Choosing lentils

November 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

Recently, my cold salads have been replaced by hot lentils. I’m sure the reason why needs no explanation. All you need to know is that I live in Milwaukee, WI.

A few days ago one of Mike’s co-workers asked if we were broke because Mike brought lentils to work. We’re not broke but, yes, my student loans appreciate lentil meals.

Besides driving by the Marquette campus daily for my commute I have spent little time actually foot –to –grass on the campus I once called home and where I incurred said student loans. This past Monday, though, Marquette hosted a talk from one of the leading urban economists of our age, Edward Glaeser, and my feet touched down on the familiar ground to attend.

I was coming from work and arrived a bit late. The auditorium was full and I was immediately drunk on the energy. It’s that special energy you only find on universities and college campuses; effervescent and charged with swift optimism.

Glaeser made his case, quite theatrically, for the triumph of the city. I don’t remember ever having an economics professor so dynamic – walking back and forth across the stage with vibrato and gusto. “Cities are smart people, small businesses, and connectivity,” he said as he pointedly found audience members to maintain eye contact with. “Knowledge is more important than space,” he exclaimed. Behind him were maps, large graphs, supply and demand charts explaining his statements.

A decade ago on that same campus I was looking at my first supply and demand charts. I had moved through a few majors – physical therapy to international affairs to advertising to economics. But economics stuck. It seemed the one major that I could take anywhere. It didn’t need to be confined to four walls in a clinic or agency. It was there that a foundation was laid to understand and analyze the world around me. Why are gas prices rising or falling? Why do some nations that are rich in natural resources have so much poverty? What is the purpose of unions? What caused the Great Depression? Why does scarcity cause prices to go up? What are externalities? What is opportunity cost? The beauty of economics is that at its heart it really is just the study of how humans behave, and the consequences of those behaviors, with the scarce resources we have.

Opportunity cost is the paradigm I’ve adopted and used the most. It is, essentially, a tool to make a choice. It breaks everything down to an exchange. By choosing to read for an hour I am foregoing any number of things I could do with that hour. In other words, what am I willing to give up for that hour?  What appears mechanically transactional is really quite existential. When I choose to do something it also means I am choosing not to do something/s.

I received an email not that long ago from a friend who asked me how I decided to stop doing family photography. She was at a point where she needed to decide whether to continue or to stop her family photography business. The advice I gave her was that the opportunity cost of the time I was spending on the shoots, editing, blogging had reached a tipping point. I was exchanging precious time I wanted to be spending on things I deemed to be of utmost importance.

Which brings me back to the lentils. I made this Ethiopian lentil bowl for Mike and I on Sunday. It was lunch for both of us Monday – Thursday, and then it was also dinner on Monday (post Glaeser talk when I came home full of energy that I wanted to expend on looking up items from the notes I had jotted down during the talk and did not want to expend on cooking), and Wednesday night. We mixed it up by eating it with rice the first few days and then we switched to soaking it up with toast and hard boiled eggs. Sometimes we dressed it with some cilantro and Frank’s Red Hot sauce and sometimes we added feta. It’s a deliciously economical meal; a fantastic choice if you want to spend your week doing other things besides cooking in the kitchen and want to spend your lunch/dinner eating something tasty and healthy.

This recipe comes from Simply in Season. Have I mentioned this is one of my favorite cookbooks?

I used fresh ginger and added a touch of cinnamon to the recipe, an exotic twist. I also added a touch of fish sauce for a nice, round umami flavor. There really are so many ways you can dress up and riff on this recipe. Choices galore!

Ethiopian Lentil Bowl, from Simply in Season by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert


2 cups dried red lentils

2 large onions

2-5 garlic cloves, depending on your penchant for garlic

3 tbsp of tomato paste

½ teaspoon of paprika

1 teaspoon of salt

½ teaspoon of ground ginger

¼ teaspoon of pepper

3 cups of water

¼ cup lemon juice


Cover lentils with water and soak for 30 minutes. Drain. Saute onion and garlic in oil until golden. Mix in tomato paste and paprika. Add remaining seasonings and half the water. Stir well and add the rest of the water. Stir again, cover, and bring to a boil. When the water boils, add the lentils, lower the heat and cook until the lentils are soft, about 20-30 minutes. Add the lemon juice and serve hot.



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