French-inspired lentils are the easiest cure for your winter blues—and they're impossible to mess up

Rustic, friendly and fast, lentils are here to save dinnertime like a warm blanket on a cold night

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
February 24, 2021 9:44PM (UTC)
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Winter Lentils (Mary Elizabeth Williams/Salon)

In "Quick & Dirty," Salon Food's Mary Elizabeth Williams serves up simplified recipes and shortcuts for exhausted cooks just like you — because quick and dirty should still be delicious.

You need a cure for your winter blues when the gray sky's been hanging roughly six inches over your head for a solid week, when the wind is rattling the windows and when the idea of a snow day just isn't cute anymore. I give you: lentils.

Lentils, like their old friend barley, too often get typecast in the role of "soup thing." This is unfortunate, as anyone who's ever eaten dal will attest, because lentils are just so, so good. They're cheap and nutritious; they keep in the pantry forever. Lentils make you feel like you've been fed — like really fed, with real food. I can't improve upon the great Laurie Colwin's assessment in her classic "Home Cooking" that "lentils are friendly — the Miss Congeniality of the bean world. They take well to almost anything."

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I've always been a lentil lover, but it was Susan Herrmann Loomis' lovely "French Farmhouse Cookbook" that made me truly appreciate their casual elegance. Loomis, an American living and teaching culinary arts in Normandy, doesn't just write about food — she celebrates the people who cook it. In the book, she recounts sharing a simple meal and being presented by her hosts, at its conclusion, with a branch of dried lentil pods as if it were a bouquet. There's something about that image that has always stuck with me — the beauty and generosity of it.


What's your winter comfort food? Tell us in the comments!


You could make this dish more elaborate. You could neatly and finely dice your carrots and onion. You could sauté the vegetables and aromatics in a skillet first to deepen the flavors. You could deglaze said skillet with a quick pour of a good but not precious red wine. You could add a fried egg on top, because a fried egg on top is never a bad idea. Or you could do as I prefer, and just chop up everything roughly, simmer it all in a big pot and go listen to old Radiohead albums for a half hour.

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Any way that you arrive at dinnertime, this is a meal that's a warm blanket on a cold night, a snoring dog at your feet. The kind of thing that makes you like winter again. It comes together with what you've already got on hand, and it's all but impossible to screw up. That's lentils for you: friendly, forgiving and deeply comforting.

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Recipe: Winter Lentils

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Adapted from Susan Herrmann Loomis

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup of dried lentils (Puy, aka French, are suggested — but use what you've got!)
  • 1 medium yellow onion (or a few stalks of green onion)
  • 2 carrots, cut into rounds (Add a parsnip or stalk of celery if you like.)
  • 4 cloves of garlic, sliced thinly (or more, if you like)
  • 1 fresh bay leaf, if you've got it
  • 2 1/2 cups of vegetable broth (or use water — it's fine!)
  • 1 cup of diced cooked ham (You can substitute chorizo, salami, prosciutto or any salty cooked meat you enjoy.)
  • A generous glug of olive oil
  • Cracked black pepper and sea salt to taste (A big pinch of za'atar goes nicely here.)

Tip: You can easily make this dish vegan. Just leave out the meat!

Instructions:

  1. Add first six ingredients to a large saucepan or pot with a heavy bottom
  2. Simmer over medium high heat for roughly 30 minutes. Brown, red or yellow lentils will cook faster. Check now and then to make sure the pan isn't getting dry. If it is, add more broth or water, a half cup at a time.
  3. Check for doneness by tasting a few lentils. They should be tender — not too firm.
  4. Fold in the ham, and stir to incorporate.
  5. Dish out to a big serving plate. Season with salt, pepper and a nice pour of olive oil.

Serving suggestions: Serve with green salad and aggressively lemony dressing and French bread slathered with brie. Or just eat unaccompanied, because it's already perfect.

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More Quick & Dirty: Have you read the first two columns?

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Easy Dinners Food French Food Lentils Quick & Dirty Recipe Susan Herrmann Loomis