Through the culinary lens

Lentejas

Buenos Aires Herald
On Sunday supplement
Food and Wine

Brown, green, yellow, red, Turkish, French, Puy, small, large… the world of the Lens culinaris, the lentil, is wide and varied. Delicious and nutritious, lentils pack in the third largest amount of protein of any pea, bean or nut (following soy and hemp). And, following in a long Italian tradition, particularly from the Umbrian area, Argentina has sallied forth with one of its quartet of famed stews, lentejas (which really just means lentils, come on, couldn’t you have been more creative?), joining in with mondongo (tripe), locro and carbonada. I’ve already covered a locro redux in a past column, and with cold weather coming on, we may just see the other two coming down the pike.

Now, if I were to make this stew the traditional Umbrian way, it’d be packed with the flavors of smoked and salted pancetta, the classic bacon of the region, fresh sweet and spicy Italian sausages, with a touch of fennel seed, and maybe even some other pork bits of one sort or another floating about. Here in Argentina it’s more likely that I’ll find much of that translated to beef – oh, the bacon part may still be present, but there will be ground or diced beef stewed along. There will also be lots of carrots. I appreciate the carrot in many ways, but for me, it sits there alongside cream cheese in sushi, it’s just in the wrong place. Put your carrots in your split pea soup and be done with it.

The hard part about lightening up a hearty stew like the lentejas is that so much of its flavor comes from those bits of meat and curing spices and all that sort of good stuff. And far be it for me to tell you can’t add a bit of one or another to this dish, but give it a try for your “meatless Monday” and you may just find that it’s not necessary. Oh, and this recipe is way too easy – and, of course, if you’re preference is vegan, leave the eggs out of the dish – some sauteed portobello caps would be great on top of the stew.

500 gr lentils soaked in water for 1-2 hours
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
1-2 chili peppers, finely chopped
500 grams tomato purée (canned is just fine here)
1 liter vegetable stock
1 teaspoon liquid smoke
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 bunch of arugula, cleaned and stemmed
8 eggs
4 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Saute onion, celery, garlic and chili in olive oil with a little salt and pepper over medium heat until softened and just starting to color. Add the lentils, the tomato purée, liquid smoke, stock and balsamic vinegar. Cover and cook over low heat for approximately 1 hour until the lentils are tender. Adjust the seasoning to your tastes with salt and pepper. Off the heat add the arugula and mix in well, cover and let sit.

In the remaining olive oil in a good sized frying pan fry up the eggs (you can also poach them if you prefer). You may need to do it in batches depending on the size of pan you have. In a large bowl serve a couple of scoops of the lentil mixture and top with two eggs per person. Put a little grind of pepper and perhaps some good sea salt on top of each egg. Serves 4.

Just a note – why soak the lentils for 1-2 hours beforehand? After all, they cook up fairly quickly anyway – instead of an hour in the pot they might need only about two hours. While that’s true, what will happen is that the texture and flavor of the other vegetables in the dish will get lost – they’ll turn to mush by the time the lentils cook through. And while you’re saving an hour overall, it’s an hour during which you don’t need to be attending to the lentils, and isn’t it worth it to enhance the flavor and texture of the dish? I think so.

A series of recipes and articles that I started writing for the Buenos Aires Herald Sunday supplement, Food & Wine section, at the beginning of 2012. My original proposal to them was to take local favorite dishes and classics and lighten them up for modern day sensibilities. We’re not talking spa or diet recipes, but at the very least, making them healthier in content, particularly salt, fat and portion size. As time went by, that morphed into a recipe column that, while emphasizing food that is relatively “good for you”, wasn’t necessarily focused on local cuisine. At the beginning of 2013 I decided to stop writing for them over some administrative issues, but it was fun while it lasted.

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