Everybody has them. Those days when you’re running around doing and going and feeding everyone else but yourself (I fed 200 people today at PCC!) You’re tired, you’re cranky, you’re sick of thinking of things you ‘gotta do’ and gosh darnit, you’re hungry. Most days after coming home from the restaurant, or from teaching a long cooking class I don’t know how I could be hungry at all, what with the long hours of making and smelling the same foods over and over again, until I finally reach a point of sensory burnout. Nothing really sounds good. You don’t even know what ‘good’ is because you’ve been smelling food all day and you’re almost numb to the aromas, the thought of taking a bite seems as mundane as breathing.
But there is something that nudges the senses – remember this smell? That comforts and gently soothes and always sounds good no matter what. I’m sure you have those smells too. For some people it’s mac n’ cheese, or quesadillas or mashed potatoes with salted butter, or maybe just a turkey sandwich with tomato. Some days for me it’s falafel (my hippie mother would make it out of a box mix for me when I was a kid). But most days, with little time to make up anything else, I turn to lentil stew. Lentils take less than half the time to rehydrate than other legumes. It’s a vegetarian staple, and if you ask most vegetarians who like to cook, even a little bit, they’ll doubtless have their own version.
Now for the geeky food-science portion of our post. Ahem. The word ‘lentil’ is actually latin for ‘lens’ which is an appropriate name given their shape – two convex lenses sealed at the edges. In Spanish lentils are ‘lentejas’ which is closer to lens in that language which is ‘lente’. Lentils are incredibly varied in size and shape, everything from orange to yellow and very black. I urge you to check out the black ones, the beluga variety as they’re so beautiful… and wouldn’t they make an incredible vegetarian caviar over blini with egg and smoked salt (oooh, put that one in my back pocket for a future post!)
They are small and beautiful, full of iron and folate, antioxidants, and so much protein… and fiber! So much fiber! Okay, I’ll stop now as Dotty the Dietitian has just pulled out her milk crate to stand upon for an oratory on the dismal amount of fiber in the American diet.
Now, where were we… oh yes, the stew. My own version of this varies from day to day, depending on what I happen to have in the fridge. Always I include tons of garlic, some white wine, onions and carrots. Mark loves it when I toss in a bit of tortellini, and when I can steal a handful of fresh herbs such as rosemary and thyme from my neighbor’s front lawn, those go in there too. This last time I was lucky to have a stock leftover from a previous soup with sage – and the stock was heavily fragrant with that earthy, sublime smell. Sage given to me from a friend, in bunches, went into that stock. It made a world of difference. I used French green lentils which are visually inspiring – each one a perfect little world unto itself, green, grey and blue swirls on each tiny bean, like a little planet in the palm of your hand. The savory, salty broth with that gamey sage and the soft pebble-like lentils floating alongside browned onions and garlic, well, no matter the day, I’m tempted by a bowl of that.
So this evening, Mark and I serve up two big bowls, toast a bit of leftover cornbread, pour a glass of wine and plop down onto the couch, sighing and humming. I can start to feel the life seep back into my toes, my head, my tummy.
The day’s craziness calms into a low buzz, and Mark looks at me and gives me a closed-mouth grin, cheeks full of soup and bread. I get a big smile from this one, every time.
This recipe is very approximate… stews are meant for improvisation! Sub one thing for another, a bit of this, a bit of that. Try the grey-green lentils for a change, they cook faster, and don’t dare skimp on the herbs. My motto in the kitchen? When in doubt, dump it in.
6-10 cups combination of any stock, water and/or white wine
2 ½ cups lentils
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 large sweet onions, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium carrots, chopped
Bunches of herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, basil
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup shoyu, tamari or add sea salt to taste
1 cup tortellini
Freshly cracked black pepper
In a large pot, bring stock to boil. Add lentils and cover pot to simmer. While lentils are cooking, heat a large skillet with the 3 tablespoons olive oil and add onions, stirring to brown. Reduce heat on onions to medium to slow browning, add a pinch of salt and continue to stir until a deep brown, but not black color is achieved. Add garlic and cook for a few minutes more. When the lentils are firm, but not to consistency, add the onions, carrots, herbs, and shoyu or sea salt and cover, letting cook until lentils are completely soft and carrots are cooked through. Add the tortellini and cook until tender. Season with fresh cracked pepper and serve.