Tim lived in Nashville when I met him, on the first floor of a large, yellow house at the top of a hill. His roommates were his older brother, Nathan, a big-time Bengals fan who looks enough like Tim that strangers still confuse them, and their long-time friend Jared, a red-headed thinker who wears grandpa sweaters and had been with them since before 2007, when they’d all relocated to Tennessee from their Ohio hometown. Both those guys still live in the yellow house today, now with a new roommate. Conveniently, it’s less than three miles from the white brick one Tim and I share, which makes us practically neighbors still. And on Wednesdays, Nathan comes over after work, before the three guys get together to talk and pray and read entire books of the Bible in one sitting, like Hosea or Amos or I Timothy, and we have dinner.
This past Wednesday, over a hodge-podge dinner that featured the day’s disaster of cajun fish (a story for another time), Tim and Nathan and I got talking about their shared bachelor days and the way they ate in them, as 20-something guys who liked real food but, by most people’s standards, couldn’t afford it. Tim was unemployed, Nathan worked for a local nonprofit and Jared only worked part-time—so, while they look back now and see, like Tim and I in our shared life do, their needs always being met, they also remember often feeling like money was tight.
Nathan, 13 months Tim’s senior, is not the kind of guy to hand out recipes (although, I should say, he makes a killer guacamole, dresses salad as well as any Mallon and, when you hand him a fresh-baked cookie, will be able to pick out the unique ingredient you’ve added in just minutes flat). So when Tim asked him Wednesday night, at our table, what we should make in our kitchen next, you can imagine my surprise when, instead of a joke or a pipe dream, he began reciting directions for the meal he and Jared have down pat, the one Tim’s cooked more times than he can count, a meal on regular rotation in their roommate days and since then. It’s a meal familiar to any budget-conscious real-food-eating soul who considers all the grocery options and leaves with what’s most economical.
He started telling me about lentil stew.
I’m beginning to like lentils. The thing about lentils, which I never knew growing up, is that they’re kind of like me, prone to be influenced by their surroundings. Cook lentils with olive oil, tomatoes and thyme, and olive oil, tomatoes and thyme are exactly of what the lentils will taste. This is a disadvantage if you place lentils in a pot of something distasteful—as would be constantly surrounding yourself with hurtful, harmful voices, at least if you’re like me—but a major advantage if you know how to work it to be one.
In the case of lentil stew, by playing upon the humble beauty of kitchen staples like olive oil, onions, carrots and garlic, along with a sweet potato thrown in, you turn the lentils into a rewarding, hearty pot of what my brother-in-law calls “man stew,” the kind that’s perfect for winter and easy to make and almost impossible to mess up, at least according to what the guys were telling me Wednesday night.
So yesterday, with Tim’s assuring voice telling me, more than once, there’d be almost no way this could go wrong, even if I’m not as much a lentil veteran as he, I took advantage of his and Nathan’s advice and started a big pot of stew first thing in the morning: Oiled and buttered the stockpot, caramelized a chopped onion and a few chopped garlic cloves on top of that, added a chopped sweet potato, added lentils, added water and cooked. Every hour or so I added more water, just keeping everything covered in liquids.
Four hours later, while Tim was out at meetings and I worked from the living room sofa, I nursed a bowlful alongside my afternoon work. And, Nathan? It was everything you said it would be, thanks.
In truth, spooning stew to my lips while I conducted online research, I kept thinking how much the mixture tasted like mirepoix and sweet potatoes rather than lentils or beans—a testament to its good surroundings, you could say, just as this recipe is to mine.
As a meal, serves three to four.
Although we made this version meatless, as a testament to the way it saves money best, Nathan, Tim and Jared, all emphasize it’s also great with stew meat added, seared in the beginning with the onions and garlic and left in the pot while everything cooks. In that case, the beef only further flavors the stew, enhancing its appeal.
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 red onion, sliced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped
2 cups of French lentils
4 cups of water
Salt and pepper, to taste
Extra olive oil, as a finish when serving
Start by warming olive oil and butter in stockpot over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and let cook until golden and caramelized, stirring occasionally. Add sweet potato chunks, lentils and water; reduce heat to simmer. Cook for about four hours, adding water as it reduces, about every hour or so, aiming to keep everything in the stew covered with liquid. When finished cooking, salt and pepper the stew generously, tasting as you do. Ladle into bowls and finish with drizzles of olive oil.