Sunday, October 18, 2009
Every once in awhile, I follow a recipe start to finish, paying careful attention to every ingredient, every measurement, every nuance, to make sure I get it just right. More often, though, a recipe will get me thinking, and the thought evolves over time. Sometimes a few minutes, sometimes hours and sometimes days. As the time unfolds, the possibilities do as well. And what I imagine at the beginning, turns into something very different, influenced by my mood, the day, what I have, whether I'm in the mood to try something different, or the weather.
A few days ago, I saw Heidi Swanson's recipe for red lentil soup pop up on her blog. It got me thinking about lentils. I liked her simple recipe -- red lentils, onions, brown rice. Nothing to it. Except I didn't have any red lentils in the house, and plenty of those plain-looking brown ones. I did have lots of onions. And I'd been wanting to do a simple lentil soup flavored with lemon, perhaps with a little spinach. Simple.
Then, Sunday came, and it was snowing here in Boston. Snowing. In mid-October. I drove up from New York City in the snow, and was looking forward to an afternoon of hanging out at home, warming up the house with something fragrant and slow cooking. I am, to my core, a sucker for an everything-but-the-kitchen sink stew. I just get started, and don't know when to stop. And there were older veggies that needed eating up. Carrots, celery, potatoes, onions, scallions, lemons. I slowly shifted gears from a simple lentil soup, perhaps as an appetizer to something else, to a lentil stew that would keep us warm while it was cooking, while we were eating, and for the next few days. Intrigued by Heidi's brown rice, I decided to go for something that didn't take so long to cook -- bulghur, and which proved to provide a silky texture to the whole shebang.
Snowy Sunday Afternoon Lentil Stew
6 cups chicken stock (or water, or vegetable stock, or whatever)
1.5 cups brown lentils (pick out stones or dirt, and rinse)
1 large onion, roughly chopped
2 medium potatoes, diced
2 carrots, sliced
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 cup medium bulghur
1 bunch spinach, chopped
2 scallions, minced
zest of one lemon
lemon juice, to taste
soy sauce (a tablespoon, or to taste)
parmesan cheese, finely grated
salt and pepper
Saute the onions and garlic in a few glugs of olive oil, until the onions are soft. Add the potatoes, carrots, lentils, and bulghur; stir, and cover with the stock. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20-40 minutes. Add water as needed to maintain a soupy, stewy consistency. When the potatoes, carrots and lentils are soft, and it all starts to meld into a stewlike consistency, add the spinach and lemon zest. Cook some more until the spinach wilts. Turn off the heat.
I let it sit on the stove for an hour or so, letting the flavors meld (and waiting for us to be hungry). About 15 minutes before showtime, crank the heat back up to high until it boils, reduce to a simmer, and season. I added salt and pepper (about five or six big pinches of salt).
At this point, you have a blank palette, and you can do anything. I kept it simple, and added the lemon juice and a little soy for umami taste. Other options: chili powder, cayenne, pimenton (smoked paprika), red pepper flakes, cumin, cinnamon -- depending on your mood. I kept it simple, and added the parmesan and minced scallions at the table. Serve with hearty bread, and it's a meal, with plenty of leftovers for another time.
I stopped short of overdoing the flavorings, keeping it very simple. Susan was enthralled with the subtle flavor of the lemon zest. (And I was enthralled with CREATING the lemon zest, with my new microplane -- what took me so long to pick up that fabulous tool?) I am not used to cooking with flavors that don't bonk you on the head, demanding to be paid attention to. So I added a tablespoon or so of lemon juice. But that's it. The taste was rich, but not overpowering. Warming. Perfect for the day.