this is not a food blog

sorry, all you foodies out there.  much love.  however, i do feel the need to step out of my box for a minute to share with you a recipe that is awesome, a recipe that i haven’t made in over two years, but used to be a staple for me, ever since i learned its secret from a good friend’s former boyfriend who was a vegan, and also 1/8 lebanese, or something.  the first bite reminded me of a round belly, of gentle kicking under the shirt, and also, the salty air of the coast of maine, wading through fog-soaked vegetation, isolation, in other words: summer 09′.   it is time to revisit my roots.

the recipe list, as for all lebasese dishes, is surprisingly short and simple.  how can so much flavor come with so few ingredients?  trust me.

1 cup lentils

6 cups water

2 onions, diced

a butt load of olive oil (1/4 cup)

1 bag spinach

the juice of one lemon

salt to taste

the first thing to do is to pour the 6 cups of water and 1 cup of lentils into a pot over high heat, bring to a boil, and then turn down, partly cover, and simmer…for a long ass time.  the bag on the lentils says 45 minutes, but maddy was always the authority on the done-ness of the lentils, so don’t ask me.

boiling lentils
this is easier at home than on our two-burner propane range in maine

oh, i guess i should explain maddy.  in the summer of 09′, i spent 2 and a half months living off the coast of maine as a contractor for the u.s. fish and wildlife service working on a seabird island.  the island was actually two islands, “the brothers”, each tiny and picturesque chunks of rock jutting out of the seabed.  that summer, maddy and i were the 2-man team that worked “the brothers”.  we did seabird surveys, set traps for predators, monitored the nests of some nesting black guillemots, drank a beer every evening and talked, talked, talked.  anyone who has done field work knows: the relationships you form with people you do field work with are much more intense than your everyday friendship.  maddy and i were a culture of two, quickly filling in roles to each other: friend, co-worker, partner, sister.  people used to say we acted like a married couple.  we bickered, bantered, knew each other’s habits, tendencies, and rituals.

anyways, another thing that anyone who has done field work can tell you is that dinner is the most important part of the day.  no time sheet to punch, no one around to tell you when you have done enough, the beginnings of dinner preparation mark the end of a work day, time to relax and forget about the lurking weasel who is after bird eggs, the guillemots on their nests with new peeping chicks, the atlantic puffins and razorbills off the coast bobbing along, waiting to be counted.  they would all wait until morning.

maddy, having arrived in maine from a string of previous field jobs, and having spent two years in france, teaching english, had a descent amount of recipes under her belt, and also an experimental attitude towards food and cooking that i found greatly freeing.  most days, i took her lead and was the resident chopper, grater, stirrer, and sous chef.  this soup was the only recipe that i brought with me that i felt was good enough to share.  and once i did, it became our weekly or biweekly staple, with maddy tweaking bits of it here and there, until we both walked away with the permanent memory of the soup poured over our brains, the roar of the atlantic ocean in the background, the calls of seabirds, the smell of seaweed.

ok, ok. you twisted my arm. here is a picture of western brothers, and the cabin that was our home for over 2 months
here’s maddy. scrub that bird blind!
and here’s me pulling vegetation away from our electrified sheep fence meant to keep the island sheep away from the area where terns may have nested (none did).
and here is another picture of our fog-drenched island, just for shits and giggles

in any case, while you are boiling the lentils, you can begin heating up the olive oil over high heat as well, dice the onions (maddy would also add a clove or two of minced garlic, up to you), and dump them in.  this is a simple recipe, but this is the labor intensive part.  you have to continually stir the onions until they are caramelized, which takes about 20 minutes or so.  if you let them sit there for more than a minute or two, they will burn.  what is the difference between a burnt onion and a caramelized one?  a burnt onion is black, and a caramelized onion is a dark brown.  you are basically deep frying the onions in olive oil to a near-burnt state.  see below.

“before” onions
“after” onions
by the time they reach this state, the front side of your body should be about 10 degrees warmer than usual. when you step away from the stove top, it is like walking away from a fire on a cool night (it is a wonder that ruth wasn’t poached like an egg in amniotic fluid while i used to make this when i was pregnant, my bulbous belly bouncing against the front of the stove).
observe: a caramelized onion. i can’t emphasize the importance of this level of done-ness. it is where all of the flavor comes from.

it is helpful to begin the lentils a bit before the onions as you kind of want them to be done at around the same time.  if you need to, you can just put the onions aside, as i often do, being so bad at timing, until the lentils are done.

by the time the lentils are done, your water should look a bit brown.

i say here again, i am no expert when it comes to lentils.  that was all maddy.  when it is just you and one other person, you find that you fall into your own little niches, take on various duties and responsibilities that, if the other person ever stepped in to do them, would feel way wrong.  i never tested the lentils.  maddy never fried the onions.  however, my tactic copies what i saw her do, which was to scoop out a few lentils and eat them.

yes, this is an ice cream scooper i am using. i am not rich when it comes to kitchen paraphernalia.

anyways, once you determine that your lentils are in fact done, add some salt.  the amount is up to you.  i grew up fearing salt and have become somewhat sensitive to it in my older age, but maddy loved the stuff, and showed no fear (she would add 1/2 a teaspoon).  it really does bring out the flavor a bit.  then, dump the onions into the pot with the cooked lentils.  yes, all the oil too, you don’t want to waste a drop.

the rest is super easy.  you add an entire bag of spinach to the pot.  add this a couple handfuls at a time, as it will wilt and shrink way down.  you can add as much or as little as you’d like.  you’d better believe that, in maine, maddy and i would never have used all of our spinach in one shot like that.  no, it was a precious commodity and was not to be squandered.  i like baby spinach versus full-sized as it makes for smaller bites of spinach, but it’s up to your discretion.

yes, you add the entire bag

the last thing to add is the “juice of one lemon”, for which i clearly use just lemon juice.  however, if you wanna be a bad ass, then go on with your bad self and juice a lemon.  how much again, is a question of personal preference.  in maine, we didn’t have lemons or lemon juice, but would zest oranges, and add some of the orange juice.  truth be told, i like the flavor of orange zest in here better than lemon, but am too lazy for zesting these days.  i add about one and a half tablespoons of reconstituted lemon juice.

i know, i’m lame. this is lemon juice for pussies. so be it.
this is what your soup should look like when it is finished

stir it all around for a few seconds and you’re golden.  if you wanna leave it on the range for a bit longer, you could do that, too, if you wanted to blend all the flavors around for a while (although, i think it is important that the spinach be “just cooked”, rather than totally mushified).

enjoy.  in maine, when our noses were cold from the dampness of the ocean, we would sit in our canvas chairs, bowls of steaming lentil soup in our laps, NPR on in the background, as always, and press our faces into our soup bowls, breathing it in as we ate.  afterwards, we would place any leftovers in the cooler we had wedged under a big rock outside of our tiny cabin, our refrigerator.  then, we would wash our faces, a nightly ritual, and go to sleep on our bunk beds.

it is interesting to me how a recipe that was originated probably hundreds of years ago in lebanon made it’s way to me, here in dearborn, where it was perfected and evolved on an island off the coast of maine, and reminds me of the salt of the ocean, floating seaweed, takes me back to that summer when my nephew was born, when maddy was like my spouse, and also, of being pregnant with ruth.

it just goes to show you how food is so much more than just food (this is where mc donald’s falls short).  it is passed down through generations like fables, changes hands like antique china, evolves with each person who handles it, and is a memory imprint of aroma, taste, feeling, thought.

don’t forget to have seconds.