It is an unglamourous, unoriginal statement to declare I adore baked beans. But I do.  

Since I have a habit of imaging our conversations as dramas in my head, I can hear you saying "those aren't beans, Tara. Those are lentils." And maybe then you'll tilt your head to one side and pat me on my hand in a kind, but vaguely pitying manner. You might cluck your tongue in a soft "tsk, tsk" as what a shame it is that I've obviously lost any and all of my marbles over this holiday and new year season. 

You may even put up the kettle for some tea. You're really very nice to me.

However, please have faith in my madness, because look at that -  right there, lentils that look like baked beans. 

These brilliant beauties are from Frédéric Morin and David McMillian, and the book they wrote with Meredith Erickson, The Art of Living According to Joe Beef (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Morin and McMillian are behind the Montreal-based restaurant Joe Beef, and two other establishments - Liverpool House and McKiernan Lunchonette. The book is more than a cookbook, more of a treatise, a perspective on food and quality of life. That said, it's not mired down by overly-saccharine missives, but instead kept buoyant by bravado and enthusiasm, as evidenced by the included history lesson of eating in their city, a pullout insert of the most majestic smörgåsbord, and a romantic dissertation on train travel.

I flipped through the book for a few minutes one day, then spent a solid two luxurious hours reading it at the kitchen table the next, from beginning to end, while munching a chewy baguette with a smear of sinus-clearing mustard and wafery slices of salty ham. That was a fine morning, and this is a fine book. It's been on a whole whack of "Best of" lists for the year, with good reason.

Recipe origin given it's due, let's return to the lentils.  

These lentils run all the same bases as baked beans - a humming balance of acid, fat, sugar, salt and bite (an equation cribbed from Morin and the pages of the book, I should say). The mathematics make sense, and are brought to best potential in a lidded pot. While the sludgy pleasure of baked beans is nothing new, the substitution of lentils in the place of the beans changes the effect entirely. The stewy, starchy charm is kept, but the flat density of the lentils shift and slip across the spoon, and make for a less claustrophobic bite. While not light per se, the lentils have a looseness, an almost hearty delicacy (which makes no sense, I know). 

It's a home run. 

Of all the ways one can enjoy a bean that's been baked these lentils can play quite admirably; alongside a golden-crisp sausage, or with cabbage that's been lightly braised, or as a part of a Full English Breakfast (the plate in the back). I've nicked some inspiration from the last, by grilling some bread on a cast iron pan, letting it catch and scorch in places, topped the toast with lentils and a frizzled-edged fried egg with the yolk left runny, and then spooned more beans atop that. It's that hearty, glorious fare that works well with coffee, morning, noon, evening and latest night. 

The flavours are pretty much the regulars: fat and smoke from bacon, a low sweetness from browned onions and garlic, aromatic roundness from maple syrup, mustard's heat boosted by vinegar's twang. The structure upon which all the other ingredients play upon is, funnily, the ketchup - the combination of tomato and vinegar and sugar - is what gathers everything together. Which is to say it's like a curving, hunched backbone to the dish, as one looks when hunkered over a bowl at the table. 

After a quick sauté on the stove and a longer stay in the oven, you are rewarded with a ruddy mix of lentils; it is awfully orange, here and there rusty brown with bacon and a single garnish of a dusky bay leaf. There's a comforting calm to the monochromatic scheme, but it's not fancy-pants stuff. If you'd rather, close our eyes and then grab your fork, or maybe grab the fork first, that might be easier. Either way, make these, eat them, and be happy. 

******

There's a superstition that lentils are eaten on the new year because they resemble coins and this bodes well for prosperous days ahead. While I'm three days overdue in my wishes to you, the lapse does not diminish the sincerity of the sentiment. I hope your days have been brightly merry, and nothing but best wishes to you and yours for this year to come.

A quick mention, Donny Tsang invited me to chat about the photographs I take. If you'd like to read the interview, it's at Great Food Photos. Thanks so much Donny for the kindness!

Lentils Like Baked Beans

From The Art of Living According to Joe Beef. "This great side dish has a bit of a Quebecois-lumberjack-in-Bollywood taste. It is red lentils cooked like dal, seasoned like baked beans. It is a pork chop's best friend or will mate with a hefty breakfast."

Ingredients

  • 4 slices bacon, finely chopped
  • 1 yellow onion, finely diced
  • 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 2 cups (500 millilitres) red lentils, rinsed and picked over
  • 4 cups (1 litre) water
  • 1/4 cup (60 millilitres) ketchup
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup, plus more as needed
  • 2 tablespoons neutral oil
  • 2 tablespoons Colman's mustard powder
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar, plus more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon ground pepper, plus more as needed
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt

Method

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

In oven proof pot with lid, fry bacon over medium-high heat until crisp. Add the onion and cook, stirring, for about 4 minutes, or until softened. Then add the garlic and cook for 1 minute longer.  

