Monthly Archives: February 2015

Spiced red lentils with cucumber yogurt

Up until this weekend, when we thankfully received our first rains of 2015, it hadn’t rained in Berkeley in months. With no mushrooms to inspire me, combined with the fact that I’ve been in hardcore dissertation writing mode lately, I haven’t taken as much time to cook. But I’m still a poor PhD student and cannot afford to eat out every night, so I was in search of a dish that was healthy, cheap, and easy to prepare. I turned to my old friend Yotam Ottolenghi for some inspiration, and I found this lovely lentil dish “Spiced red lentils with cucumber yogurt” on p. 221 of Plenty, which can be found online here.

Ingredients for curried red lentils

Ingredients for spiced red lentils.

I do not know why it took me so long to discover lentils. Lentils are the perfect food, especially for a PhD student low on funds such as me.  Lentils are really healthy and cheap, and when prepared correctly, can be super delicious and satisfying. Let me tell you, this dish prepares them correctly. This dish is THE BOMB.  It has flavor and spice up the wazoo. As a fair warning, there are a lot of spices involved, all of which I thankfully already own due to the spice buying investments I’ve been making over the last year. But trust me, this dish is so worth it.  You have to soak the lentils in water for 30 minutes prior to cooking, and since I already had the lentils, I placed them in water before heading out to the Berkeley Bowl to grocery shop, so they had ample time to soak.

Limes, cucumbers, ginger, garlic, and onion

Limes, cucumbers, ginger, garlic, and onion for the curried lentils.

Upon returning from the Berkeley Bowl, I started by making the chopped onion mix. I cut off the stalks of the cilantro and roughly chopped the leaves and set those aside. Then I stuck the cilantro stalks in my food processor, followed by a finely diced onion.

Onion mixture in the food processor

Onion, garlic, ginger, green chile, and cilantro in the food processor.

Then I added 3 peeled garlic cloves, 2.5 inches peeled ginger, and a fresh chile. I used a serrano chile, which I removed the seeds from, but presumably any green chile would work.  This mix is a flavor powerhouse. It smelled so fresh and delicious.


This onion, garlic, cilantro, chile mixture was a flavor POWERHOUSE. It smelled so good!

Place a large pan on medium heat and put the mustard seeds in it and wait for them to pop. They start to sound sort of like popcorn – it’s pretty fun! Then add the 4 tbsp sunflower oil and the onion mixture. This is such a flavorful mix – I’m definitely going to have to start employing it in more of my cooking.

While the onion mixture cooks, I mixed together the spices. Mix 1.5 tsp coriander, 1 tsp cumin, 0.5 tsp turmeric, and 0.25 tsp (sweet) paprika. I used regular paprika since I don’t have sweet, but all in all this is a pretty standard curry mix. The one ingredient I did not have was the curry leaves, which I read online you could substitute with basil and a dash of lemon. After the onion mix has been cooking for 10 minutes, add the spices and leaves and cook for 5 minutes.

Coriander, cumin, turmeric, paprika spice mix

Coriander, cumin, turmeric, and paprika spice mixture.

The spices and onion mixture smelled so good while they were simmering! My whole apartment smelled amazing. Two friends dropped by my apartment to pick something up while I was cooking and commented on how good it smelled as soon as they entered the door. Between you and me, I think they were pretty jealous that they weren’t invited over for dinner!

Onion mixture with spice mix and basil leaves

Onion mixture with spice mix and basil leaves.

While the mixture is cooking, take the time to open up a can of peeled chopped tomatoes or to chop up some fresh tomatoes. Peeling tomatoes seemed like too much work for me so I just threw them in whole, and then I added the red lentils with the water they had been soaking in.

Spice and onion mixture with red lentils and tomatoes

Spice and onion mixture with red lentils and tomatoes.

While the lentils simmer for 30 minutes, mix together the Greek yogurt with diced cucumber and olive oil. Once the lentils are cooked, stir in some butter. Ottolenghi suggests 1/3 cup unsalted butter, but I used closer to 2 tbsp. Squeeze the juice from 1 fresh lime and add that to the lentils, and mix in the chopped cilantro leaves that you had set aside earlier. Serve the lentils in bowls, and top with a dollop of the Greek yogurt mixture. While this may not be the best photogenic dish ever, I swear it tasted divine.

Curried red lentils with Greek yogurt and cucumber

Curried red lentils with Greek yogurt and cucumber.

This is definitely going to be my new go-to for a simple and healthy mid-week dish. Especially when there are no mushrooms around!


  • 1 cup split red lentils
  • 1.5 cups water
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • 1 small onion, peeled
  • 2.5 inches fresh ginger
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 mild fresh green chile
  • 1.5 tsp black mustard seeds
  • 4 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 1.5 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 0.5 tsp ground turmeric
  • 0.25 tsp sweet paprika (I don’t have sweet paprika so I used plain paprika)
  • 10 curry leaves (I didn’t have these so I used basil with a dash of lemon juice, which I read online was a good substitute)
  • 1.75 cups peeled chopped tomatoes (fresh or canned)
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 0.25 tsp fenugreek (I didn’t have this so I used garlic salt)
  • pinch of asafetida (optional)
  • salt
  • 3/4 cup Greek yogurt
  • 3/4 finely diced cucumber
  • 1.5 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/3 cup unsalted butter (as much as you like)
  • 1.5 tbsp lime juice

Pesto pasta with yellowfoot chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms

I’d been wanting to go back to Humboldt and Del Norte Counties ever since I visited them for the first time last year. MLK weekend gave the perfect opportunity to make the long drive north. Hiking through the majestic giant redwood forests made me feel like I took a giant leap back in time; I wouldn’t be surprised if a T-Rex came rambling around the next corner.

