Now that Fall is officially here, with grey rain, grey water, and piles of grey clouds, I’m reading many odes to Fall foods. Squashes, pumpkins, apples, pears. All of these are wonderful, and add a splash of color to days that are now noticeably shorter and darker (and grey—did I mention grey?). But I’d like to chime in with a personal favorite Fall food, a quiet, unassuming little legume that generally neither brightens nor adds color. Lentils.
Lentils do come in red, of course, but they are not the lentil of autumn to me. Autumn lentils are green or brown. Like the tree leaves that just turn brown, they provide a neutral canvas for all those splashy bright fruits and vegetables. On a bed of colored leaves, a pumpkin competes for our attention. On a carpet of brown ones, it dazzles.
One of my favorite ways to eat lentils isn’t necessarily confined to Fall, but it certainly makes an excellent lunch. Cooked lentils with a little chopped red onion, served with baby rocket and some really high quality Italian tuna (in olive oil, please—no spring water in this dish). The whole is dressed with a simple mustard vinaigrette that unifies everything and gives it a spark. After my twin boys were born, I think I ate this for lunch for three weeks in a row. The lentils were easy to make in large batches, and would keep well in the refrigerator. One can of tuna would provide four servings. It was easy to put together when they were down for one of their many naps (most of which only seemed to ever last twenty minutes—just long enough to get to that last bite).
This dish was inspired by something we had at an Italian restaurant. We used to live near a busy intersection, but it hadn’t always been a busy intersection. The addition of an overpass had pushed what was once considered a sophisticated and elegant restaurant onto a little triangle of land, surrounded on three sides by busy highway, and flanked on the fourth side by an old and dumpy Giant Food store. On a night we didn’t feel like cooking, we tried the now-fallen-from-grace Italian restaurant for dinner. The only thing worth eating, we found, was a lentil salad that they served on their Antipasto Bar. My husband had about four helpings of it. We never did know how the restaurant stayed in business, because the rest of the food was truly deplorable, but perhaps the constant stream of mid-1970s model Cadillacs and Buicks that were always in the parking lot explained it: people who had loved the place when it was sophisticated and elegant still clung to it, remembering it as it used to be.
Lentil soup is another comfort food. I like it with Indian spices like garam masala. I make it sometimes with pancetta, or regular bacon. Before we had kids, my husband and I used to host a holiday party every year, and we liked to have a pot of soup (or two) in the slow cooker so people could have a little cup of soup to warm them up when they first arrived. One year it was lentil soup with Indian spices, and there wasn’t a drop left at the end of the evening. The logistics of serving the soup were never very fancy—just little Styrofoam cups and plastic spoons, but it was always welcome.
Both lamb and flank steak seem to have a natural affinity for lentils too. Many times I’ve ordered a rack of lamb in a restaurant that came with lentils. Once, when I was a tourist in the town in which I now live, we had lunch at one of Tom Douglas’s restaurants, Etta’s in Pike Place Market. He served a trout that came with lentils, and although I don’t really think of fish and lentils together (other than perhaps salmon, which almost doesn’t even seem like fish to me anymore because it so often seems to be treated like meat), this particular dish was excellent.
I’ve never tried lentil puree, although I’m very fond of white bean puree. Somehow lentils are so small and innocent, it just seems mean to puree them. On the other hand, in soup I feel like they should be pureed. They make a nice creamy soup, but it’s possible to make it very low fat (that would be in the versions with no bacon, of course).
Lentils are filling, friendly to cooks because they’re ready so quickly, good hot or cold. Fall is a perfect time of year for lentils, when you can’t decide between soup or salad because the weather is cold and rainy one day, sunny and warm the next. They’re great as a co-star, or as a supporting player. This may just be a lentil soup weekend. It’s supposed to rain.