When I first visited Sam’s bungalow while dating long-distance, he had glass jars perched on the kitchen shelves to house his beans and grains, all beautifully labeled and lettered. I knew I’d stumbled into something good. On my second visit to Seattle, he broke out the jar of lentils and set out to make me his “famous lentils.” I was a bit skeptical as to how famous they could really be — I’d always known them to be the reliable base for an easy vegetarian soup or the stuff of hippy deli salads. But that afternoon we made hot tea and ate the lentils standing up over the stove, straight from the pot. With the first bite I told Sam — only half kidding — never to make the famous lentils for another woman. They are that good. We’ve joked about that afternoon ever since, me playfully insisting that I’d marry him for his lentils alone. Well, on our drive down to San Francisco a few weeks ago, that promise became more true than ever.
People! We are engaged! I’ve been so excited to tell you here but there has been so much going on with the cookbook release, that I wanted to wait until just the right time. And this week has felt like the perfect time: Sam has been out of town and I was slowly slipping back into my “single gal” eating habits (scrambled eggs and toast or quesadillas for dinner) when I began craving his lentils. He is not a ‘write down the recipe’ kind of guy so I had to call and have him walk me through how to make them. I chose his sturdy metal hand-me-down pot, turned on the radio and got to work. It turns out that recreating someone’s famous dish from scratch does help bring them right on into the kitchen with you, even if they happen to be across the country at the time.
I know many of you have been reading this site since Sam and I first began dating. In fact, I met many of you — who are now close friends — right around the time I moved back in with my mom after a long relationship ended suddenly. And I slowly wrote about dusting myself off, about moving into my own apartment for the first time, about slowly falling in love again, looking at new houses together, and taking the plunge to move to Seattle to join Sam after a good year of flying back and forth in between our two respective cities. I wasn’t always sure it would work; for anyone who has dated someone long-distance who you care about immensely, you know that it’s really difficult. I’m a real planner and I like to slot everything into its rightful box and this was one of the first times I can recall where there was no way to envision what it would all look like or how it would come together: we didn’t know at the time who would move where, when that would be, if that would be. What would happen to my business? What would happen to my friends and family? Would we even like living together? There was no rightful box and no check-list, and I found myself panicking frequently. Sam would constantly assure me: It was all going to work out just fine. In its own time. Trust me.
As we drove down the Oregon Coast, he reminded me again how true that promise was. Sam proposed on beautiful, rugged Cannon Beach. We were the only people on the entire swath of sand; it was as if someone had come by and cleared out the winter walkers so we could have center stage to stroll and talk about our future. We snapped some photos, we named some of the majestic rocks, we got sand in our shoes.
As we walked back to the car to continue the long drive to California, I found myself picking up the pace, eager to get back into the warm car. But Sam grabbed my arm and said we had one more photo to take. He pointed to our feet. During that year of living apart, one of the things that helped us to feel closer to one another was taking quick cell phone photos of our feet. In fact, I have a whole folder called “feet photos” that I can’t bring myself to delete: some of me in flats as I headed to work at Heath Ceramics, others in running shoes as I headed out to run around the lake. Sam would have a pair of good reliable boots or Clarks on, and when I found myself missing him I’d scan through my phone to find those photos in particular. So right before we left the blustery, misty beach we snapped a photo of both of our feet — sandy and cold — but standing together in one frame.
There are a lot of lentil recipes out there and in many ways, this one doesn’t look all that different — it’s, on first glance, a standard warm French lentil salad. But I think a lot of the difference is found in the approach and preparation: Sam slices the carrots and celery very, very thin. As thin as you can get them … and then you’re just about there. He doesn’t pre-cook the carrots or celery along with the onion, finding that they’re perfectly done if they cook alongside the lentils at the same time. This version below happens to be vegetarian, but Sam will often thinly slice and cook two hot Italian sausages to then fold into the lentils as they cook. I went with a straight-up ‘what do we have in our pantry?’ version but I do love the sausage as well. The good hit of Dijon punches up the flavor, and the parsley? Totally my idea. Sam would think this a bit fussy, but after reading Tamar Adler’s book I basically toss parsley into everything. We love this for easy lunches, topped with a runny egg. I had some last night with polenta — and the night before, topped a baked sweet potato with lentils. It’s hearty winter fare which, at this point in January, feels just right.
So with that: lentils. And a photo of the sky as we were driving away from Cannon Beach headed to a house full of family we’d share our big news with. The sky was so brilliant that night. Crisp and pink and bright. As evening grew nearer, it occurred to me that we’d just gotten engaged on the winter solstice: literally the shortest and darkest day of the year — a day that dictates that everything from here on out just gets lighter and brighter.
I’d like to mention that my grandmother Marge passed away a few days after Christmas this year. Many of you know her as the namesake to my granola business. I am so heartened and happy that I got to tell her about our engagement over the phone before she passed. The morning we talked, my mom told me that she was doing very poorly and probably wouldn’t be able to respond much. To everyone’s surprise, she was able to talk to me: she had a wonderful way of saying things were “major” when she was delighted with them. A really good coconut cake? Major. A new color of Tom’s sneakers out for the summer season? Major. Sam and Megan getting engaged? That was “major, major, major, major.” This got a lot of majors. We sent a photo of the ring a little while later so she and my Gramp could see. I’m guessing that might have gotten a “major,” too. Her spunk will be greatly missed at our wedding; I have a feeling her spirit won’t.
