Welcome to “Wide Open Table,” a bi-monthly Montana Free Press column on all things food and cooking. “Wide Open Table” is written by Montanan Jon Bennion, who posts recipes and other kitchen content on Instagram as Intermediate Chef.
In order for something to become a food tradition, someone had to start it. It may have been hundreds of years ago or something your parents started when you were a child, but nothing can become culinarily customary without someone making a dish that was originally out of the ordinary.
At the top of my list for food-centered traditions is Thanksgiving. This particular holiday may bring the image of a Norman Rockwell gathering to mind: a large group of people with smiling faces, a well-set table, and a big roast turkey. Others may have personal or family Thanksgiving traditions that are very different from that.
In our own little household in Clancy, we have a mix of family traditions along with some variations I’ve created over the years to start new holiday customs. That’s where this sweet potato and red lentil dip comes into play.
Some kind of dip should be an obligatory grazing option as people wait for the main event. This new creation can sit side-by-side on a veggie platter centered around a ranch dip or hummus, or you can use it to replace those dips altogether. I like it because it has a little bit of sweet, savory, brightness, complexity and good balance.
The humble sweet potato is probably the most traditional Thanksgiving element of the dish. We start to use it more in the fall as we lean into comfort foods. The red lentils are a tasty and nutritious way of incorporating an ingredient grown in abundance across the northern plains. The spice blend and caramelized lemon are borrowed elements that add some fun and complexity to the dish.
The spice blend is known as “ras el hanout,” a North African creation whose name translates as “head of the shop.” It’s a wonderful blend that often includes cardamom, nutmeg, anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger, peppers, and turmeric. Some of those spices you might recognize as elements of the now infamous “pumpkin spice” family. So perhaps ras el hanout isn’t so out of the ordinary after all. You can find similar spice mixes in many grocery stores these days, or order it online.
The acid from the caramelized lemon elevates all the earthy flavors in the dish. The process of searing the lemon takes a bit of the edge off, makes the lemon extra juicy, and transforms the juice into something a bit sweet and smoky. If you end up with a caramelized lemon half left over, it makes for a cool garnish on your dip platter.
Let this recipe serve as a starting point for your own take on a special holiday dip. While Thanksgiving Day may not be the best time to experiment in the kitchen, especially if you have a dozen guests coming over, there are plenty of days ahead to try a little something outside of your holiday norm. Who knows? A hundred years from now, your great-great-grandchildren may be sitting around the table giving thanks for the family recipe you created and passed down through the generations.
1/2 cup decorticated Montana red lentils
1 12 oz. sweet potato
1 tbsp juice from a caramelized lemon
1 tsp ras el hanout
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tbsp plus 1/4 tsp olive oil
1/2 tsp cumin
1/4 cup water reserved from lentils
Optional: salted roasted pumpkin seeds
Serves 4-6 people as appetizer portions
Prick your sweet potato with a fork and bake on a foil-lined baking tray for an hour in an oven preheated to 400 degrees Farenheit. Remove from oven and let cool. Once cooled, use a ricer or potato masher to break down the flesh. You will need about 2/3 cup of this puree for the recipe.
In a small saucepan, boil three cups of water and add 1/2 cup of decorticated and washed Montana red lentils. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes under a slightly offset lid. After 10 minutes, turn off the heat and allow to cook for another 10 minutes with the lid on. Reserve 1/4 cup of the cooking liquid and drain the rest.
In a small, preheated nonstick pan, sear a halved lemon in 1/4 tsp of olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the halves with the cut side down for three minutes. Turn heat to low, cover the pan with foil, and cook for another 3 minutes. Turn off heat completely and let the lemon rest under the foil until cooled. Alternately, you can grill your lemons outdoors by brushing the cut sides with a little olive oil and placing them on a preheated grill for about 4 to 5 minutes.
Place the drained lentils, 1/4 cup of the reserved liquid, 2/3 cup sweet potato puree, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp ras el hanout, 1/2 tsp cumin, 1 tbsp caramelized lemon juice, and 1 tbsp olive oil in a food processor and blend until smooth. Taste for salt and spice levels and add caramelized lemon juice to taste. When plating, it’s optional to top the dip with salted roasted pumpkin seeds, a drizzle of olive oil and/or a splash of caramelized lemon juice. Eat with flatbread, plain or seeded crackers, or a veggie platter.
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