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IN THE KITCHEN : Lentils for a Leaky Roof

TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

It was a little more than a week ago that I was joking with friends in San Francisco who were apologizing that my visit had been marred by rain. “Are you kidding?” I crowed. “I live in Southern California and the last thing I want is more sunshine.”

Of course, in the intervening 10 days, my little corner of the normally sunny Southland has been deluged with almost a foot of rain--a fair percentage of which, it seems, has trickled down the wall of my study from a roof leak I thought I had fixed.

Early Saturday morning I found myself trying to clamber up a ladder onto my roof in a driving rain with an umbrella in one hand and a can of patching compound in the other. There is nothing like the steady drip-drip-drip of a roof leak to make eating crow seem like a pleasant alternative. To me, it’s like a sophisticated kind of water torture; my ear becomes attuned to the sound, and soon it seems as if it is vibrating through my entire body, mocking me and my sorry mechanical abilities.

But this is a column about cooking, not hardware. After realizing that any further roofing repairs were clearly beyond my limited means, I turned to messing with things I could fix. Like breakfast. Not just any breakfast, though. I made crusty brown sour cream waffles and then a perfumed compote of dried fruits poached in vanilla-scented syrup. And then steaming bowls of caffe latte . That succeeded in distracting me from the roof for at least an hour and, more important, restored my sense of being at least somewhat in control of my situation.

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To maintain that fragile illusion, I then retreated to the living room--as far from the leak as I could get--and anesthetized myself by watching two of the most boring professional football games ever played and the Food Channel. (Thanks for the Julia Child re-runs, but can we talk about the wine show? Who in the world ever thought people would enjoy watching two notable wine geeks sipping, spitting and trading tasting notes?)

Sunday, after climbing up into the attic to reassure myself that those assorted drips, plunks and pops I was hearing all night were not signs of imminent ceiling collapse, I resolved that the only thing that was going to keep me sane was more cooking. So I rounded up a couple of friends for dinner and set to it.

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To my mind, nothing fights the cold and damp like lentils, so I knew I would start with them. Wandering the grocery store, I noticed a special on those meaty pork short ribs, the ones that are usually labeled “country style.” Ribs by themselves wouldn’t be enough, so I picked up a hank of smoked pork sausage (it’s funny how pork loves company--in many recipes, you’ll find two, three and even more cuts of pork partnered). I considered adding some smoked pork chops, but that would be a bit too much meat for the amount of lentils I had.

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I browned the ribs and sausage in hot oil in the bottom of a cast-iron Dutch oven, letting them get nice and crusty and leaving lots of brown bits sticking to the bottom of the pan. I added carrots, onions and garlic to make a flavoring base, then deglazed the pan with some leftover red wine, which I cooked down to a good syrup before adding the tomatoes, lentils and water to cover. I nestled the meat in the bed of lentils, slapped on a cover and stuck it in the oven.

When the lentils were tender, there was still a lingering taste of raw wine, so I removed the lid and cooked the stew on top of the stove for another five minutes or so to let the wine evaporate some (in testing the recipe a second time, this wasn’t a problem--tasting before you serve is the only way you’ll be able to tell).

This is one of those hearty, flavorful dishes that we don’t get much of a chance to cook in Southern California. The tanginess of the red wine is a perfect foil for the smokiness of the sausage and the richness of the ribs. Underlying the whole thing, of course, are the lentils, somehow meatier than the meat itself.

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After the stew, we shared a salad made with fresh goat cheese, toasted walnuts and fresh greens and chervil I’d just brought in dripping from the garden. We drank a couple of bottles of Chianti, ate a little dessert and talked about climbing mountains and West Texas ice storms.

And, you know, the entire time I never heard the roof leak.

SAUSAGES AND RIBS WITH RED WINE-BRAISED LENTILS

2 tablespoons oil

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1 pound kielbasa or other smoked sausage, cut into 2-inch sections

1 1/2 to 2 pounds meaty country style pork ribs

2 carrots, coarsely chopped

2 onions, coarsely chopped

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4 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups red wine

1 cup prepared tomato sauce or tomato puree

1 pound lentils, rinsed and picked over

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1 bay leaf

Heat oil in heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium-high heat. When very hot, add sausage and lightly brown on all sides. Remove sausage from pan and reserve on plate. Add more oil, if necessary, and add ribs, turning to brown on all sides. Remove to plate with sausage and cover to keep warm.

Reduce heat to medium, add carrots and cook until they begin to darken. Add onions and garlic and cook until onions are tender. Turn heat to high, add wine and cook, stirring, until wine is reduced to syrup. Add tomato sauce and lentils and stir well. Add bay leaf and enough water to barely cover lentils, about 1 cup. Place sausage and ribs atop lentils, bring to boil, cover tightly and place in 350-degree oven.

Cook until lentils soften and liquid is mostly evaporated, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Remove cover, stir well to distribute meat, and return to oven another 10 to 15 minutes, until most of liquid evaporates and any taste of raw alcohol is gone. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

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Each of 8 servings contains about:

533 calories; 691 mg sodium; 59 mg cholesterol; 25 grams fat; 40 grams carbohydrates; 29 grams protein; 3.50 grams fiber.


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