The weather is unrelenting. A cold and dreary spring gave way to a hot and sticky summer, with barely a day to transition. So finally, the last days of summer, nature gives us a week of respite. Cool, moderate temperatures with breezes that almost begin to gives hints of fall. In that brief window, the stove no longer likes like the enemy, something to add to the heavy ambient heat that has been riddling about the apartment for months. As the cool breezes gently blow out the last of the humidity, vivid orange carrots from the farmer’s market are scrubbed down and sliced thickly. A couple of small red onions from the same farmer are fished out of the refrigerated depths and sliced into brilliant stripes of magenta and pearly white. Fragrant basmati rice is set to the boil on one burner, delightfully earthy brown lentils pile into another pot with a bay leaf and a bit of the onion and set to merrily simmer on another, and in a flagrant flippant gesture towards the abated heat, a third burner is lit. Softly sweet olive oil is gently warmed in a heavy skillet, and the onions are poured in. Gently, they are coaxed into losing their cell wall’s rigidity, their sugars relaxing into the pan. The sweet crisp carrots are piled in, and the whole cooked until the carrots are just past their ability to elicit a crunch when bitten. The rice and lentils, by now thoroughly cooked, are added to the skillet with a generous hit of salt and pepper, letting everything briefly stew together. The result is not fancy, not riddled with complex flavor that leave the diner contemplating what rare spice is hidden in the depths. It is simple, earthy, and wondrous to eat in the cool summer breeze.
Simplest of Lentil Pilaf – Serves 2 generously, or one if this is all you have cooked today, good even when the second half is plucked, cool, from the skillet
1/2 c basmati rice
1/2 c brown lentils (if you can soak them for an hour beforehand, do, otherwise it’ll just take a hair longer to cook)
1 bay leaf
2 small red onions, 1/2 of one diced, the other 1 1/2 thinly sliced
2 medium carrots, scrubbed and not peeled (unless they are from the grocery store, but I have found farmer’s market ones are good just scrubbed) sliced slightly thickly
Generous slathering of olive oil
salt and pepper
In one pot, place the lentils with about 1 1/2 cups of water, a bay leaf, and the diced onions. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook, covered, until the lentils are “al dente”. This will take about 30-45 minutes, dependent on the mood and soaking conditions of the lentil. In another pot, combine the basmati rice, a generous pinch of salt, and about 1 1/4 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, then simmer uncovered for about 25 minutes. When it looks like all the water has absorbed, slap a cover on and turn off the burner. This is a neat little trick my mother taught me that sort of gives the rice a last steaming.
While the lentils and rice are bubbling away, prep the rest of your veggies, if you need to, then heat a generous splash of extra virgin olive oil in a medium skillet. Throw the onions in and cook just until they start to become soft. Add the carrots and continue to cook over a low heat just until the carrots have lost their crunch. This is a personal preference, since I like the contrast of a slightly crunchy carrot, and it adds a bit of freshness. You could also just keep cooking them until the onions and carrots have a lovely bit of caramelization to them. Just add some more olive oil and turn up the heat, it will be delightful. Once all the ingredients are cooked (I occasionally manage to get this so everything is ready all at once, but more often than not, something has to sit waiting in its pot), throw everything into the skillet. NOTE!! I’m never good with lentil-water percentage. They should have soaked it all up, but a little excess won’t hurt anything. If there is a lot of water left, drain the lentils before you add them in. Add salt and pepper to taste. Find your most homey and favorite bowl and serve some up. Sit quietly and enjoy the simplicity, and then, if you are not alone, ask the other person, who by this point is hopefully caught in a food reverie, to wash the dishes. Perfect harmony.
Notes: I have made this a hundred times, never quite the same twice. Some days I have more lentils than others. I honestly think when I made it this time I may have had 3/4 c. lentils, since that is what I had in the pantry, and who wants to leave a 1/4 c. of lentils sitting all lonely in the bottom of a jar? I am sure some spices wouldn’t hurt in here, maybe some coriander thrown in while sauteeing the veggies, maybe some garlic, maybe some cumin. Play with it. This was a random invention born out of curiosity years ago, not a tried and true staple of any sort, so go nuts!