23 February 2012

On my own time again

  I’m squatting down in front of my oven, watching carrots roasting. They lie there, calmly, the tendrils of bubbling olive oil all around, surrendering to the heat, their orange gradually getting toned, their frame less unyielding. That heady and sweet smell of roasting carrot – a whiff so timid when the vegetable is raw, almost non-existent -- percolates the room, gently wafting through the air, through a haze in my head.

Today’s morning was a struggle with my alarm. I’ve never been the one to jump out of bed at the first command of my clock (ungodly hour, be damned!), but this time I felt especially resentful, muting the reminder again and again for almost an hour, denying time the right to rob me off my sleep. Finally I relent. I can’t not to – I’ll be late for work otherwise. I hastily get ready, foregoing breakfast (a crime!). I walk out the doorway, my heels knocking through the gelatinous early morning silence of the hallway, the loudest sound in the building so far. I assess my looks in the elevator mirror; maybe one more spray of perfume and a smear of a lipstick wouldn’t hurt. Angry gusts of wind make me gasp as I step outside; all my vitals cringe at the thought of cycling all the way to work -- twenty five minutes, give or take -- so I hop on my bike and pedal to the nearest tram station instead, the neurotic electric buzz of street lamps having a monopoly in the air at this hour.

I start my day at work with a thick, almost syrupy, espresso, a usual ritual. Caffeine reaches my bloodstream a handful of minutes later, and I start feeling a rush, the high from the espresso. The beeping of the ovens and the clanking of the pots and whisks don’t vex me anymore. I’m alert and wakeful, and get on with starting baguette dough, making brownies and fruit pies, first things on my agenda. My back aches, a nerve got pinched in the recesses of my spine during my sleep. I probably should reserve my energy and go about my day at a slower clip, but I must not. Everything has to be done fast; the dough, the butter, the oven, they are intolerant to how one feels. I proceed. I fold butter squares into large yeasty dough pieces to make croissants, four batches in total. By the time I’m done with that it’s nearly mid-morning. My stomach rumbles full on. I’m ravenous, but it’s still a couple hours before a lunch break, the full fifteen minutes carved out for a hurried Serrano ham sandwich. Before that happens, I take another espresso, and another one, in the hope it’ll curb my hunger. And it does just that. But I don’t drink enough water, and soon after light-headedness creeps in. It’s time to do the last roll out of the croissant dough; every piece seems to weigh a ton. When the caffeine grip loosens up, fog sets in my head. It takes more focus to stay focused. I have to measure equal triangles in the dough to be rolled up in croissants, but my hand is rickety, and the triangles come out erratic, one is way too big, another rather small. I keep thinking of what’s for dinner tonight.

I restore to my feet from my squatting stance and slice an onion into thin rings. I throw them in with the carrots, rinse red lentils and arrange spices I need – smoked Spanish paprika and cayenne – next to the stove. The aroma of roasting onion gentles me back into comfort. I’m glad to be home, on my own time again. Anthony is napping on the couch; instead of chatting with him I turn to a book, getting pleasantly lost in lyrical words, sentences, in somebody else’s world. A buzzer comes off, the vegetables must be ready. And they are: the carrots have softened, the onion browned.
In under half an hour roasted carrot and red lentil soup will be ready. All I have to do now is to cut the carrots in bite-sized chunks, consign them to a pot, along with the onion rings, a pinch of cayenne and smoked paprika, the lentils and some stock. As the soup softly bubbles away, I turn back to reading, patiently waiting for the heat to transform the lot into a welcoming and delicious – smoky, spicy, nubbly, sweet – mess. 

Roasted Carrot and Red Lentil Soup
Yield: 4-6 servings, depending how hungry you are

3/4 kilo (1 1/2 pounds) carrots, peeled
5 Tbsp olive oil

1 tsp salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
3/4 tsp Aleppo pepper (I skipped this – had none)
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper, or to taste
1/8 tsp smoked Spanish paprika*
200 g (1 cup) red lentils, picked over and rinsed
1 1/4 L (5 cups) chicken or vegetable stock, or water
Fresh parsley for garnish (optional)

1. Warm up the oven to 200 degrees C (400 degrees F). Put the carrots in a roasting pan or on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper and toss with 3 Tbsp olive oil. Sprinkle over the salt and some freshly ground black pepper; roast for 20 minutes. Turn the carrots (use a pair of kitchen tongs for the task – convenient and not finger-scorching), throw in the onion and roast for another 15 minutes, until the carrots and soft and visibly toned. When carrots are cool enough to handle, cut them in bite-sized chunks, or use a fork or a knife as leverage if you can’t wait.

2. In a medium pot, heat 2 Tbsp olive oil. Add the carrots and the onion, together with the cayenne and paprika (and the Aleppo pepper, if using). Cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the lentils, the stock or water, and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook, stirring every now and then to avoid scorching, for about 20-25 minutes, until the lentils are mushy. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot, garnished with finely chopped fresh parsley (if using).

*In Amsterdam, smoked Spanish paprika is available, for instance, from Hollandaluz, a Spanish delicatessen at Haarlemmerstraat 71.