While thinking about the homework for Writing Your Practice with Susanna Harwood Rubin — this week focused on Nataraja — I started cooking. In my notes of the call, I see that obstacles in the way of my own steady practice of writing include my own perceived laziness, my lack of disciplined schedule, my feeling that I’m constantly juggling too many things. So, while cooking, I decided to just do that one thing — just cook. The laptop was in another room. Mr Burns, our five-month-old puppy, was asleep.
I’ve made this recipe dozens and dozens of times, but not so often that I have it memorized. It’s a chana dal from Madhur Jaffrey, one of several recipes I’ve treasured from a years-ago Indian cooking class. Even though I have the very same recipe in a cookbook of hers, there’s something about the stapled together hand-outs from class that I prefer. The dal is simple to make and delicious, and when doubled, makes enough to create lunches for most of the week. It’s super pretty — the egg-yolk yellow of the split peas such a lovely complement to the rice, mango chutney and fresh cilantro. A visual treat every lunchtime, and tasty, too.
And I’m feeling generally happy that I managed to create lunches ahead for at least a few days. Later on, I’ll pack the tiffins, line them up in a neat row in the fridge, ready to go. For whatever nerdilicious reason, it just makes me feel so good that I’ve eliminated both the morning-scramble of getting lunch together and the mid-day scramble that results from not having a lunch. Less scramble: better.
So on the dal, because I decided I was only going to do that one thing, for the first time EVER, seriously, I managed to skim off all the white foam.
The way the recipe goes, first you bring a cup of split peas to a boil in 5 cups of water. Then you skim off all of the white foam.
There is a lot of white foam. And it’s slippery, cleverly evading the skimming utensil. Usually, because I’ve got a long weekend To Do list and I’m doing three other things simultaneously, I cut corners at this stage. I don’t skim off all of the white foam. Generally I make a desultory effort, figure I’ve done a good enough job, and then move on to adding in the ginger and turmeric and setting it to simmer for an hour.
Not this time. This time, I stood there over the pot and skimmed off every bit of that white foam. Every bit.
It took a while, I’m not going to lie. But there was something absolutely engrossing and soothing and peaceful about chasing every bit of foam down and lifting it out of the water. The house was quiet. I had my back to the sink full of dishes. I stuck with my mono-tasking.
White foam, who cares, right? Well, apparently, the white foam is the result of the legumes off-gassing. So my thoroughness will in all likelihood yield less gassy dal — in and of itself a brilliant reinforcement of the thorough skimming.
This is nothing, this is nonsense, this is just me at the stove with a wooden spoon in my hand and two containers to the left of the stove, one for the white foam, the other with water in it in which to rinse the spoon periodically. This is dull, this is domestic, this is me doing just one thing at a time, in my quiet kitchen while the dog dreams on his pillow and the husband chases down the miles on his bike.
This is genius.
Even simple, basic things contain within them this potency — this potential to be revelatory, to serve as thresholds into deep peace. Simple, basic things like skimming off all the white foam.
The dal’s done cooking now. The burner is off. I poured in the cumin seeds, garlic and cayenne pepper, lightly cooked in ghee. It’s delicious already and will be more so as the week progresses, more flavorful with each passing day.
And so deeply satisfying in every possible way.