Our friends Neal and Jim decided to have us over for a Spanish-themed dinner, asking us to bring a soup or salad. Knowing a little about the country’s wine but not being particularly familiar with the cuisine, I turned to a Spanish friend for advice. He asked me what wine I wanted to pair with it. I told him that I had a Rioja from Bodegas Muga that I’d wanted to drink for some time, and he snap-called lentejas riojanas. I’m a believer in pairing food and wine from the same region, so we were off to the races.
Strangely enough, there was a Cook’s Illustrated recipe in this month’s issue. We also did some online research. I know it’s traditionally made with meat, especially chorizo, but we wanted to make a vegetarian version (and after the fact found out that vegetarian versions are common during Lent). We took all the sources we could find and cobbled together this:
12 ounces green lentils
1/4 cup of virgin olive oil
1 large white onion
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons of sweet paprika
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoon pepper
2 medium carrots
1 1/2 tablespoons of all purpose flour
Add carrots and bay leaves
Sautee onions and garlic
Add sauté and seasoning to pot
Simmer until lentils are soft
There are a few steps in there, but it’s relatively easy. The first thing I did was dump the lentils into a pock and picked out the tiny rocks and any other debris. Then I filled the pot with water and swished the lentils around with my hand. I poured off the water, being careful not to lose any of the beans. I could see that the water was dirty, so I repeated the process. The second time, I put a fine mesh strainer underneath just in case any lentils slipped out. I rinsed them twice more until the water ran clear. I then pour the lentils into the strainer one final time, giving me the chance to clean out the pot.
I put the lentils back in the pot and cover them with about two inches of water. I brought them to a boil and turned down the heat to medium. I added the bay leaves and salt. Knowing that I was going to cut them into small pieces, I audibled into two regular carrots’ worth of baby carrots (about 12), cutting them into quarters. They went into the pot.
I let the pot simmer until the lentils began to soften. I expected it to be 30-45 minutes, but it ended up only about 25. I occasionally added a little water to the pot to keep the level at least an inch above the lentils.
While the lentils are simmering, I chopped the onion and sauteed it in the olive oil over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they were nicely caramelized. It took me most of that 25 minutes. Just as they were starting to get dark, I added the garlic and the flour, giving everything a good stir and letting the onions and garlic fry up for a few minutes. When they had the right crisp to them, about 4 minutes later, I pulled the pan off the heat to let it cool some, no more than 2 minutes. I added the paprika and stirred.
I stirred the onion mixture into the pot. Once the soup began to thicken, I turned the heat down to medium low. I stirred the soup every now and again, especially when a little skin started to form on the top. Tasting it at about the half hour point, I realized that it needed more salt and pepper, so I added another teaspoon of each.
It cooked for another hour on low, until the lentils were quite soft, and the soup was nicely thick. We put the lid on the pot, put it into a carrying case, and headed over to Neal and Jim’s.
It was beautifully aromatic and flavorful, even without meat. I could taste how chorizo and other pork products would make it quite interesting, so we’ll eventually try it that way. I don’t know how traditional it would be, but some small cubes of potato would be interesting. The vegetarian version could have more heat to it, but I’d do that with crushed red peppers, not with any vinegar-based hot sauce, which would probably throw off the soup’s excellent balance.
Jim made a great chard, green onion top, and parsley flatbread, adding a great green element to have alongside the soup.
It was a superb start to a wonderful meal. Here’s the complete card and the regions they’re from:
Sopa de lentejas riojanas (Lentil Soup—Rioja)
Lomo De Cerdo al Carmelo (pork loin with caramelized milk—Murcia)
Acelgas Rehogadas con pasas y pinones (Sauteed Swiss Chard with Raisins and Pine nuts and Jamon Serrano—Catalonia)
Arroz Con Leche(Creamy Rice Pudding—Asturias
The wine we took was 2004 Bodegas Muga Rioja Reserva Selección Especial, a dark, inky, super rich offering with great black fruits, grippy tannins, and outstanding balance. We ended up drinking it with the main course after having a nice Norton rose sparkler to start and a 2010 Bernard Magrez Toro Paciencia with the soup. The Magrez is Tempranillo blend from Castilla y León, it was nearly as aromatic as the soup—herbs, cherry, chocolate, vanilla, leather, wood. A Really nice find. With dessert we had a Valencian Moscato that had great apple/pear notes to it, and just enough effervescence to set off the thickness of the pudding. Another really nice choice.
I’m a big fan of themed dinners. Even though we shared in the cooking responsibilities, there was a harmony and seamlessness to it that you don’t get if there isn’t a theme.
It was a great meal with great friends, and you can be sure we’ll do it again.