Earlier this year, a good friend of mine got me involved in a program teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) through an outreach program in DC. She’s been doing it for awhile now, and as a language lover myself who missed volunteering, I finally asked her if the program needed extra teachers.
Let me back up for a minute for a quick philosophical statement: I am a firm believer that language is one of the most important (and least celebrated) ways we connect with each other. It’s also possibly the most powerful eraser of boundaries, because it allows us to express ourselves and understand one another, which, let’s face it, is really half the battle.
It was really when I spent a semester in Spain during college that I started thinking philosophically about the importance of language to human connection. My parents came to visit and when they met my host parents, each couple only spoke a few words of the other’s language. But they were able to piece a few things together, making heavy use of gestures and of me as a translator, and it felt like an incredible achievement for all of us to be able to communicate across this massive cultural ocean.
Language is integral to human interaction — we rely on it so regularly that it becomes commonplace, and we take the ability to communicate for granted. It’s always been a huge part of my life even beyond my studies of Spanish, but I didn’t realize the extent of how it shaped me until fairly recently. I credit my grandfather in large part for cultivating a love of words in me; language was always something we connected on in a special way. We were readers together and writers together, and I could sit for hours and listen to him telling me story after story about when he was a little boy — in fact, we kids used to beg him for stories. He kept in touch unfailingly through letters throughout my childhood and even in college, until he began to show symptoms of dementia just a few years ago.
Words are how I express myself, and that fact has made me into who I am today. When I’m not writing, I’m talking and telling stories. (Those of you who know me in person will, I’m sure, agree wholeheartedly with that statement.) I’m not the silent type, and I never will be. If my power of language is taken away from me, I’m at a complete loss.
Anyway, that was my drive for signing up to volunteer as a language teacher — I want to help people harness the power of language. I started teaching classes one night a week for two hours, and from the first class it was completely evident that Tuesday nights were going to be my favorite time of the week. As exhausted as I am from the weekend and the day and all the small annoyances of life, the smallest breakthrough (like when a student would make a joke in English, or when we overheard one of them counting under her breath in English rather than in her native language for the first time) completely erases everything else. It energizes me for the rest of the week and gives me hope about the nature of people. My students show up faithfully every single week, for no reason other than that they want to learn. They don’t pay a dime for the classes, and they don’t have parents or the law telling them they have to come learn. They just want to learn. They want to interact. It’s an incredibly exhilarating feeling to be a part of that.
But back to why I’m posting this on a food blog. Teaching has brought me more than this great outlook and energy — I also learned one of my new favorite recipes from another teacher. She had the teachers over for dinner one night and made this amazing tomato and lentil stew, which I immediately began to try to replicate in my kitchen. It’s probably evolved into something a lot different from Debbie’s original recipe, and the measurements below are all kind of an estimate, because I really just eyeball it and taste it along the way. But it’s simple, basically just lentils and tomatoes, seasoned with cinnamon for an almost Moroccan-inspired taste. Some people tell me tomatoes with cinnamon sounds gross, and ew! lentils!, but I’ve converted every single one of them (including my meatatarian boyfriend and my sister, who actually requested it twice when she was here visiting me in February). Incidentally (or maybe not?), it’s also a great thing to make on a night when you get home late and starving (after, say, teaching a 2-hour evening class?) because it’s simple, quick and hearty.
Lentils and Tomatoes, based on Debbie’s Lentils and Tomatoes
1 cup lentils, rinsed and picked over (brown lentils or French lentils usually work well; red ones tend to fall apart and get mushy)
2 cloves garlic
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 small white onion, chopped
1 can diced tomatoes, with juices
1/2 to 1 tbsp cinnamon
salt and pepper to taste
a sprinkle of cumin, optional
red pepper flakes, optional, to taste (just because you know I love me some spiciness)
1. Fill a small saucepan with water, sprinkle a bit of salt in it and it bring to a boil. Cook the lentils in it. The time will vary according to what kind you’re using, but it will probably be about 15-20 minutes. You’ll know when you taste one and it’s soft, but hasn’t fallen apart. If you’re unfamiliar with cooking lentils, I’d recommend getting them dry in a package from the store rather than from the bulk section from a place like Whole Foods, just so you have the label to reference how they recommend cooking them. Once you’re more familiar with lentils, you’ll get a feel for how long it takes.
2. Meanwhile, add the olive oil to a larger frying pan or cast-iron pan and heat it over medium heat. Mince the garlic (or, even better, crush it in a garlic press) and add it to the pan.
3. Once the garlic starts to get fragrant, add the chopped onions and cook until they’re translucent.
4. When the lentils are done, drain them (reserving the liquid if you like to use as a broth for something else later) and add them to the big pan.
5. Drain the tomatoes into a bowl so you reserve their juices. Add the tomatoes to the pan along with some of the juice, just enough to keep the stew wet.
6. Stir in the cinnamon and season to taste with salt and pepper and red pepper flakes. (The measurements above are definitely an estimate, so taste this liberally as it cooks and season it to your liking.) Bring the whole thing back to a boil, keeping it moist as needed with the reserved tomato juice, but not letting it get too soupy.
7. Serve hot over rice or with a thick slab of bread.
The wonderful thing about this recipe is that it’s so fluid. I love cooking this way, where I shake in ingredients from my spice rack and taste as I go to find the right combination. It will all depend on the type of lentils you use, the type of tomatoes you use, and the strength of the spices you use. It’s kind of like telling a story — the pieces are basic, but it’s how you communicate it that makes it totally delicious.
This also works beyond spices: this week, for example, I was making this when my boyfriend was working late. I figured we could both probably use something green that day, so I threw in some broccoli with the onions. I thought it might not work with the cinnamon, but I actually loved the flavor and texture the broccoli added and will probably use it again next time. And when Debbie made me this dish, she garnished it with feta cheese, which I rarely have around, but it was amazing when she made it. So get creative. Make it into your own story. And if you discover another delicious twist, please post it in the comments so I can try it next time!