Add the lentils, water, ketchup, maple syrup, oil, mustard, vinegar, pepper and bay leaf. Stir well and season with salt. Bring to a boil.  Cover, place in oven, and bake for 45 minutes, or until lentils are tender.

Taste and correct the seasoning with salt, pepper, maple syrup, and vinegar. Serve hot now or later.

Serves 4.

Notes from Tara:

  • When it comes to lentils, they need a good wash - a quick rinse in a sieve doesn't always do the job. I cover them with water in a bowl, give them a swish with my hand, strain, and repeat, until the water is no longer cloudy.
  • The bacon I had was rather thick cut, and so produced a good amount of fat. As a result, I didn't use the full 2 tablespoons of oil. I also squirreled away a few of the bits of crisp bacon before adding the lentils, reserving them to add at the table.
  • I used some homemade ketchup, which has things like celery seed, clove, mace, allspice, cinnamon, chili flakes in it; for those so inclined, you could make up a sachet of these spices and steep them into the liquid for the baking. I've not tried it, so fair warning. Sounds like a nice idea though.
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Ah, the aftermath.

The one burden of being a part of a food-loving family is the inevitable post-feast hangover associated with high days and holidays. This weekend was no exception. The butter, the chocolate, the treats both sweet and savoury - the days flew by in a pastel haze of overabundance.

There is stilll a half litre of heavy cream in the fridge.

Not ready to deal with that just yet, a respite seems in order. As in the past, and like Molly it seems, I find my comfort in the bottom of a bowl of soup. Borrowing heavily from the Mediterranean pantry, this chorizo and lentil soup offers substance without excess, flavour without flamboyance.

I could use a nap.

Chorizo and lentil soup
My own recipe. The spiciness of the chorizo lends personality to the subtle lentils. A rustic meal in itself, hearty and satisfying. Goes brilliantly with an old movie, preferably one from the Thin Man series, and a comfy couch.

Ingredients
3/4 cup small French green lentils
2 cups veal or chicken stock
3-5 sprigs fresh thyme
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for serving
2 fresh chorizo sausages, casings removed
1 cup medium diced celery (4 ribs or so)
1 cup medium diced carrots (2 large)
2 cups medium diced yellow onion (2 medium)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 19-ounce can garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leafed parsley
4-5 large basil leaves, cut into strips (chiffonade)
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, to serve

Pick over the lentils and discard any misshapen ones or stones. Rinse and drain the lentils through several courses of water until free of any grit or sand.

In a saucepan over high heat, combine the lentils, stock, 3 cups of water, thyme and garlic. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered until the lentils are just tender, about 15-20 minutes. You will need to skim the surface occasionally for impurities.

Meanwhile, in a stockpot over medium heat, crumble in the chorizo into one tablespoon or so of olive oil. Cook until the sausage begins to render some of its fat. Add the celery, carrot and onion, tossing to coat in the paprika-stained oil. Season well with salt and pepper, and continue to cook, stirring often. When the vegetables are translucent and tender, after about 10 minutes, add the tomato paste and stir through. Cook for 2 minutes or until the tomato paste begins to darken.

Remove the garlic and thyme from the lentils. Add the lentils and their cooking liquid to the stockpot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes.

Add the chickpeas, and additional water if necessary, and simmer for another 10 minutes. Check for seasoning.

Ladle into bowls and sprinkle over the chopped herbs. Serve with olive oil for drizzling and grated Parmesan and passed alongside.

Serves 4.

Notes:
• Omit the chorizo and stock for a vegetarian version; in this case, cut back on the tomato paste and add a medium can of crushed tomatoes for additional body to the broth.
• Cannellini beans can be used instead of the garbanzos (chick peas).
• Longaniza (or longganisa) is a fresh Chilean variety of chorizo. Cooked or cured sausage varieties can be substituted.
• A splash of red wine vinegar to finish will balance the richeness of sausage and creaminess of the lentils.

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This is my entry for the "Childhood Memories Meme", fulfilling my obligation to both my dear friend Michele of Oswego Tea and the utterly creative Caryn of the engaging Delicious Delicious.

When I was tagged for this meme, I was surprisingly stumped for ideas. It was not because I was at a loss for material, because goodness knows my love of food started early on in life, but because I realized that I have taken for granted many of the flavours and culinary adventures that brought me to where I am today. In the end, this has been an interesting exercise, forcing me to take stock of those memories — and reminding me of how lucky I have been.

