Cardamom Lentils with Beets


The first time I cooked with green cardamom, it smelled familiar but I couldn’t place it.  I was making baklava, and the syrup called for green cardamom pods.  I reached for the jar that Annie brought back from India, and upon opening it, released a perfume that tingled my nose, and smelled of roses and spice cabinet.  I wanted more of it.  I added it to my syrup of orange zest, honey, and rosewater.   It’s scent bloomed on the stovetop to fill the kitchen.

Meanwhile, guests popped in and out of the kitchen.  “What is that smell!” They asked.  The baklava had cooled, and, cutting it into diamonds I forgot to add the syrup.  We devoured the baklava without complaint.

Glancing at the saucepan of syrup, I was pleased with my mistake, and eager to experiment with it all week.  It became the most delightful topping for yogurt, chai tea, and chocolate cake.  A teaspoon here with tahini dressing and there for sweet potatoes.

Years later, I’m still under it’s spell.  Maybe it’s cardamom’s status (it’s the third most expensive spice, following saffron and vanilla), or it’s cooling perfume.   Either way, it transforms simple foods into a spice trail delicacy.  Maybe that’s why it’s used worldwide to compliment other sacred ingredients; it flavors Hmong sweet and sour soup, Scandanavian cookies, Turkish coffee, Indian donuts.

Of all combinations I’ve discovered, adding cardamom to earthy flavors is my favorite.  At work in the café, I sneak cardamom pods from the kitchen and place it in the bottom of my espresso cup.   As I filter espresso through the machine, the espresso falls over the pod, releasing its cooling, sweet flavor.

And, just the other day, looking for something to brighten my tired, tomato-based lentil dish, I arrived again at cardamom.  This time, I used black cardamom pods, commonly used in African curries.  The jar smells like campfire, adding a savory smokiness to cardamom’s sharpness.  I opened the pods and ground them with mortar and pestle.

As the lentils cooked, I added the black cardamom, a dash of cinnamon, cumin, a few tablespoons of paprika, and grated ginger.   At first taste, it reminded me of the lentils and carrots I used to buy from Ethiopian food truck in Madison.  The only thing missing was injera, the spongy sourdough flatbread that traditionally accompanies Ethiopian dishes.

It needed a root vegetable, something more vibrant than cooked carrots.  I peeled some beets, threw them into the food processor with some carrots, ginger, the juice of a lime, and some peanut oil, and blended it until almost smooth.  I impulsively added a dash of mustard and turmeric to see what it would look like against the pink.  On second thought, maybe the cardamom made me do it.

Cardamom-Spiced Lentils
Serves 8

3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon smoked Spanish paprika
1 1/2 Tablespoons peeled and minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground black cardamom (green works too!)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 cups vegetable stock or water
2 cups dried brown lentils, washed
salt and freshly ground black pepper


1. Put the oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat.  When the hot oil shimmers, add the onion and cook until soft.  Add the garlic, ginger, and spices and cook for 1 minute.

2. Add the stock or water and a few shakes of salt and pepper.  Turn the heat down to a gentle boil, cover partially, and cook, stirring occasionally and adding more water as needed to keep the lentils moist, and to prevent them from sticking to the pan.  Cook for 25-30 minutes, or until the lentils are soft but retain their shape.

Raw Beet Salad

2 beets, peeled and cubed
2 carrots, chopped
1 Tablespoon ginger, chopped
juice of 1 lime
1 Tablespoon peanut oil or melted coconut oil


Put all ingredients into a food processor and blend until smooth.  Garnish with chopped parsley and/or cilantro.


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