which may only approximate that of the color red.  My college Latin teacher wrote her master's thesis on color terms across a number of languages, particularly the Romance languages, English,  Japanese and classical Latin and Greek, and used to talk all the time about how variable color terms are across cultures. I remember teaching English to Cambodian refugees in the Bronx in the early 1980s, and how they gave me a hard time when I said that an apple was red, and I am talking about a Red Delicious or Macintosh, not a Granny Smith.  The redness of the apple seemed axiomatic to me, but they would not be convinced, and saw more green, yellow or even brown.

So who knows what made the red stuff red, and if it was even what we would call red.  But, if you want to make the recipe for yourself, here is a recipe for lentil stew:

Lentil Stew (not really red)

  • 2 tablespoons or more of olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
  • 1 large onion, diced
    1 cup lentils, preferably French green lentils or whole masoor dal, washed well
  • Salt and pepper, butter and lemon to taste
For serving
  • Browned onions (optional but very desirable -- you will be tempted to sell your birthright too if you smell these cooking):  Saute 1  large onion, sliced in thin  half moons and lightly salted, in plenty of olive oil in a non stick skillet until well browned.  It takes time, so be patient, and be careful so they crisp without burning.  Start on high heat and turn it down as they  color and shrivel.
  • Chopped vegetable salad:  cukes, tomatoes, radishes, scallions, green peppers diced fine and either mixed together or kept separately.
  •  Plain boiled brown or white rice and/or pita bread.
  • Cubed feta cheese
  • Tahini sauce:  smash a clove of garlic with a little salt and mash to a puree.Mix in 1/4 cup of tahini.  Mix in 1 tablespoon of lemon juice.  It will get tough.  Add water very slowly, until it gets tougher and then thins out to the texture of thick cream.  It will take most likely  between 1/2 and 3/4 cup of water.
  1. Heat olive oil on medium.  Add cumin seed and saute until they turn a few shades darker.  Be careful not to brown.
  2. Add onions and salt lightly, and saute until light brown.
  3. Add lentils, saute with onions for a minute, and add 3 cups of water.
  4. Simmer until tender, about 1/2 hour.  Boil off extra water or add more if necessary.
  5. Add salt and pepper to taste and stir in a little butter and lemon.
  6. Serves about 4 with the garnishes.

Shabbat shalom!

1 comment:

  1. Alex and I made the thank god soup last night, in honor. And judging from Facebook, every other Jew I know made some variant. But Alex took issue--do we want to be like Esau in any way?