Every other Thursday, we bring you Nicholas Day -- on cooking for children, and with children, and despite children. Also, occasionally, on top of.
Today: Braise your lentils the Zuni Café way.
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In our pantry, the lentils live in a glass case that reads: Break in case of dinner.
Lentils can never be praised enough: Come home, put water on to boil, find the lentils -- you can be eating a half-hour after you walk in. Add sautéed onions and carrots, wedges of feta, fried eggs: You have what passes for a real dinner in less time than it takes to order it. Here’s what I do: Get home, call for take-out, make lentils, and then, when the delivery guy arrives, feed him the lentils.
Lentils are humble and tireless. But even Cinderella wanted to go to the damn ball sometime. Hence: lentils braised in red wine.
This comes from the Zuni Café Cookbook, which also can never be praised too much, and Judy Rodgers, who wrote about cooking as thoughtfully as anyone before or since. (And who is deeply missed.) Even devoted Zuni Cookbook readers may have skipped this recipe, though, because in it Rodgers uses a phrase that will crush the spirit of any must-get-dinner-on-the-table parent: as you would risotto.
She’s referring to her “stingy-with-the-liquid method” -- these lentils get a large splash of liquid at first, then smaller splashes, added as each is absorbed. It’s a technique that might scare off any sane parent. It should not. This recipe is admittedly more work than a no-thought lentil dinner. But not much. Unlike risotto -- where you add preciously little liquid each time, stir, stir again, wait for it to cook off almost entirely, then scrape the pan, then add more liquid -- these lentils require far less attention and tolerate far greater error. You just add a little liquid whenever you notice it. And you stir occasionally. You’re in the kitchen most of the time anyway, after all.
What you get for it is a perfectly nutty texture and a subtle, winey taste -- the rare sophisticated lentil dish.
On alcohol: Yes, there’s wine here -- a cup -- which simmers for about a half-hour. A disclaimer: The alcohol will not all cook off. Over half of it will, in all likelihood, but some percentage will not. As a parent, I found this troubling. So as an experiment, I made the dish twice: once with the wine and once without, and after each I had both children undergo a functional MRI, while taking the SAT, to see if their neuronal activity was differentially affected.
Kidding! (They took the ACT.) Look. It’s really a very small amount of alcohol. But you should know that there’s an amount.
On framing: If your children frown at the word lentils, I recommend stones. As in, We’re having stones for dinner tonight! Or, How many of your rocks have you eaten? This also segues nicely into a discussion of how gizzards work, which can only increase the amount of stones eaten.
Other columns give you wine recommendations. But only this column gives you ridiculous conversation prompts.
1/4 cup olive oil 1/2 cup carrots, diced 1/2 cup celery, diced 3/4 cup onions, diced 1 bay leaf 1 1/4 cups lentils (ideally the du puy type) 1 or 2 sprigs fresh thyme (optional) 1 cup red wine 2 to 2 1/2 cups water, chicken stock, or a combination 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
You don't need to have a baby to love Nicholas Day's book Baby Meets World -- though if you do, this book will help you understand your tiny, inscrutable human that much better. Learn more about the book -- part hidden history of parenthood, part secret lives of babies -- here.
Photos by James Ransom
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).