When I became a professional chef, friends suddenly seemed afraid of cooking for me. Invitations to Sunday lunch or casual dinners would usually be accompanied with “I hope you won’t be terribly disappointed” or “I’m sure it won’t be up to your standard”. Dishes would be served with a side of apologies. Of course, when a friend offers to cook for me, I never sit down ready to pick apart their effort. I love to be cooked for. When working with food is your job, sometimes all you need is for someone else to take care of you at the end of the day. When someone cooks for me, whether they serve something sensational or not, they’re giving me a rest. It’s a gift I value enormously.
I adapted this recipe from one that my husband first made for me in the early days of our relationship. When we met, I was working seven days a week, and I rarely cooked for myself. Too often, dinner would consist of bread, cheese, and a handful of crisps. But on the weekends, I would sit with a glass of wine while my new boyfriend made dinner. At a time when rest was rare, I devoured every moment of respite I could. And though I appreciated kicking back and letting him do the work, I’ll admit to feeling sceptical when he first said he’d like to make lentils for dinner. It just sounded a bit joyless. But when I tasted it, I realised how comforting and flavourful it was. Since then I’ve made a few adaptations, deepening the savouriness and adding more veg, and we eat it very regularly. It’s a flexible dish. You could use any veg that cooks well in a broth, and a poached egg on top wouldn’t be unwelcome. I use puy lentils, but any lentil that holds its shape during cooking will work. (I wouldn’t advise using red or yellow lentils.) The Marmite is optional, but I strongly recommend it, and unless you’re vegan, I absolutely insist that you serve it with very good crème fraîche and an extra slick of olive oil.
8 tbsp of olive oil
2 small onions, diced
1 leek, tender green parts and whites, sliced
4 large carrots, peeled and chopped
500 g waxy (festkochend if you are in Germany) potatoes, peeled (if you like) and diced
5 cloves of garlic, grated or crushed
2 tsp of Marmite (or Vegemite)
2 bay leaves
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
2 tsp fine salt
freshly ground black pepper
500g puy lentils (brown or green lentils will also be very nice)
1.5 L water
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Olive oil and crème fraîche to serve
Add 4 tbsp of olive oil to a large pot and set over a medium heat. Add the onion, leek, potato, carrot, garlic, marmite (if using), and 1 tsp of salt. Coat everything in the oil, cover the pot, and reduce the heat to low for 15 minutes. Stir once or twice to make sure it’s not sticking to the bottom of the pan.
Rinse the lentils in a sieve and let them drain. Add to the veg along with the bay leaves and thyme, and add water until everything is submerged by around 5 cm. Add another teaspoon of salt, and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Bring to the boil, cover the pot, and simmer on a medium heat for 30 minutes.
The lentils should have absorbed most of the water, a little liquid leftover is good. Check the lentils are cooked to your liking, if they’re still tough then replace the lid and cook a little longer. Once the lentils are cooked, take the pot off the heat and add 4 tbsp of olive oil, 2 tbsp of balsamic vinegar and 1 tsp salt and mix well.
Serve hot or warm, with a large dollop of crème fraîche and an extra drizzle of olive oil.