I’m not noted for spontaneity but I do enjoy creating dishes spontaneously—when I have a stuffed pantry, a full rack of spices and a large refrigerator. Since I basically live on the road, I no longer have those luxuries. One night when I needed a very quick meal I found myself with bare shelves except for a lowly container of red lentils and a few odds and ends. That’s boring but it will have to do. So I started boiling the beans in some stock while I rummaged around for something to add to the dish. In 10 minutes the lentils were almost ready. I turned up some cilantro, various spices, salt and pepper. Still boring, earthy but one dimensional.
I did find a few dates in the back of the cupboard. I chopped them up, tossed them in the pot just before the beans were done, and magic. I now had a sweet, exotic stew to counterpoise the earthiness of the beans. Add cumin and cilantro and I had a quick, simple dish in 25 minutes. Sometimes creativity requires a bit of luck.
The dish has now become a staple for us, so in subsequent iterations, I couldn’t resist making a few improvements. With the caramelized onions to give another dimension to the sweetness, it’s no longer a quick meal. Leave them out if you wish. And a squeeze of lime gives the dish acidity.
In doing a bit of research for this post I discovered lentil and date stew is a traditional Moroccan recipe (although typically a more complex recipe using tamarind). So I guess my dish is not really creative either. But it’s good.
As for wine pairing, this dish has quite a bit of sweetness which will kill a dry wine. And the wine should have some earthiness to complement the lentils. In U.S. markets we don’t have a lot of options for semi-sweet earthy wines. If you can get a quality Italian Lambrusco that is not insipidly fruity that will work. My only option was an inexpensive Amarone from Trader Joe’s, the Conte Di Bregonza. It’s a big wine but the ripe fruit is sufficiently sweet to balance the sweetness of the dish and the earthiness brings out the warmth of the lentils.
3 Onions, divided use
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups red lentils, rinsed and picked over
8 cups light chicken or vegetable broth
2 teaspoons ground cumin
14 dates, chopped
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1 lime, quartered for serving
1. Halve two onions and thinly slice discarding root end.
2. Cook onions slowly over medium low heat in 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, 40 minutes until deep brown. Salt to taste.
3. Meanwhile, dice remaining onion, add to a pot with a little oil, and cook over medium low until soft.
4. Add garlic and cook briefly, then add the stock and bring to a boil.
5. When the caramelized onions are 15 minutes from being done, add lentils and return pot to a simmer.
6. Simmer lentils until el dente, about 15 minutes and then add the dates and cumin.
7. Continue to cook for about 5 more minutes until the lentils are beginning to fall apart (I like the lentils to still have some texture)
8. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
9. Ladle stew into bowls, top with caramelized onions and cilantro.
Serve with a quarter lime each for squeezing