I start making dinner around 5. The cupboards are bare, the fridge even more so but there’s enough. It becomes a game to me. I’ll pretend I’m on a game show where the contestants are presented with a bare fridge and told to cook. With a bit of time and ingenuity I wow the judges with a restaurant worthy dish prepared with few ingredients and a bit of pluck. I’m not on tv, I’m in my own kitchen and dinner must be made.
Digging deep into the pantry I brush pass the jars of rice and beans and the crumbled mess of random plastic bags holding odd bits of nuts and dried fruit. I reach for the cracked yellow lentils, a purchase I made months ago at an indian market. Tonight I’ll make dal. I don’t have all of the very few ingredients listed on the recipe but I make do substituting parsley for cilantro and red onion for yellow. I ignore the instruction to use ghee and grab butter instead.
While the yellow beans dance in the simmering water I busy myself elsewhere discarding the contents of several tupperware containers clearing out even more space in the desolate fridge. A turkey caracas becomes stock which I’ll later accidentally leave out overnight having been too resolute in finishing Stranger Things and subsequently too fearful to wander into the dark kitchen alone.
I slowly sip on a glass of wine while pressing and pulling soft balls of dough into flat rounds. They puff and expand on the griddle and soak in the buttery bath I lavish on them. The red onions temper and melt in the not-ghee with cumin seeds and a dried chile while I rewarm Saturday’s rice that I plucked from the fridge like buried treasure.
The food sits idly on the table while I wait not-so-patiently for the dinner time routine to commence. Hands must be washed and the table set. We all finally sit down and find plates in front of us but no utensils or water glasses. I scoff under my breath and wonder how many times have we done this and why is it still never done correctly? When will they learn and when did I become that mom who cares so deeply about missing water glasses.
Dinner has interrupted the kids playtime outside with the neighbors. They come inside still behaving as if they are outside with raised voices, thunderous applause and raucous cheering. I miss the quiet of the stove, the rhythmic stirring and the company of my wine glass. But we’re here now, at the table and the hour I’ve just spent in the kitchen culminates to this moment; the five of us around the table.
The kids happily eat the food and give me sweet praises for this simple meal. It helps that there is homemade bread to hug the dal and to motivate a second helping. They are kind but they are antsy and our conversation never moves beyond Gabe and I continually barking orders. “Sit down. Ask nicely for what you need. Legs off the table. Quick!! Go get something to clean that up! Yes, you may be excused.”
After many reminders the kids clear the table then scurry off to resume what they were doing before dinner interrupted them.
“Well that was completely unsatisfying.” I say to Gabe as we work together to clean the kitchen. I’m feeling completely dejected. It’s not just that I’m frustrated with the kids and their behavior but also with myself. That I wasn’t able to turn dinner into something more than a lesson in table manners. My slumped shoulders, rolling eyes and constant demands hung heavy on the table.
I want the table to be a place of refuge for all of us. A place we look forward to meeting. Where plates of warm food fuel us and the conversation and connection feeds us. I dream of gathering at the table when our three are adults, we’ll gather less often but the familiarity of the place makes us feel immediately comfortable and we fall into the same rhythm. I don’t want the table to be a place where they have to feel like they have to behave perfectly or act a certain way in order for mom to be pleased.
We come to the table broken, empty, imperfect, human and we are met there with grace, love and sustenance. The table is the place we revive ourselves so that we can exist in a world away from the table. It’s our fueling station, an anchor in a world that makes us feel like a boat ripped and pulled in towering waves. We crash and slam against the shore, our wood splinters, we’re thrown about but the table is the calm. At least that’s what I want it to be.
Of course at some point they must learn that legs aren’t meant to be on the table and conversations about certain body parts and actions those body parts are capable of should be saved for another time but I am determined to fight harder for connection over compliance and not let their imperfect actions keep us away from the table.
The table is worth fighting for. What happens there won’t ever be perfect as those of us who sit around it aren’t but it can be beautiful and powerful. As I get older I realize that life isn’t about a few momentous occasions such as weddings, the birth of our children or work successes but rather it’s the repeated small things that become traditions and rituals. Those are what we remember and strive to recreate when we’re needing an anchor to steady us. Those rituals become our comfort. The rest is ceremony.
Tara's Everyday Yellow Dal
Serves 4 to 6
We’ve since made this dish many many times in our house. It’s one of those rare recipes that everyone in the family applauds, it easy to throw together and even easier on the wallet – and this time of year that is such a bonus.
This recipe comes directly from my friend, Tara, and her stunning book, Seven Spoons. I’ve kept the recipe in her words because she writes so beautifully. Her entire book is a stunner – add it to your wish list if you don’t already have it.
As I mentioned in the post I made a few tweaks here and there based on what was available in my pantry (I used butter, red onion, and parsley) so you can trust that this recipe will serve you well even if it’s not followed perfectly.
For the dal:
1 cup (225 g) moong dal (split yellow lentils)
3 cups (710 ml) water
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
Medium-grain kosher salt
For the tarka:
2 tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 small onion, minced
1 or 2 fresh or dried whole red chiles
Leaves picked from a small bunch of cilantro
Fresh lime wedges
To make the dal, in a medium heavy saucepan, cover the dal with water. Swish the lentils around with your hand, then drain the water through a fine-mesh sieve. Return any dal from the sieve to the saucepan and repeat, washing, agitating, and draining, until the water runs absolutely clear. It will probably take 7 to 10 changes of water. Pour the 3 cups (710 ml) of water into the pot to cover the lentils. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, skim any scum that rises to the surface, then lower the heat to maintain a simmer. Add the turmeric and cook until the dal is quite creamy, 45 to 60 minutes. Stir the dal regularly as it simmers or it can catch at the bottom of the pan and burn. If the dal starts to look dry before the lentils are cooked, add hot water (from the tap is fine). Season well with salt.
About 20 minutes before the dal is done, make the tarka. Melt the ghee over low heat. Fry the cumin seeds for maybe 1 minute, until sizzling and fragrant. Add the onion and chile and cook, stirring, until the onion is very soft and translucent, 15 minutes. When the dal is ready, tip the tarka over the dal, stir to partially combine, then sprinkle the cilantro on top. Serve right away with lime wedges and naan or over rice.