The grub season has nearly come to an end. In another month or so, it will be too warm to cook hearty, comforting meals that impart an illusion of warmth. I decided to make this recipe, which has been in my recipe folder for too long now, in a liminal way: neither a winter nor a spring dish, something halfway between a warm pasta dish and a salad.
Here’s how the recipe runs:
1/2 French (small) green lentils
2 cups water
3/4 tsp salt
6 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped (2 cups)
1/4 tsp black pepper
3/4 lb kale (prefereably lacinato or dino kale)
3/4 lb dried short pasta
Accompaniments: toasted bread crumb topping (see gourmet.com) and/or grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Simmer lentils in water (2 cups) with 1/4 tsp salt in a 1- to 1 1/2 quart saucepan, uncovered, adding more water if necessary to keep lentils barely covered, until tender but not falling apart, 20 to 25 mins. Remove from heat and season with salt.
While lentils simmer, heat 1/4 cup oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté onion with pepper and remaining 1/2 tsp salt, stirring, 1 minute. reduce heat to low and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until onions are soft and golden (stir more frequently toward end of cooking), about 20 minutes. Remove lid and increase heat to moderate, then cook, stirring frequently, until onion is golden brown, 5 to 10 minutes more.
While onion cooks, cut out and discard stems and center ribs from kale. Cook kale in a 6- to 8-quart pot of boiling salted water, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until just tender, 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer kale with tongs to a colander to drain, pressing lightly. Keep pot of water at a boil, covered.
Coarsely chop kale and add to onion along with lentils (include lentil-cooking liquid), then simmer, stirring, 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper.
Add pasta to kale-cooking liquid and boil, uncovered, until al dente. Reserve about 1 cup pasta-cooking liquid, then drain pasta in a colander. Add pasta to lentil mixture along with about 1/3 cup of pasta-cooking liquid. Drizzle olive oil and bring to table.
The first decision I had to make concerned the pasta. Since I only had orzo on hand, I decided right from the start that this dish was going to resemble a salad more than a pasta dish.
Next, I had to decide whether to follow the instructions to caramelize the onions. The recipe violates some of the basic rules I’ve learned in caramelizing onions or mushrooms. I always count on 30 minutes for onions and I never touch them for the first 15 and sparingly after that. The edges burn or crisp because they are allowed to adhere to the cooking surface. If they’re moved around much, they won’t caramelize. It’s a process that requires patience and confidence that you’re not going to burn them, which is quite a different outcome from caramelization. Slow saute-ing, low to medium low heat, and don’t overwork them. Michael Chiarello’s books (the subject of future posts) taught me that this applies very well to mushrooms.
Another change I made concerned the time the kale spent in the cooking liquid. I cut it back to 3 minutes. I don’t think the pasta benefits all that much from leaching the kale of flavor. Neither did I do much squeezing of the kale once I’d blanched it.
In fact, I was surprised how easily the assembled dish absorbed the little bit of lentil broth, the 1/3 cup of pasta-cooking-liquid, and the water in the kale. Once I combined the pasta to the lentils, kale and onion and let the flavors meld, very little liquid remained.
This was very good with olive oil drizzled over it. I’m convinced, too, that served at room temperature it would benefit from crumbled feta — to add a little bite to it — or even ricotta salata.