1. Lentils. Why do I keep messing them up? They are never a) the same texture twice, or b) the texture I want them to be.
The big lentil secret that most recipes never seem to bother telling you is how totally different all of the varieties are. Each has it's own unique texture, flavor, and way that it likes to be treated. Hopefully a quick breakdown of the most common lentils, and what to do with them will help!
- Yellow or Red Lentils: These are your classic dal lentils, perfect for soups and other loose puree things. They break down into mash when cooked, so don't use them for recipes where you want lentils to retain their structural integrity. For the best and easiest soupy red/yellow lentil thing, saute some onions, garlic, and ginger, throw in lentils and broth (a two cups of broth for every cup of lentils ratio usually works well), and finish it off with some sriracha and whatever greens you have lurking at the bottom of your vegetable drawer.
- Puy or Green Lentils: The caviar of lentils, puy lentils are super fancy, French, and great in lentil salads. They hold their shape really well, and have a nice, kind of nutty flavor. Cook them simply, toss them with vinaigrette, and call it a salade aux lentils.
- Black Lentils: These hold their shape really well, and make a great side dish braised with some root vegetables or turned into a salad with some garlic and fresh herbs. They're also delicious cooked in water, than tossed with pasta, caramelized onions, and kale.
- Brown Lentils: Your basic workhorse lentils, what you should use if a recipe just says lentils. They make great soup, because they straddle the line between goopy and firm, and are also the best thing ever when cooked with fried onions and rice, like my Sephardic great grandma used to make.
If your problem is messing up the same variety in a number of ways, than the main thing to remember is to use enough liquid, and enough salt. Keep the temperature of your stove low as well to prevent those puppies from scorching, and you'll be fine. Recipes will tell you to add specific amounts of liquid, but really, you should keep checking and stirring and add whatever amount of liquid looks like it needs to be added. This is easier than it sounds, I promise.
2. I am depressed. What should I eat that is not a tablespoon full of Nutella?
First off, I'm sending you lots of internet hugs. I've been there, and wasting away from a sadness-induced reluctance to eat is not an enjoyable way to spend your time.
In my experience, there are basically two varieties of depression. There's the awful kind of muggy sadness that suffuses everything you do, but still doesn't make it impossible to do things. You might feel like you're drowning, but at least you're on two feet, walking around, attending to the necessary functions of quotidian life. The best thing to do for this is to make minimally labor intensive foods that are just fiddly enough to be distracting, and produce results impressive enough that you'll feel like you've actually accomplished something. I recommend making a banana cream pie. Buy a premade pie crust to save yourself the pastry based stress, and bake it in the oven, weighed down by some dry beans so it'll hold its shape. Then whisk together three egg yolks, half a cup of sugar, three tablespoons of cornstarch, and some flaky sea salt, adding three cups of milk and bringing the whole mess to a boil, stirring til it's thick. Take it off the heat, add two tablespoons of butter, a splash of vanilla, and sliced bananas (however many you have browning slowly in your fruit bowl). I recommend listening to weepy old country music while doing this, particularly Patsy Cline or George Jones. Wallowing in someone else's misery for a while can be a cathartic change. Put the pie in your fridge to chill for a few hours, then top it off with whipped cream and some shaved chocolate. Eat it by yourself or with a sympathetic friend, and a big pot of black coffee. It's the culinary equivalent of a long, close hug.
The second kind of depression, the inky, paralyzing blackness people think of when they think of sadness, is rarer. It is also infinitely harder to cook for. When you don't even want to get out of bed, it's hard to motivate yourself to peel carrots or pour things into pie crusts. My prescription for really severe sadness is a big bowl of pasta with bacon and roasted garlic. Put a pot of salted water to boil on the stove, then stick a big pan filled with a few glugs of olive oil, some unpeeled, garlic cloves, and chopped up bacon in the oven. If you're a vegetarian, just leave out the bacon; pasta al olio is also a noble tradition. Pour yourself some nice wine, and go read in the bath while it cooks, which should take about 15 or 20 minutes. When you come out, cook some pasta, smoosh the garlic out of its jacket, and toss everything together. Plonk it all into a big bowl, and go watch some bad British sitcoms in bed. Remind yourself that you are going to be okay. After all, you're a pasta wizard, how bad could things be?
3. What's a good baking recipe that's easy as placing a tray of Trader Joe's frozen food in the oven, but isn't placing a tray of Trader Joe's frozen food in the oven?
Oh, I feel you on this one. I was raised by people who ate well and baked often, and growing up I was an insufferable little food snob who thought cake mix cake was gross. Which seems crazy in retrospect, because it's a CAKE in a BOX; what could be better than that? But you know what IS better than that, and just as fast? Lightning Cake.
Lightning cake (which, if you wanna fancy it up, you can call Blintz Kutchen), is as easy, or easier, even, than any mix, and a million times more delicious. All you need to do is turn the oven on, grease up whatever pan you have handy, and mix together one stick of softened butter, one egg, one cup of milk, two cups of flour, and four teaspoons of baking powder. If you have any vanilla lying around, put some in there. If you have some old lemons softening in the back of the fridge, grate off their zest and add that. If you think it's too early in the morning to eat cake, sprinkle some brown sugar and nuts across the top and call it coffee cake. Then pop in in the oven, and about twenty minutes later, like magic, you will have an essentially perfect cake that's great with cut-up fruit, or jam, or ice cream, or just plain with a glass of milk, out of your hands in front of the fridge like some kind of animal, which is the way I like to do things.
4. What can I do when I wake up in the morning and realize I am out of milk for my coffee?
Hmm, this is a hard one. As a tea drinker, I don't have too much experience in the milkless coffee field, and googling around only got me a bunch of recommendations for almond or rice milk, which I figure most dairy consuming people don't just keep around on the regular. Other internet suggestions included vanilla ice cream, Bailey's, and making homemade milk out of whatever stray nuts you have lying around, all of which seems like a bit much for early in the morning.
There are, however, two solutions I have tried before. If you have condensed milk in your pantry, you can stir a bit of it into strong black coffee, which makes it taste deliciously sweet and caramel-y, like something you might buy from a street vendor in Saigon. I've also used whipped cream in the past, justifying my disgustingness with the existence of espresso con panna. But if neither of these admittedly baroque substitutions appeal to you, just pop the coffee in the fridge and pick up something nice at your neighborhood coffee shop, writing a reminder to buy milk on a post it note, and sticking it onto an object you're likely to look at over the course of the day. Because life's too short to suffer through coffee you don't want to drink.