You can see what is beloved in my poetry or recipe books based on the pages that are tear or ingredient stained. Occasionally, you might find a page that has both -- which is a good sign; a poem read aloud while cooking or a recipe that causes an emotional surge is one that ought to be considered. Perhaps the icing on the cake is when a binding is so worn that once taken off the shelf, the book falls open to a certain page as if to either bask in accustomed attention or to offer a warm, homecoming embrace.
All of these markers of appreciation can be found on pages 267 and 268 of Judy Rodger's tremendous compendium of recipes in The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, underneath the modest title "Lentils Braised in Red Wine". There isn't much which heralds more promise of warmth and protection than a pot of lentils simmering on the stove. The smell of their steady earthiness that fills the kitchen and seeps under doorways with a peppery lift nearly takes your coat and boots off for you. The steamy booziness from the wine dries any raindrops lingering on your shoulders and the flavours are so inherently pleasing that the cares of the day are replaced in a matter of mouthfuls.
Pinot Noir Braised Lentils with Bay
hardly adapted from Judy Rodgers
French lentils (lentilles du Puy) maintain their structure as they cook and can be found most markets that sell dried beans and grains. If you have trouble finding them however, simply substitute green lentils -- the dish might get a bit mushy but will still be delicious. The lentils get more wonderful as time goes on -- add a splash of liquid to re-heat or enough liquid to turn the dish into a hearty stew with a few handfuls of already-salted roasted squash and quickly blanched kale.
4 T plus a splash of olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 carrots, finely diced
2 celery stalks, finely diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
a few pinches of dried or a sprig of fresh thyme (optional)
1 and 1/4 c French lentils
1 c plus a splash of Pinot Noir (or other dry, lighter red wine)
4 c hot water, vegetable or chicken stock
Bring the water or stock to a hot temperature on a back burner and have a ladle or mug nearby with which to scoop the liquid when needed. You may not need all of the warmed stock -- the ratio of liquid to lentil is ever-changing.
In a medium sized Dutch oven, heat 4 T of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrots and celery and a few pinches of salt and saute for 5 minutes until the onions are becoming translucent. Add the garlic and saute for a minute more.
Add the bay leaf, optional thyme and French lentils and stir to coat with the vegetables. Add the cup of wine and enough hot liquid to just cover the lentils. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, uncovered and stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has been absorbed before adding more stock, as you would if making risotto.
Continue this process until the lentils are beginning to split and are soft to the bite. Season with 3/4 teaspoon of sea salt, a splash of wine (a quarter cup or so) and another swirl of olive oil (2 tablespoons). Let simmer for another few minutes before removing from the heat. Using discretion, add more salt if necessary -- sometimes the lentils can be thirsty for it.
Serve alongside lemon roasted potatoes, underneath a poached egg with a dollop of dijon or atop garlic rubbed toast.
Yields: enough for 6 (meals or people)
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30 - 45 minutes, mostly unattended