Let me tell you something about lentils. They do not have a very appetizing appearance. When my señora first served me lentils (lentejas), I was rather dubious, and I really only ate them to be polite. But as the year progressed, her lentils became something I looked forward to. They are flavorful without being heavy, and they require only light seasoning. Lentils are a classic winter meal because they are comforting and filling and delicious. Some might say that it’s because dried legumes are one of the only foods that are readily available year-round, but I’m pretty sure it’s because they’re delicious. Certainly Spaniards rely on lentejas to pull them out of their winter stupor on those frigid nights when the temperature dips below 35º F. (Have I mentioned how excited I am to spend another winter here?) Anyway, when I returned to the United States after studying abroad, I found myself craving lentejas from time to time, but after one failed attempt to recreate the magic, I pretty much gave up on them.
Returning to Spain has rejuvenated my interest. Well, returning to Spain on a limited budget that I must use to feed myself in a multiple-meals-a-day kind of way. Because in addition to being nutritious and delicious, lentejas are also cheap. (There’s really no end to the advantages!) Plus, I must admit that I assumed that my rate of success would be higher if I tried to make lentils in the place where I first ate them. I can now tell you that this assumption was incorrect. On the road to acquiring my current lentejas prowess, I have made batches of lentils that were too dry, too wet, or just plain tasteless. Now, I am finally able to eyeball the correct amount of liquid for that perfect lentejas consistency.
One thing to remember about lentejas, as well as other beans and legumes, is that the Spanish preparation calls for a fair amount of liquid. Unlike general Latin-American/Goya style beans, which are nice, moist beans without much broth, Spanish lentejas are more like a thick soup. I am sure that this difference is related to the Spanish habit of using bread to wipe your plate clean. Brothless beans = no bread swiping, which is just no fun.
I’m going to withhold specific quantities again. Against all odds, I’m becoming a fan of using recipes only as a rough guideline, although this may be because I still don’t have an oven in my apartment and baked items usually require much more precision than boiled ones. (Did some bitterness come through there? The landlady promised to bring an oven at the end of November. I’m not holding my breath.)
Despite their boiled nature, lentils were just the food I was craving this week. I’ve been celebrating Halloween with the kids at school, so I am utterly exhausted. For three days straight, I’ve dressed up, sung songs, and told stories. (The Little Old Lady Who Wasn’t Afraid of Anything for the younger ones, and The Headless Horseman for the older kids.) We’ve danced the Monster Mash, learned Halloween vocab, and watched clips from all kinds of scary movies. And I don’t have time to rest just yet, because I still have to pack my bag. Tomorrow morning, Fiona and I are headed to Valencia to pass the weekend! The land of paella, The City of Arts and Sciences, and beautiful Mediterranean beaches. It’s probably a little too late in the season to swim in the sea, but I’m packing the bathing suit anyway. I’m a tough cookie.
Anyway, back to lentils. Start out with the amount of lentils you need (we use maybe 1/2 cup for 4 people) and let them soak for about an hour to plump them up and soften their shell. Then rinse them clean with cold water. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat.
On the side, chop up some onion, carrot and potato.
In the saucepan, sauté the onion until soft and golden-brown. If you like, you can also sauté some garlic with the onion. Then add the potato, carrot, lentils, and enough water to cover the whole mixture by about 3 inches. As for spices, we use a generous pinch of salt, pepper, minced onion, basil, and 1 or 2 bay leaves. The bay leaf flavor is very important to lentejas, so don’t leave it out!
Leave the mixture to simmer, covered, for 90 minutes to 2 hours, or until the mixture has thickened into delicious soup. It should look approximately like this:
I must reiterate the importance of checking in on legumes once in a while to add more liquid as necessary. You need to be especially careful with lentejas because they retain most of their liquid but also seem to reach a sudden thickening point. The trick is to take them off the heat right when the liquid thickens, or else they may burn. (I’m speculating, of course… but I can also speculate that if you let your pot soak overnight, those burned lentils will wash right out.)
Et voilà the perfect meal for a blustery fall day, or perhaps after a chilly dip in the Mediterranean. I’ll let you know.