Like pasta, rice, tortillas and cornmeal, beans are a known great poverty food. Better, in fact, because they won’t puff you up with empty carbs, and they have great nutritional value. At about $.69/bag, you can’t beat the price, and in these Tough Economic Times, eating cheap is the new black. Lentils are versatile and tasty little beans. Unlike the large and unwieldly Fava Bean (as we all discovered the other night), they don’t overwhelm or taste too “beany” for most people. Freeze them and you’ll have instant lunches or quick dinners on hand.
The Hacks: In the spirit of cheap and meatless, we’ll eliminate the pancetta and use store brand lentils and olive oil, and in the spirit of relative convenience, we’ll eliminate Niki’s whole process of removing 2/3 of the semi-finished soup and pureeing it in a processor. Oh, and in the spirit of capitalizing on our children’s willingness to eat the lentils, we’ll be very heavy-handed with the vegetables.
First: Dump an entire bag of brown lentils (Store brand, not the Goya or the Pastene. They’re all the same thing) into a bowl and cover with cold water. Soak them overnight, checking and adding water as needed, so that the lentils are always covered.
Next day: Start with some olive oil. Not your top of the line stuff, that you use in salad dressing. It’s going to be one of many ingredients in the “soup” and you can drizzle the good stuff over the top later. I have even experimented recently with (gasp) Stop & Shop store brand olive oil, and you know what? As a soup starter, it’s just fiiiine. I’d say twice around the bottom of the pot, and then just a little bit more. About…a quarter cup. Start warming the oil over med-low heat while you prep the vegetables, and then turn it up to medium/med-high a few minutes before adding the vegetables.
**(An aside: I’m realizing that sharing this recipe with actual quantities is proving to be difficult. I’m turning into Nana. But as people to “turn into” go, you can’t do much better!)**
Prep the veggies: About four cloves of fresh garlic, sliced very thin. Very thin. If you really have to, use minced garlic from a jar, but remember that Anthony Bourdain will possibly kick your ass or knock your pot off the stove if he finds out. Three or four celery stalks and a bunch of carrots (like, 9), diced. A medium onion at this point (also diced) is optional—I have not been bothering with it lately.
Add the vegetable mixture to the olive oil, now on med-high, and cook for a while until the carrots soften. Most recipes that use a mirepoix (heh, like that?) or a Holy Trinity, or a mix of aromatic vegetables, give a suggested time to cook them, and I always find that it’s not enough time. I let them go a few extra minutes, to soften—about 15 or 20 minutes. Add the (drained!) lentils to the pot, along with a good amount of vegetable broth or stock. I’d start with a 32-oz. carton, and have another one on hand to add more. You can also add water, but I think you get a deeper flavor with all stock. Also, when using store-bought stock, this is a place where I don’t cut corners. The quality really matters, so I use Whole Foods’ 365 brand or something comparable. Add a medium peeled potato, cut in half or quarters. Season with salt and pepper and cook at a pretty good simmer for over an hour.
Ladle the potato pieces into a bowl, along with whatever other stuff (lentils, veggies, liquid) you catch with them, and then a ladle of just lentils. Puree the potato mixture until smooth (or pretty smooth), using whatever method is most convenient for you. Until recently, I used an immersion blender, but it’s not necessary. Nana never used an immersion blender in her life, and she mashed many a food. But then, Nana doesn’d DO foodhacks. Nana is the Homey the Clown of Foodhacks—she Don’t Play Dat. The point being that if you don’t have an immersion blender (or if you had one, but recently threw the schlocky thing away in a fit of rage, after an ill-fated smoothie attempt, ruing the day when you ever bypassed that Kitchen Aid and went for the low-end immersion blender, because what was the difference, right? Well, there is a difference. But I digress), never fear—you can use a potato masher, or Nana’s tool of choice—a fork. Add the mashed combination back into the large pot and stir. Let it simmer another ten minutes or so, and then add some chopped escarole (as much or as little as you like). If chicken broth is an option for you, you can add a can of Progresso escarole in chicken broth (or two). Another ten minutes and some tasting and seasoning, and it’s ready to eat.
Top each serving with a drizzle of olive oil, a handful of croutons and some Parmesan cheese. Quality comfort food on the cheap!