Even though the official first day of fall was in late September, and daylight saving time ended on November 5, Mother Nature is still having a hard time letting go! The weather here has been unseasonably warm—not complaining—and although it doesn’t feel like the right time yet to prepare heartier fare, Mother Nature weighs in again because the ingredients available in the markets speak to fall and winter dishes. Because fall is one of my favorite seasons for cooking and dining, I am OK with that seasonal ingredient switch.
It has been a little too long since I last posted something new because we have been a little preoccupied with the newest addition to our family—Allie, a four-month-old Portuguese Water Dog pup. Not an easy task to prep, cook, photograph, and then quietly sit down and enjoy a leisurely meal and a good bottle of wine when a young pup wants to help with every step along the way!
Things are settling down somewhat now, so I am taking advantage of the lull to explore some cooking with fall and winter dishes in mind.
The dish featured in this post is one I have been preparing for years, long before blogs were a way of connecting with like-minded people on subjects of interest. The dish takes little time to assemble, is easy to prepare, uses ingredients that for the most part are pantry items, will satisfy most vegetarians, and is a great source of protein, minerals, and fiber.
First, a few quick thoughts about lentils: It has been written that lentils are the world’s oldest cultivated legumes, dating as far back as 7000 BC. Cultivated in Asia and from the region we now know as Syria, they then migrated throughout the countries around the Mediterranean rim to become an integral part of the culture and cuisine.
Lentils can be sourced in a variety of colors: black, green, brown, red/orange, or yellow. They are one of the easiest beans to digest, cook quickly because they don’t require presoaking like other dried bean varieties often do, and they add a nutty, earthy flavor to the dishes in which they are used.
Over the years, I have used many different types of lentils when making this dish—for example, the black Beluga, the French green, the French Puy (lentilles du Puy), common brown known as the brewer lentil, and the Castelluccio lentils from Umbria Italy.
In this recipe I used the Castelluccio lentils, but had equally good results in the past using the Beluga or the Puy, since all three varieties hold their shape and texture better than some of the other varieties which tend to become softer, almost puree-like once completely cooked.
Lentils are often cooked with pork in Italy. One example is the dish often served on New Year’s Eve featuring the large pork sausage, cotechino. The folklore surrounding this dish is that for some reason, serving lentils on the Eve will bring money to the home in the coming year. That said, I have often cooked sausage right in the stew, either sweet Italian fennel sausage, Spanish chorizo, or the spicy lamb sausage from North Africa, merguez, where the spices in the sausage impart their individual unique flavoring to the broth. With this recipe, I prepared the sausage separately, and served it as an accompaniment as would be the tradition when serving the cotechino. For this recipe I used Spanish chorizo.
Fall Lentil Stew
Ingredients (serves two or more)
1¾ cups lentils
2 bunches spinach, thoroughly washed, large stems removed
8 cups liquid, either stock, water, or combination of both (water used in this recipe)
2 medium onions, chopped
2 large carrots, cut into wide rings
1 bulb garlic, set aside 7 whole cloves, use remainder for soffritto
Soffritto: 8 to 10 parsley sprigs both leaves and stems, 1 large celery stalk, stalks from one large fennel blub; mince using a food processor
Salt, pepper, red chili flakes
2 to 4 sausage links, pan seared or roasted and then sliced to serve
Method (approximately 30 minutes cooking time)
Heat 4 or 5 tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat in a heavy-bottomed stockpot until hot but not smoking. Drop a few pieces of chopped onion into the pot and once they sizzle add all the chopped onion into the oil, sprinkle salt and pepper over, and stir to combine and coat. Sauté the onion until it begins to soften and lightly color.
Add the soffritto, stirring to combine with the onion, season with a little more salt and pepper, then continue stirring until you begin to smell the garlic in the sauté. If the mixture is sticking to the bottom of the pot, lower the heat slightly and deglaze with a small amount of the water or stock you are using.
Add the carrots and the whole garlic cloves, again stir and combine into the sauté. Add the spinach, stirring to thoroughly mix into the other sauté ingredients, again lightly sprinkle with salt, pepper, and red chili flakes (if using), then pour the 8 cups of stock or water over. Raise the heat to bring the liquid to a gentle boil, then add the lentils, mixing into the other ingredients.
Once the liquid begins to gently boil again, lower the heat and simmer for another 20 minutes or so, stirring occasionally. The stew is ready when the carrots are just fork tender and the lentils are soft but not mushy, more al dente like properly cooked pasta.
The dish can be served on its own, or accompanied by the sausage as I did with the chorizo, along with some grilled or toasted bread.
This lentil stew is an easy to prepare, hearty, and healthy dish to segue from the warm weather cooking of summer to the more robust cooking of the fall season leading into winter.
If you make the dish I’d like to know what lentils you decide to use!
Eat well. Be well.
Whenever possible, life should be a pattern of experiences to savor, rather than endure.