Wednesday, September 30, 2009
When you are poor you eat lentils.
The money just wasn't there some weeks, even when my mother remarried and moved on to a more comfortable life in Houlton with my stepfather, Paul McLaughlin.
By the time I was truly conscious of my surroundings, other than fleeting glimpses, we had moved to Pleasant Street(seen in pictures elsewhere) which was to be their first and last real home other than the rented houses on Franklin Avenue and Bowdoin Street. The house was not a total wreck, but there was a mountain of work to do. I was not old enough so this fell often on my brother's shoulders, and occasionally Fred Burrill would show up for a visit and get drafted into helping when he expected a short vacation.
Anyway, Paul's income was OK for the time, but it often did not stretch far when legal issues from the former owner in their "Rent To Own" scheme was floundering or when big projects had to be tackled. One thing is clear, Paul had an enormous collection of tools by the time I left home.
Lentil soup is a Mediterranean staple. Lots of protein and very filling for those on a small budget. But, Lentil Soup is not nearly enough when you are in your late teens and twenties like Dick. Probably years earlier, when she was feeding a whole family on nothing, Mom got into the habit of making lentils rather than Lentil Soup. It really was a Lentil Soup, but it was closer to a wallpaper paste consistency than any soup I ever had.
I think I saw Mom put a meat bone or anything like that into it only once or twice. The Lentils were something of a shock to any uninitiated visitors, so it was always a "Family Meal".
My cousin Mildred said she remembered the lentils that Grammie made. She said she sat there with this black paste in front of her(It was probably looking back at her too.) and asked what was in it. Uncle Phil, always ready to be helpful, said it was made from the flies off the flypaper. That was the last time she ate that voluntarily.
She had a reputation for hating them as a result. She said that when she arrived at my mother's for a visit, Mom would tell Mildred not to worry, because she was not going to make lentil soup.
As I was describing this process to Mildred today, she said,"You know, that sounds like something I might like, now."
This black brown, lava flow paste looked very strange. But, you may have guessed by now that I would not be doing this build-up unless it was good. There, I ruined the punch-line. This stuff(what else would you call it) was great!
Once in a while there were doughboys(discussed elsewhere), hot and dripping with butter to eat with them. I was a pretty cheap date when it came to these meals. I needed nothing but the lentils and buttered(cheap and white) bread. I think I disgusted everyone by scooping the lentils onto the buttered bread, folding it up like a Taco, turning head and bread at an odd angle... and eating it. The lentils were very savoury, and I consider it one of my favorite meals...excluding pizza of course...
They are not every one's cup of tea as you might guess, so it is a truly rare thing for me to make. As a result, you will have to forgive the inexact directions...Well, they will be exact, but the accuracy might be in question.
First you take your lentils.... there were no real measurements. You might use half a bag or a full bag, but I never saw a cup measure in Mom's hands when she did this.
Actually, without measurement, all you do is:
Mince a medium onion.
Mince 6 garlic cloves(Leave whole if you like them or adjust the amount to taste if you are afraid of the garlic)
Pour a quarter cup of olive oil(Philip Berio plain oil was the standard at the time. Extra Virgin was a luxury...we dreamt not of.)and fry the onion and garlic very gently till the onion softens. Add a tablespoon of oregano, a teaspoon of basil, three cloves, a pinch or more of red pepper flakes and a good sized bay leaf. Allow everything to sweat for a while at that low temperature. You may add a tablespoon full of tomato paste to the pan and allow it to cook, stirring till it gets a bit of brown color.
Wash and pick over the bag of lentils(not the exotic colors of lentils you might find in Indian cooking). Get any stones and foreign matter out of them. If you want to keep the lentils whole while they are tender in the middle, soak them for an hour or so.
Mom just dumped the lentils on top of the herb mixture. Add water to cover generously and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and stir regularly to keep the bottom from sticking. Add water regularly, as the lentils cook and absorb the water. You may use broth or add a meat bone at the same time as the lentils if you wish.(watch the salt content) When the lentils are tender, and there is still some minor wateriness to the broth, add salt and pepper sparingly, and a big handful of macaroni, or broken spaghetti. Cover and cook till the pasta is done. In our case, the lentils would be very broken down, and the broth would be very thick rather than soupy. Adjust the salt and pepper before serving.
You might also like to try precooking very finely minced bacon or Pancetta to this. Add it along with the onions at the beginning.
True lentil soup, would be pre-soaked and cooked just till the lentils tender slightly and keep some of their shape. Carrots, peas, spinach or other greens(only near the end) can be added when you add broth to the lentils. This will be much lighter in color, thinner and with all the veggies floating in it. When my ex-wife, Marcia wanted Lentil Soup, I emptied the refrigerator into it. Sausage would be good in this soup as well...Italian of course.