"Hope is a good breakfast," Aster Ketsela Belayneh, owner of Ethiopian restaurant Addis Ababa, says in The Recipe of Love: An Ethiopian Cookbook. That's a statement I can get behind.
I rise in the morning for strong coffee and breakfast, even if "strong coffee" means gulping from a travel mug as I power walk to the subway and act as though I am immune to humidity, and even if "breakfast" translates roughly into quickly devouring a bowl of plain yogurt laced with fresh peaches, cinnamon, chopped walnuts and a drizzle of clover honey, almost forgetting to chew.
I'm not sure what would get me out of bed otherwise. The promise of a beach day? A trip to the moon? It's hard to compete with breakfast. And coffee -- there is something about coffee brewing, perfuming the air with that lovely warm aroma, that sends my senses ablaze. It's comforting. Almost every morning, like clock work, I pull out my favourite green mug from the cupboard and pour in a little cream, anticipating that first rich taste. It's a small ritual, nearly insignificant, but I suppose that is when I hope -- when I dare to plant a mental seed for the day.
I hesitated for a while about posting this recipe, hoed and hummed a little. People tend to turn off whenever I broach the subject of vegetarian cuisine -- oh the controversy! However! This recipe is delicious. Very delicious. And, joy of joys, it comes with an anecdote.
Once upon a time, I was sixteen -- hard to believe, I know. I met a girl in my creative writing class in high school who seemed to speak another language; she was an outspoken environmental activist, a spirited writer and, fortunately for me, had excellent taste in music. We exchanged poetry and talked Tori Amos and violins, and she introduced me to Bob Dylan, a musician, who, surprise surprise, quickly became one of my great loves. So it came to pass that one Friday night in the winter of 2001 two smart women found themselves at Marathon, an Ethiopian restaurant on University Ave. in downtown Windsor, talking about projects and the future, our lives open before us like blank books.
I've gone back over the years. It's interesting to see the evolution from where I was at sixteen to who I am at twenty-four. I eventually lost touch with the girl when she left to plant trees up North one summer and we went our separate ways. But, she gave me Marathon, she gave me Mr. Dylan, and she provided me with this entry. She also managed to successfully accomplish a crucial and difficult feat: to make high school interesting.
To provide a bit of background on Ethiopian food for those of you who are unfamiliar: Ethiopian meals are served traditionally with injera, a thin pancake of a bread that bears some similarities to sourdough. Injera serves as both the plate and the utensil in this case. Diners huddle over one or two plates together, depending on the size of the group, and eat. This practice may sound odd to Westerners, but might appeal to those who often enjoy sharing meals. "People who eat off the same plate will never betray each other," a popular Ethiopian proverb goes.
My favourite dish and one I've come to rely on heavily over the last couple months is a red lentil stew called Miser Wat (see also Meser Wat, Yemiser Wat, Miser Watt and Miser Wet.) While the meat-based dishes are wonderful in and of themselves, it is the vegetarian ones that truly shine. I serve this stew hot over brown rice, but it's also fabulous with injera or served atop white rice (I recommend basmati.) The preparation is a little involved and time consuming, but, I promise, low-maintenance. As an added bonus, the stew freezes and re-heats extremely well, and apart from the requisite spices, the ingredients called for in most Ethiopian recipes are relatively inexpensive. If hope is a good breakfast, then perhaps peace is a good dinner.
And tomorrow? I'm going to wake up early and eat my breakfast.
Serves 3-4 (1/2 cup servings)
2 tbsp clarified butter or ghee (unsalted butter is also fine)
1 cooking onion, diced
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and minced
5-7 tbsp Berbere spice*
2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
1/8 cup heavy-bodied, dry red wine (optional)
1 cup red lentils
3-4 cups warm water or good tasting vegetable stock
1 tbsp sea salt + more to taste
Cayenne pepper or harissa, to taste (optional)
Rice or injera
Romaine lettuce, roughly chopped
5 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice + zest of the lemon
Sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste
In a large, high-rimmed skillet heat the butter or ghee over medium-high heat and add the onion. Cook the onion until it has softened and begins to caramelize, about five minutes, and add the ginger and garlic. Using a wooden spoon, mix the aromatics well to ensure everything is evenly coated in butter. Once fragrant, incorporate the Berbere spice. Add tomatoes, paste, wine (if using), lentils, and 3 cups of warm water or heated stock (you might need more) and bring to a boil. Reduce to a strong simmer and continue to cook, covered, for an additional 30-40 minutes, or until the structure of the lentils loosens. Keep an eye out on the liquid and add more water or stock as necessary, 1/2 cup at a time. The starch from the lentils will thicken the mixture substantially, but you're looking for a consistency similar to that of pea soup.
In the meantime, make the vinaigrette for an accompanying salad. Wat is generally served alongside collard greens (usually kale) and/or surrounded by a simple lettuce and tomato salad dressed with a very light-tasting vinaigrette. My preference is for regular Romaine lettuce hit with a more aggressive punch; the lemon juice cuts the spiciness of the dish extremely well and adds brightness to the stew. To assemble the vinaigrette, mix the lemon juice with the olive oil and whisk vigorously to emulsify. Add salt and cracked black pepper to taste, and adjust your vinegar/oil ratio to your preference. Dress the roughly chopped lettuce five minutes before the lentil dish is complete so that the lettuce has a chance to absorb the vinaigrette.
Once the lentils have finished cooking, stir in the salt and adjust the seasoning.
To serve, layer the plates with the salad, rice, and lentil stew in that order. If serving on injera, scoop the stew over the injera and place the salad separtely on the injera. Let cool to desired temperature and eat, adding cayenne pepper or harissa if desired and salting to taste. The amount of salt needed will depend on the spice mixture used; mine is salt-free, and so I tend to salt liberally.
Best consumed within five days or freeze for future use.
*You should be able to find Berbere spice at any spice store or international grocer, but if not, try this recipe. Start with 4-5 tablespoons and add more to taste. I know the spice mix calls for many different spices, but Berbere (pronounced BUR-berry) is incomparable to anything else out there and is an essential ingredient in many Ethiopian dishes.