The Best Lentil Stew on Earth
On one cold January evening, I went down to Kalustyan's—New York City's greatest epicurean destination, at least on a per square foot basis—to stock up on some wintry cooking essentials. Kalustyan's is a spice shop that has gradually expanded into an everything-global-food-shop. It is located in three adjacent buildings on Lexington Avenue, one of which was once home to President Chester A. Arthur—in 1881 he was inaugurated on the third floor, which now houses hundreds of bulk loose-leaf teas. This neighborhood of Manhattan is now affectionately known as "Curry Hill," for its density of Indian restaurants; masala-hawking bodegas; and 24/7 curry houses that are favorites of New York City's nocturnal taxi and limousine drivers. Kalustryan's sells every spice under the sun as well as over 30 different kinds of lentils, or dals. Over the course of an hour of wandering through the narrow, spice-laden aisles, I filled my shopping cart with dozens of bulk-priced goods, like a 10-pound bag of basmati rice, two kinds of bay leaves, and six different varieties of lentils: moong and urud, among others.
I spent the next two weeks working my way through a repertoire of hearty Indian dishes—the subject of another post entirely—until I was left with just one last variety of lentil in my pantry, the French green lentil (aka du Puy lentil). Faced with this familiar legume, my mind immediately returned to a meal that was a favorite of my childhood, lentil stew.
I took out a quart of beef bone broth from my freezer, all the week-old wilting vegetables in my fridge, and went to work. The result was not only better than any lentil soup or stew I had ever had, but in that moment I felt it was best thing I had ever eaten. At this point I would expect the reader to disregard this declaration as mere hyperbole, but I would remind her that this is the first post in this series and the author has intentionally chosen to start with this particular recipe. When it comes to food, whether cooked at home or enjoyed at a restaurant, one can certainly group a dish, meal, restaurant, a piece of fruit even, into a class: poor, mediocre, good, great, divine (what is better than great?). However it is impossible to objectively determine "the best" dish, meal, restaurant, or piece of fruit. In any moment one may feel like they have experienced "the best," but that depends as much on one's own emotional and psychological state at that point in time as it does on any objective factors in said meal, dish, etc. What I can say for certain is that this lentil stew is beyond great. It represents everything I love about home cooking: it is easy and inexpensive to make (one pot!), healthful, abundant, forgiving, incredibly delicious, and will make the amateur home cook feel like a master chef nonna in a decaying villa in the hills of Tuscany. Here is what you will need to recreate it at home:
4 tablespoons butter
Equal parts: onion, carrot, celery, all chopped (I use 1 onion, 2 carrots, 1 head celery)
|1 cup quality canned plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juice|
|1/2 pound dried French green lentils|
|1 quart beef bone broth|
|Salt, to taste|
|Fresh ground black pepper, to taste|
|3 tablespoons freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese, with rind (optional)|
|1/3 cup shredded pancetta or bacon (optional)|
1) On medium high heat, put 3 tablespoons of butter in a large dutch oven or soup pot. Heat on to until it melts but doesn't burn. Add onion (and pancetta, if using) and stir until it becomes a deep gold.
2) Add carrot and celery, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 2-3 minutes.
3) Add tomato, lower heat to medium-low so they simmer gently. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
4) Wash lentils in cold water and drain. Then add to pot. Stir and mix well. Add beef broth (and optional reggiano rind). Bring to a boil and reduce to gentle simmer and cover. Cook until tender, approximately 45 minutes. Stir and taste occasionally, adding salt and pepper as needed.
5) When lentils are done, add remaining tablespoon of butter and grated reggiano (remove the rind, if added previously). Final addition of butter and cheese are optional but highly recommended. Taste and correct for salt and pepper.