Lentils and Memory

Two women are destined to attend a contentious community board meeting. They work at a nearby college and their challenge is to appease angry residents who, over the last fifteen years, have been permitted to plant vegetables and flowers on a small corner of the campus while the college tried to secure money for a much needed athletics building. The board will want to know if the college has plans to replace the destroyed garden. One woman will present a series of architectural drawings for a smaller garden. The other will handle the city press who have latched on to the story. She’s the one who suggests that a glass of wine and a small plate of something will steal their nerves. The other, more cautious, is not so sure but gives in and they retreat to a nearby restaurant where they claim the quiet bend of the bar. They order a better wine than usual and warm bowls of lentils. They survive the evening.

The large jar of lentils I find in the cupboard recalls this memory. The firmness of the ones at the restaurant were offset by silky greens that had a slight bitterness. Perhaps kale, a rare ingredient just trending. A lightly poached egg nestled on top, the runny yolk a rich dressing.

Memories are unreliable, especially for food that are always entwined with the rest of the senses. Any attempt to reproduce the dish would not be exactly right unless the original circumstances are duplicated as well. But I take down the jar anyway if only because the holiday’s have been meat heavy. More urgent, though, is the wish to relive that moment in time when life seems now to have been so incredibly simple. What I wouldn’t give to experience the pleasure of sitting in a quiet bar with a lively companion, a fine wine and a deliciously warm meal before us.

The search for a recipe begins. There’s a slew. Most require a fried egg. Some replaces kale with spinach. A lot are heavily spiced or salted. A well-known one includes tomatoes, another feta cheese or parmesan. They’re called soups and curries, originating in Italy, India, or Iran. None fully captured that night.

I take what I can from them, basically how long to cook the lentils, and jettison the rest: No kale (not a big fan), no pungent spices, not a soup or a stew. The spinach will need a little oomph. The egg has to be very delicate.

Come night, the husband and I settle before the television. On the table before me is a mediocre glass of wine and a bowl of lentils. He searches for something that will offer us even a spec of medicinal forgetfulness of the previous year. Once settled, we begin to eat. Nothing is the same as that night. Not even the lentils. But the evening is close enough to my memory to satisfy.

A Lentil Dish

As noted, the following recipe borrows from several sources, the results influences by my past. Let your own guide you. Dandelions are believed to cleanse your sluggish winter blood but, if you don’t like them, substitute another bitter green such as arugula, mustard or collard. Some are tougher than others and will require a longer cooking time to get the right smooth texture.

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cups lentil, washed and picked over to remove tiny stones

5 or 6 cups of chicken stock

3 cloves of garlic, 2 chopped, one reserved for later

2 bunches of fresh washed spinach or 2 cups frozen

1 bunch dandelions, washed, the leaves torn away from the tough center vein

2 extra large eggs, carefully cracked into a bowl with slanted sides

Freshly ground pepper

Slices of French bread

Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a deep skillet over moderate heat. Add the onions and stir gently, then lower the flame and cook, stirring every now and then, for about 10 minutes. You want the onions to be on the edge of meltingly caramelized.

Stir in the lentils, then start adding the stock. You want just enough liquid to cover. Cook over moderate heat for about 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the liquid evaporates and the lentils are still hard, add more stock.

In the meantime, prepare the spinach mixture. In another skillet, sauté the garlic in the remaining tablespoon of oil until brown then add the greens. Cover with a lid. There should be just enough water left on the spinach, whether the washed fresh or the frozen, for it to wilt. Stir a couple of times to keep an eye on it.

Crush the reserved garlic clove and smear it over buttered slices of French bread. Place on a baking sheet and run under the broiler for about 2 minutes or until nicely brown.

Check on the lentils. If they have softened but still have a bite to them, lower the flame to simmer and stir in the greens. if not, cook the lentils a little longer then add the greens.

Add about a teaspoon of vinegar to a small sauce pan of low boiling water. Stir to create a little whirlpool then gently slide the eggs into the water. The whites will swish around the yolks. Cook for no more than 3 minutes or to the point where the yolk has filmed over.

To serve: Ladle the lentils and spinach mixture into a bowl, spoon the egg on top. Grind a turn or two of pepper over the dish. Accompany each bowl with the toasted garlic slices.