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.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely diced
4 cloves garlic (or more, if you like!), very thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, very thinly sliced
1 celery stalk, very thinly sliced
1 cup green lentils, French Le Puy if you can find them
1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper, plus more to taste
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley, to top (optional)
fried egg, to top (optional)
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 translucsent, 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.