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.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.