There is a culinary anecdote in my family that has been passed down for a few generations now. When he was a little boy at the turn of the century, my grandfather (on my mom’s side) thought that lentils were simply revolting. To his dismay, lentils are quite a popular dish in Spain and he would regularly come face to face with a steaming plate of the reprehensible legume at lunchtime. Every time without fail, he would refuse to eat them. The way the story was told to me, his father would make him sit at the dinner table staring at the full plate until the end of that meal. Only then he was sent on his merry (and rather hungry) way until dinner, when he would unceremoniously be served the exact same plate of lentils, cold and stale. Initially, he would refuse it even more vehemently, (you see, I come from a long line of obstinate little rascals), and as a result he would go to bed even hungrier than before. Usually, the whole lentil situation would come to its unavoidable end when the next morning he would find, you guessed it, the very familiar, old plate of lentils for breakfast. Suddenly, old crusty lentils were eaten without much fuss with the realization that if only he had eaten them fresh…they would have been a whole lot tastier. Some battles are lost, after all….
Fortunately, by the time I was little, my grandpa had made peace with the dish, largely because my grandmother was a wonderful cook and she must have changed his perception of what a good lentil stew should really taste like. I remember we used to go to their house and sometimes she would have a big pot of lentils steaming on the stove. I thought they were the most delicious thing. They smelled of all things good to me: sunny weekends, grandparents, their brown Labrador dog, walks in the countryside, soccer matches on TV and lots of pastries for dessert.
So the truly funny part of the story is the curious way in which things have a way to come full circle in the end. I was turning three years old, and my great-grandmother (my grandpa’s Mom and quite likely the person behind the not so good tasting lentils) visited us for the occasion. I was standing in front of her in our living room (she was a very, very old lady by that time and rather grand in her demeanor), when she asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I didn’t even blink and I said I wanted lentils! Apparently she almost fell off her chair with laughter…and to this day I have no idea why or how that came to my mind at all…I had, at the time, no knowledge of any part of my grandpa’s long struggle against them, nor did I have the capacity to see the irony of the situation.
In any case, I remain a big fan and I cook lentils in my trusty pressure cooker almost weekly. The variations are almost infinite depending on whether you are craving a heavier version with meat added or just a simple vegetarian adaptation of the classic with potatoes and carrots. No matter what your preference, they are always filling, tasty and delicious. Try them this Fall for an easy, cozy dish that will warm you from the inside out even on the chilliest of days.
Stewed Lentils with Spanish Paprika
2 cups lentils ( I prefer Spanish Pardinas or Puy varieties)
1 cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped garlic
½ cup sliced cured Spanish chorizo (sweet or spicy)
½ cup olive oil
5 cups water
Pinch Black Pepper
1 teaspoon Pimenton de la Vera
½ teaspoon cumin
3 Bay leaves
Wash and check the lentils for small rocks. Rinse them a couple of times in order to avoid any sandy residue. In a deep pot, sautee the garlic and onions in warm olive oil until they turn translucent. Add the chorizo and the three bay leaves to the pot. Warm them up for a few seconds and then add the clean lentils. Submerge all the ingredients in water and add the rest of the spices. Mix thoroughly and cover until they come to a rolling boil. Turn the heat down a little bit and cook until very tender. It could take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. If you have taken the precaution to soak the lentils overnight, it’ll cut down the cooking time considerably. Adjust the amount of water depending on the desired final consistency of your lentils. You can leave quite a bit of liquid and serve them as a soup, or you can reduce the water until they are a lot thicker and filling. Remove the bay leaves before serving (traditionally it is believed that if you get the bay leave in your plate, it means you will be traveling far away soon). Add a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and enjoy very hot.