My father’s sandwiches
My father is a man of precision. He is a man that is always busy, always working and puzzling the best way to solve a problem or the next task at had. I have not always appreciated this drive (especially through my lazy teenage years), but the results were never a disappointment – whether it be a dollhouse, or a bridge for our backyard stream or his famous sandwiches. My father’s attention to detail was especially evident in the latter; he is known in our family as the designated sandwich maker, with staunch philosophies on fats (butter or mayonnaise), condiments (we had an armada of mustards in our fridge), proper seasoning (salt and cracked black pepper) not to mention breads, vegetables and accompaniments … the list went on and on, dependent on the time of year and the specific fillings in question. Every layer was pondered over, each addition placed just so, and in an order for optimal blending of flavours. Indeed, the phrase “this is the best sandwich ever” was an often-heard refrain around our house and through our extended family.

My brother and I still carry on his traditions, becoming sandwich-maker designates in our own homes and with our own burgeoning armies of mustard jars in the fridge. A few years ago, I beamed with pride when my father, fresh from the garden where he was working on a new project, sat at my parents’ kitchen table, leaned back and asked “Tara, can you make me a sandwich?”

Scalloped potatoes
I did not discover scalloped potatoes until I was probably around six or so. And when I first ate a spoonful of that creamy, buttery, wonderfully comforting mass, I was immediately lost. To me, they were culinary perfection; studded with chives and with a brown crust on top, this was elegance personified and so much more chic than boring old mashed potatoes. I was in such raptures that I seem to remember eating them for days straight afterwards - sitting with a soup bowl, filled to the brim with scalloped potatoes, a tablespoon in my hand and a grin on my face.

Burger King’s Bacon Double Cheeseburgers
I do not even like Burger King, but as a child this was the holy grail of hamburgers. Having an older brother, I was the typical thorn in his existence who wanted to do what he did, and eat what he ate. Easily swayed by the fanfare of mid-80s advertising, the advent of the Bacon Double Cheeseburger seemed a gastronomic epiphany. My brother, a bacon lover, was allowed to have them on the rare occasions we went out for food. I, on the other hand, was relegated to the children’s meal cheeseburger, which I deemed vastly inferior. In his charity (or I may have stolen a bite) I first tasted the ambrosia that was the grand burger. Ironically enough, my brother is now a vegetarian, and I do not believe I have had one since.

My mother’s stuffing
Growing up, festive occasions meant one thing, and one thing alone – my mother’s potato stuffing. In high school at a friend’s house for Thanksgiving, I was taken aback at the idea of bread stuffing. It had never occurred to me to have a different type of stuffing, because who would want anything other than the crusty, savoury delight of my childhood? With a mix of chunked and mashed potatoes, filled with onions, bacon, liver, and confidently seasoned, it was the highlight of the holiday table, the most coveted of the leftovers. As you may have guessed, I am a big fan of comfort food, and in my mind you cannot get more classic than this.

My grandmother’s scrambled eggs, pictured
It was through my maternal grandmother’s Anglo-Indian background that we were taught the merits of a hearty shepherd’s pie, the wonders of a proper roast with Yorkshire puddings and the melting lusciousness of ghee-soaked chapattis. Thoughts of her food inspire instant nostalgia, and her eggs are no exception. Stirred patiently over a low heat or a double boiler, they are closer to the texture of curdled cream than to their diner counterparts. She swears by the last-minute addition of butter, insisting it ensures a tender result.

My grandmother’s scrambled eggs
Truth be told, I have never measured an ingredient when making these eggs. These are just guidelines, but truly, this is a recipe that falls into the “pinch of this, a splash of that” category.

2 eggs
1/4 – 1/3 cup of milk (or cream, if preferred)
Salt and pepper to taste
2 teaspoons butter, divided
1/4 cup of finely minced onion
2 teaspoons torn cilantro (or parsley, if preferred)

In a bowl, whisk together eggs, milk and salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a medium non-stick frying pan over medium heat melt one teaspoon of butter and sweat onion for about 2-3 minutes, until translucent and soft but without colour. Pour in eggs, swirling pan to distribute evenly. Cook for 30 seconds or so, until edges are starting to set. Using a silicone spatula or wooden spoon, pull edges of cooked egg towards the centre, forming curds. Continue stirring slowly, repeating process until the eggs are starting to set – it will resemble lumpy custard. At this point, beat in remaining 1 teaspoon butter and torn cilantro. Continue to stir, until eggs are almost finished, similar to the texture of a soft ricotta.

Serves 1.

Notes:
• If I'm feel patient, I'll cook over medium-low for more control.
• Snipped chives can also be used in place of the cilantro, or use a mix of whatever herbs you like.
• I adore these eggs on a grilled ciabatta bun (as pictured). The soft interior of the bread the perfect match for the soft eggs, and the crust provides the right amount of chewiness.

As this meme is getting a trifle old, I’m only going to tag three participants – who hopefully are still untagged.
Chubby Hubby
The Domestic Goddess
Delicious Days

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