My Old Job

April 25, 2013

My first job working with food kind of fell in my lap.  I had a good friend who had recently hired a personal chef.  While she liked the convenience, she found the food heavy and not all that inspired.  Without thinking too carefully I said, “I’ll cook for you.”  Without thinking too carefully she said, “OK.”  And suddenly, poof!, I was a personal chef.  The arrangement worked out for both of us and my friend recommended me to another family.  Up until I had Spencer, I cooked for those two families three nights a week.

When all was said and done, I did that job for three years.  I had my two regular families for all that time and a few others who stopped and started.  Graham, who is now eight, was 17 months old when I started cooking for money and I did it through my pregnancy with Spencer and, after a short maternity leave, when he was an infant.  I was lucky to have had very flexible clients who were great eaters and were just happy to eat whatever I brought them.  I was able to be creative and make a serious dent in my “want to make” recipe file.

I kept notebooks with every menu I ever made.  It is amazing to look back and see the food I was able to produce in my kitchen with very small children and not a lot of time.  In all three years, I almost never repeated dishes and when I did, it was because someone had made a request.  I’ve been thinking about those days recently because I’ve been thinking about whether or not I’d like to start personal cheffing again.  I loved doing it and the only reason I stopped is because I found the work too solitary.  Teaching cooking classes allowed me to have prep time alone but then to share time and food with others.

Whenever I think about starting up again, I think of this dinner.  It was the first thing I made for my first client and I agonized over the choice.  I felt so much pressure (from myself) for the meal to be a hit.  I wanted so badly to succeed.  Because of that, I went to a no-fail cookbook, Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen, and made a favorite dish.

Over the years since I hung up the personal chef hat, I have made this dish many times.  I’ve made others like it too – I just really like my red lentils.  They are quick cooking and healthy and in about the time it takes for the rice to cook, you have a tasty and nutritious meal.  Recently I saw tables full of broccoli romanesco at the farmers’ market and whenever I see that beautiful vegetable, I always think of this dish.  After several years of making other versions of red lentil dhal, it was nice to come back to an old favorite.  There are a lot of steps to her recipe, and a little underseasoning, so I tweaked it to my current tastes.  Still, a classic is a classic.

One Year Ago:  Ginger Fried Rice with Roasted Tempeh, Maple Blueberry Tea Cake
Two Years Ago:  Butterscotch Pudding Tarts, Greek Salad
Three Years Ago:  Leek Frittata, Strawberry Ricotta Tartlets
Four Years Ago:  Ricotta Calzones with Broccoli Rabe, Miso Soup
Fragrant Red Lentils  with Broccoli Romanesco
Adapted from Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen
Serves 4

The final swirl of spices in oil might sound like an annoying extra step but it is really what makes this dish special.  I like to use coconut oil in this type of cooking but feel free to use butter, ghee, or another type of oil.

3 tbsp. coconut oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large jalapeño chile, seeded and diced
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1½ tsp. ground turmeric
¼ tsp. cayenne
2 cups red lentils
1 bay leaf
Kosher or sea salt
1 can coconut milk
1/3 cup finely chopped cilantro, plus extra for garnish
1 head broccoli romanesco or cauliflower, cut into bite sized pieces
1 tsp. mustard seeds
1 tsp. cumin seeds
Cooked basmati rice for serving

Place a large saucepan over medium heat.  Spoon in about 1 tablespoon of the coconut oil, then add the onion and a large pinch of salt.  When the onion is translucent and starting to brown, about 5 minutes, add the ginger, garlic and chile.  Sauté for a couple of minutes, then add the ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, and cayenne.  Stir for one minute, then add the lentils.  Stir to coat the lentils with the spices, then pour in 3 cups of water.  Turn up the heat so the mixture boils, then add the bay leaf, and turn the heat down so the mixture simmers.  Partially cover the pot and cook until the lentils are soft and most of the water is absorbed, about 15 minutes.

Add the coconut milk and simmer for another few minutes until the lentils are very soft and falling apart.  Remove from the heat and stir in the cilantro.  Cover and keep warm.

Steam the broccoli romanesco or cauliflower until tender.

To finish, heat another tablespoon of coconut oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the mustard and cumin seeds and cook until they become very fragrant and the mustard seeds start to pop.  Immediately add to the red lentils and stir to combine.

To serve, pack the hot rice into ramekins and turn them upside down, one each, in a shallow pasta bowl.  Spoon a cup or more of the lentils around them, then lift off the ramekin, leaving the rice intact.  Top with the broccoli romanesco and garnish with cilantro sprigs.



  1. I think I’ve told you this already but this is actually the only recipe of Deborah’s that I haven’t loved…probably because of the underseasoning. I’ll have to give it another go!

    And I think you should totally take up personal chef-ing again. At least it will get your name out there and, who knows, might build up a market for more cooking classes!

    Comment by Joanne — April 26, 2013 @ 1:14 am

  2. Dana,
    I have never been a personal chef, but I have a notebook where I have a record of every recipe and the source that I have tried since 1999. It is amazing to see how my tastes have changed. It’s also kind of sad to see how much less cooking I do now that my children are grown. I rarely make the same thing twice unless I love it. I’ll never live long enough to try all the recipes that I want to try!

    Comment by linda — April 26, 2013 @ 4:24 pm

  3. Thank you for sharing that story – I always wondered how you started doing that (I also wondered technical details like timing/re-heating that sort of thing). I love red lentils so much so I’m looking forward to this recipe too.

    Comment by Michelle — April 27, 2013 @ 4:42 pm

  4. I keep a diary of the food we eat every evening – it’s wonderful to be able to look back on any single date and see what I’ve cooked. Deborah Madison’s recipes are wonderful and this looks like exactly the kind of thing I love to eat :-)

    Comment by thelittleloaf — April 28, 2013 @ 8:33 am

  5. MMMMM this looks soooo good! It was so nice meeting you this weekend! If you ever come down this way, let me know!!!!

    Comment by Jackie {theseasidebaker} — April 29, 2013 @ 11:33 pm

  6. This looks amazing; what a great healthy recipe, Dana! Hope you are well. Thank you for sharing this lovely story; you are amazing and red lentils are sooooo tasty! Sending you hugs from NYC.
    Miss you!

    Comment by The Healthy Apple — April 30, 2013 @ 1:25 pm

  7. This sounds so good, I will be making it soon! I love how it is served with the rice in the center of the dish and surrounded by the lentils…I might have to pick up some ramekins.

    Comment by melinda ke — April 30, 2013 @ 8:25 pm

  8. Thanks for posting! This came together really quickly and easily, and makes a lot of food! I rarely cook with lentils and this dish reminded me that I need to reach for them more often.

    I was cooking for one, so I halved the recipe and, because I didn’t want to open a whole can of coconut milk, did not use the coconut milk. That probably helped with any potential underseasoning (mentioned by Joanne), though I’m sure I missed out on the creamy cooling feel from the fat it would have provided.

    Comment by Lauren — May 6, 2013 @ 1:05 am

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