These lentils are even better the next day, so we’ll often make a pot with the intention of not serving them for a day or two. When reheating, you may want to add a little extra water — the lentils can settle in and soak up a bit of the liquid as they sit.
Put a kettle or a pot (containing about 4 cups water) on the stove and bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and cook until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for an additional minute. Fold in the carrots and celery.
Add the lentils to the saucepan and stir to coat with the onion mixture. Pour the boiling water into the pan and stop when the level is about ½-inch over the top of the lentils (should be roughly 3 1/2 cups of water). Bring back to a good boil, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and cook the lentils for about 20 minutes. Stir in the mustard, vinegar, salt and pepper and cook an additional 10-15 minutes – or until lentils are tender but still slightly chewy.
Remove from the heat and let sit for ten minutes. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper.
Serve warm – with a lightly-fried egg and a sprinkling of parsley on top if you’d like. Leftovers can be covered and refrigerated for an additional 4-5 days.
Winter Soups and Stews
If your house is anything like ours, last week wasn't our most inspired in terms of cooking. We're all suffering from the post-election blues -- the sole upside being Oliver's decision to sleep-in until 7 am for the first time in many, many months; I think he's trying to tell us that pulling the covers over our heads and hibernating for awhile is ok. It's half-convincing. For much of the week, instead of cooking, there'd been takeout pizza and canned soup before, at week's end, I decided it was time to pour a glass of wine and get back into the kitchen. I was craving something hearty and comforting that we could eat for a few days. Something that wouldn't remind me too much of Thanksgiving because, frankly, I can't quite gather the steam to start planning for that yet. It was time for a big bowl of chili.
Last weekend it was so windy – apocalyptically stormy, you could say – that our tent at the farmers market was uprooted by gusts of wind that were not messing around. I wasn't there, but apparently despite being heavily weighted down and with four customers holding onto each corner, it quite literally blew down the block. Sam, from across town, was reporting trees falling on every block and traffic lights out across the city. The next morning on a walk with Oliver around Green Lake, we were met with that same biting wind and ended up retreating for a hot chocolate instead. 'Tis the season in Seattle: we all get a little giddy and ahead of ourselves when we spot the cherry blossoms and daffodils, and I always trick myself into thinking that with the start of daylight savings time, summer must be right around the corner. In truth, before we had Oliver, we'd often travel somewhere sunny for a little mood boost around this time of year. When I moved from California, many friends – other (empathetic) 'expats' now living in the Pacific Northwest – recommended this: if you know what's good for you, they'd all say, go find the sun in February or March, and we would follow that advice faaaaaithfully. But with a baby, this just isn't where our priorities are this year, and I've found myself relying on other antics like buying out of season strawberries, drinking white wine with dinner, buying a new pair of sandals that likely will not see the light of day for the next two months, and making big, colorful pots of feel good, springy soup. Let's not kid ourselves: Cherry blossoms or not, Seattle's no Palm Springs when it gets down to bathing in the sunlight. But if you step outside onto your little porch, smell the honeysuckle blooming, take notice of the longer, lighter days and think about how you simply can't wait to see your baby crawling around on the sand when it's warm enough to stroll down to the beach, it starts looking better in its own light.
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
One of the things I wanted to accomplish before really returning to work in earnest was to print some of our honeymoon photos and get them into an album. This project has taken far longer than expected as I find myself daydreaming about the craggy streets of Naples and meeting up with our friends Mataio and Jessica for a late night slice of pizza which we ate sitting on the sidewalk before embarking on an aimless but wonderful stroll of the city. There are photos of our balcony by the sea, most with tanned limbs, sandy sandals and a Campari and soda gracing the periphery of the frame. There was the little grocery store up the hill from our apartment on the Amalfi Coast that had the sweetest, tiniest strawberries and the best yogurt in little glass jars. Tomatoes drying in the sun, Aperol spritzes and salty peanuts before dinner at the bar across from the church square where all the neighborhood kids played kickball. As I sit here typing this now, photos remain scattered on my desk and it's likely they may not make it into the proper slots in the album anytime soon. Of course, they have me dreaming of sunshine and long days with little agenda, but they also have me thinking about the simplicity of our meals in Italy and how truly easy it was to eat well. Coincidentally, a few days ago Rachel Roddy's lusty new cookbook (can we call it lusty?!), My Kitchen in Rome, arrived at our doorstep. Clearly it was time to set the photos aside and get into the kitchen.
And suddenly, it's fall. I find that realization always comes not so much with the dates on the calendar as it does the leaves on the ground, the first crank of the heat in the morning, the dusky light on the way home from an evening run. Because we were gone on the train for nearly a week, I feel like fall happened here in Seattle during that very time. I left town eating tomatoes and corn and returned to find squashes and pumpkins in the market. It was that quick. And so, it only seemed fitting that I make this soup, one that has graced the fall table of each and every apartment (and now house) I've ever lived. In fact, I'm surprised that I hadn't yet made it for you here, and delighted to share it with you today.