I’ve been benched. Perhaps you recall that last month’s column mentioned Mom’s and my west coast holiday, specifically meeting a salmon fisher in Steveston. That morning we worked our way up and down the wharf, admiring the spot prawns and salmon despite having neither pans nor stovetop. We moved slowly, but not just to soak in the ambiance while accommodating Mom’s elderly gait. The day before, I had been struck, knocked down, and driven over by a ponytailed man riding a motorized scooter, a two-wheeler bigger than a Vespa but smaller than a Harley. Months later, I am still limping, and our dog Jake hasn’t had a run since before my accident. It turns out that soft tissue trauma in a foot takes almost as long to heal as broken bones. Who knew?
As a result, before mealtimes I head to the living room to elevate my damaged limb and apply heat while I sip a glass of wine. In the kitchen, Dave is cooking. I am grateful. But I’ve learned to get out of the way instead of offering advice – we work in different ways, at different speeds, and my gratitude is purest when I refrain from “helping”.
When we met almost fourteen years ago Dave fed me sausages and sauerkraut for my first supper in his apartment. Since then, his repertoire has increased. He makes a mean meatloaf; a good Bolognese sauce enriched with dried figs, apricots, and prunes; and some terrific baked pasta. In the sweet kitchen, he whips up the occasional tea-loaf spiked with dark chocolate and Earl Grey. But although beans and lentils aren’t really his thing, I had a craving for pork and beans, so I asked him to make this simplest of all lentil dishes.
Canada is the world’s leader in producing and exporting lentils, with ninety-five percent grown in Saskatchewan. Lentils are superfoods, nutty, earthy, and yummy as well as high in protein and fibre. There is evidence that humanity has been eating them for millennia, from the Euphrates river valley 8000 years ago to Egyptian tombs at Thebes, and ancient frescos show the making of lentil soup. Half the world’s lentils are consumed in India, but they are also popular in Spain, the Middle, East, and France. Here in North America, we were slower to adopt the lentil, but with the advent of the Second World War, meat shortages convinced many cooks of the virtue of lentils.
This red lentil dish, cousin to the old staple of pork and beans, is a changeable chameleon. Vary the vegetables. Chop them finely or leave ‘em large. Make it thick with extra veg and call it a stew. Add coconut milk and shredded greens and serve beside coconut rice, or thin it with additional stock to serve as soup. Add minced sausage or not, as you please.
I have chosen South Asian fused with Spanish seasoning for this version, but you can go elsewhere: make a Thai curry (add green, red, or Panang curry paste, honey, lime juice, coconut milk, and lemongrass, with toasted peanut garnish); a Middle Eastern tagine (add pomegranate molasses, sumac or saffron, cumin, dried fruit, and preserved lemons); or a Latin-esque lunch (add coriander, fennel seed, chili powder, tomato, oregano, a bit of dark chocolate, and cilantro garnish). Of course you can use different types of lentils or cooked beans, but red lentils cook in the same timeframe as most vegetables, making this a prompt and practical one-pot peasant dish that sustains and delights. So first we eat, and then we can chat about other chameleon dishes.
Red Chameleon Lentils
Do not add salt or acid until after the lentils are cooked.
2 Tbsp. olive oil
4-6 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbsp. minced ginger
1 onion, minced
2 cups chopped assorted vegetables (carrots, mushrooms, celery, bell pepper, zucchini, cabbage)
2-4 links sausage of your preference, diced or sliced (optional)
1 Tbsp. sweet paprika
½ tsp. smoked paprika
1 Tbsp. curry powder or garam masala
1 cup red lentils
8 cups chicken stock
2-4 Tbsp. lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups shredded greens (beet tops, chard, arugula, kale, spinach, cress, mustard greens)
Heat a heavy-bottomed pot and add the oil. Add the garlic and ginger, stirring. Add the onion. Sauté until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the remaining vegetables and sauté for several minutes, using the mushrooms as a benchmark – when they are wilted, add the optional sausage. Sauté until the sausage is cooked, then stir in the spices to toast for a couple minutes. Add the lentils and stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover snugly. Cook for 20 – 30 minutes, or until tender. Season to taste with lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Stir in the greens. Serve hot.