Majestic giant redwoods in Redwood National Park

Majestic giant redwoods in Redwood National Park

Humboldt is truly spectacular. The towns of Eureka and Arcata are charming, friendly, and have fantastic food. Humboldt County gets an average of 55 inches of precipitation per year, which is nearly double the precipitation of Berkeley at 25.4 inches of rain per year. This means good things for mushrooms! People really appreciate foraged food up there, and I ate a delicious wild mushroom casserole at this cozy gem in Eureka, Brick and Fire Bistro. Usually when I mushroom hunt I just use the Berkeley Mycology baskets that I borrow from lab. But in Arcata they were selling beautiful mushroom baskets, and I finally got one my very own!

My very own mushroom basket!

My very own mushroom basket!

I was lucky to get some insider tips on some legal places to mushroom hunt, and here we are foraging in one of those special spots. Isn’t it spectacular?

Taking a walk through 'mushroom heaven' in Humboldt

Taking a walk through ‘mushroom heaven’ in Humboldt

We found some some awesomely giant yellow foot chanterelles, which were at least double in size beyond what I’ve ever found before. Must be all that rain they get in Humboldt!


Giant yellow foot chanterelles

I also found some adorable hedgehog mushrooms, which if you’ve read my previous blog posts, you might remember are distinguished because they have teeth instead of gills.

Hedgehog mushrooms have teeth!

Hedgehog mushrooms have teeth!

Now what to cook with my gorgeous mushrooms? I’ve already made lasagna, polenta, frittata, risotto, and pizza featuring wild mushrooms. This time I wanted to make something simple and filling but that would highlight the delicious prized edible mushrooms. I always clean my mushrooms and start cooking them first before starting with the rest of the meal because it is important that they are cooked well, and of course I view them as the centerpiece of the dish :) This time I decided to try making a quick pesto pasta to serve as a bed for the mushrooms.

Browned hedgehog mushrooms.

Browned hedgehog mushrooms.

The trick with cooking mushrooms is that it is really important to just leave them alone after you put them in the hot pan that has been coated with oil or butter. They need time to just hang out and do their thing. It takes a while for all of the excess water to boil off  – it never ceases to amaze me how much mushrooms can shrink down! Then it takes a while for them to get that nice brown color and crispiness that makes them taste so good. So trust me when I tell you to relax and go do something else while the mushrooms are in the sauté pan, and let them get nice and brown before you start mixing them up with your spatula. At the very end you can add salt and then set them aside.

Yellow foot chanterelles

Yellow foot chanterelles

While the mushrooms were browning, I got started on the pesto. Having never made a pesto sauce before, I turned to the internet and found a great recipe here. Why have I never made pesto from scratch before? It is so easy! It is so much more vibrant and fresh tasting when you make it at home and the ingredients are very simple. It is also very easy to modify if you have a specific nut or cheese allergy. The recipe I used suggests using walnuts as an alternative to pine nuts, and I’ve also heard of people replacing the pine nuts with almonds.

Ingredients for the pesto: olive oil, garlic, basil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese.

Ingredients for the pesto: olive oil, garlic, basil, pine nuts, parmesan cheese.

The ingredients for pesto are simple: olive oil, parmesan cheese, garlic, basil, and pine nuts. The first step is to wash the basil leaves and place them into a food processor with the pine nuts and pulse them a few times.

Pine nuts and basil in the food processor

Pine nuts and basil in the food processor

Next, add the garlic cloves and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

Basil, pine nuts, and garlic.

Basil, pine nuts, and garlic.

Basil, pine nuts, garlic, and Parmesan

Basil, pine nuts, garlic, and Parmesan cheese.

Next, pulse several more times until well mixed. Then slowly start streaming in olive oil as the food processor is mixing the rest of the ingredients. I would say the amount of olive oil you add is up to you depending on how chunky you like your pesto. Prior to making the pesto, which is really quick and only takes 5-10 minutes total, I had boiled some water and made some pasta. Once the pesto was finished, I mixed it in with the pasta and added a few extra pine nuts and some shredded Parmesan cheese on top.

Home made pesto mixed with  pasta topped with extra pine nuts and Parmesan.

Home made pesto mixed with pasta topped with extra pine nuts and Parmesan.

To me, the point of the pasta was really only to play a supporting role to the freshly foraged mushrooms, so I loaded lots of crispy sautéed mushrooms on top.

Pesto pasta with hedgehog and yellow foot chanterelles on top.

Pesto pasta with hedgehog and yellow foot chanterelles on top.


Simple pesto pasta to accompany freshly foraged hedgehog and yellow foot chanterelles.

It turned out deliciously. Patrick was obsessed with the pesto and scarfed down all of the excess pesto that wasn’t used for the pasta by spooning it onto pieces of baguette. For me, I cannot wait to get back to Humboldt and hike in the redwoods and forage for mushrooms again. For Patrick, he cannot wait for me to make the next batch of home made pesto!