Today: Make a richly flavored lentil soup from nothing (and then tip in some sherry, for kicks).
It's not like lentil stew has ever been a meal of wild excess, but this one is even more restrained: For a still-not-completely-clear reason, the title describes it as being made "Monastery-style," from Frances Moore Lappé's groundbreaking Diet For a Small Planet, a book full of ways to turn spare ingredients into elegant vegetarian meals.
The ingredients are plain and available everywhere, in every season, for next to no money: You use any old lentils, cellar staples like onions and carrots, canned tomatoes, and dried—yes, don't try to get fancy—herbs. There is no saffron, no cured meat, no finishing salt.
It takes little time to put together, and even less precision: The vegetables can be about any size you like; you lump the ingredients in together in a few un-micro-managed batches: fresh vegetable chunks, then dried herbs, then everything else.
But then the stew simmers for 45 minutes, which isn't a long time, but still twice as long as lentils usually take to cook through. This gives the flavors time to develop and penetrate—but how do the lentils stay intact, without gelling into a shapeless mush?
Well, remember when we learned you shouldn't cook legumes with acids (like vinegar or lemon juice) because it keeps them from softening? The same is true here, but there's just enough acidity in the tomatoes to get the cell structure in the lentils to hold on a little longer, giving them enough time to turn into a soulful soup—fit for a monk, fit for you. We'll be instructed by Lappé to serve the lentils over a pile of grated Swiss cheese, so that we may form a complementary protein.
But here's where is gets a bit funny, and just a little more genius: At the very end, off the heat, you dump in a good amount of dry sherry. The alcohol doesn't cook off, so the soup ladled in front of you stays boozy and fragrant and smacking not one bit of sacrifice.
If you instead want to simmer away more of the alcohol, you can—it will curb the sharpness of the booze and sweeten it a little, but won't suffer in flavor. Either way, maybe don't serve this to babies. Or monks, for that matter.
Adapted slightly from Diet For a Small Planet (Ballantine Books, 1991)
Serves 4 to 6
1/4 cup olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 teaspoon marjoram
3 cups stock
1 cup lentils, rinsed
Salt to taste
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
One 1-pound can tomatoes
1/4 cup dry sherry
2/3 cup grated Swiss cheese
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Photos by Mark Weinberg