A few years ago, I bought three pounds of green lentils for about $3.50 at Arax Market, one of the Armenian shops on Mt. Auburn Street in Watertown. All of the markets on that block are wonderful resources for dirt cheap spices — think half a pound of saffron threads for under $5 — nuts, candies, baked goods and freshly prepared Middle Eastern specialties.
Not long after, I won my trusty pressure cooker as a door prize at a bridal event at Macy’s, and the lentils got set aside in the pantry as I explored the world of long-cooking beans: cranberry, black, kidney, Northern white, chickpeas and the like. So my lentils sat in the pantry, untouched for more than three years, until this past fall when I was scrambling for recipes to use up the pounds of leeks in my CSA box.
Leeks are a really great mild allium that can hang out in the fridge for a few weeks. But they can also be really filthy, and require a tad more prep than their round cousins. The ones I got in the CSA were some of the dirtiest I’d ever seen; I had to wipe down my counter several times prepping them. When cleaning a leek, the first thing to do is get rid of the tough exterior layers. Cut off some of the really tough dark green parts at the top as well, then slice the leeks in half lengthwise on your cutting board. Take the leek half to the sink and run water over it, running your fingers through each layer to remove hidden dirt. After this rinsing, you can slice them up for your recipe.
The recipe I have here is from Darra Goldstein’s The Vegetarian Hearth: Recipes and Reflections for the Cold Season. (Darra is the editor of the amazing food studies periodical Gastronomicaand the author of a number of great cookbooks.) It’s a great pantry dish, made of stuff you should just have around the house. Give the lentils a good rinse in a colander before you start cooking with them. You might have to cook them a little longer if they’re on the older side, but don’t worry; age does not affect its taste.
And here’s a tip for the tablespoon of tomato paste: You can buy a really great tube of tomato paste at high-end grocery stores. It comes with a screw top, so you can take what you want and put it away until the next time. It should cost less than $10. However, you can get a can of tomato paste for about .75 at any grocery store. To save the rest of the can, empty the contents into a plastic baggy, squish it flat and toss it in the freezer. The next time a recipe calls for tomato paste, just take the baggie out and break yourself off the correct amount.
I love this dish so much that my three pounds of lentils are just about down to two cups. We ate this all fall long and into the winter. I like to add Brussels sprouts, adding them right at the beginning, with the leeks and carrots. It’s not necessary, but it just tastes really great.
Lentils and Leeks The Vegetarian Hearthby Darra Goldstein
2 pounds leeks, well-rinsed and sliced 1/2 inch thick
2 large carrots, peeled and sliced 1/2 inch thick
1/4 cup olive oil
2 1/2 cups water
1 cup green lentils
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper
In a large saucepan toss the leek and carrot slices with the olive oil. Cook over medium heat for 8 minutes, until the vegetables are lightly browned, then stir in the remaining ingredients. Cover the pan and simmer the mixture for about 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the lentils are tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed. To keep the leek slices intact, do not stir. Serve hot.
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish, 2 to 4 as a main dish.