Monday, November 15, 2010

Culinary Chronicles: Lentil Stew with Lamb Sausage and Chicken

Why do I keep posting so many recipes for tomatillos?  Its because they grow like weeds and produce hundreds of fruits per plant, yet most of the recipes that I see on a regular basis are either for tomatillo salsa, or a green sauce for enchiladas.  I've been trying to broaden their range in my cooking repertoire and incorporate them into non-Mexican food dishes.

A couple of weeks ago my mom boiled up a lot of tomatillos in order to freeze them for later use.  She was left with about 6 cups of tomatillo broth that she didn't want to throw away, but wasn't sure what to do with.  In typical fashion, one morning she said to me, "If you are planning to make a soup, maybe you can use up that tomatillo broth."  I had mentioned no plans of making a soup, nor was I particularly inspired to do so, but that is my mom's way of suggesting hopefully that I come up with something delicious.  The idea thus being planted in my head, various ingredients combined themselves over the next few days, and what I finally ended up with was a lentil stew, flavored with lamb sausage that I bought at Whole Foods Market, and chicken.  My mom loved it, in fact what she said after the third night eating it was, "This is the best lentil soup I've ever eaten."  She's not one to quantify things as "the best," so that was pretty high praise.

I'm always interested in the creative process of things.  What triggered the use of a certain medium, or a color combination, were you inspired by a smell, was a memory triggered by the quality of light?  I find cooking to follow the same process.  My original plan was for a much clearer broth, with chicken and Spanish chorizo floating in it, along with white beans, and maybe chard and tomatoes.  Along the way it morphed into a thick broth with the prevalent flavor of lamb.  How did it happen?  I couldn't find the hard links of Spanish chorizo on my regular shopping route, and so I switched to lamb sausage, which seemed like it could go well with the original concept.  Then I got home, and realized that I'd forgotten to buy white beans, and there weren't any in the cupboard.  There were lots of lentils though.  Since lentils are a common food in Spain, I knew that it would combine well with the other ingredients, and voilá, I had a soup to satisfy Mom's request.

Adding a hearty green, like kale, would be delicious in this.  Carrots too.  I had neither on hand or else I probably would have included them.  If you aren't a fan of lamb, go back to the chorizo idea, or substitute a spicy chicken sausage.

Lentil Stew with Lamb and Chicken

1 cup lentils, rinsed
3 chicken thighs, boneless and skinless
1 lamb sausage*, about 6 inches long
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
1 tsp. smoked paprika**, or smokey chile like dried chipotle or pasilla
6 to 8 fresh plum tomatoes, chopped
1 Tbsp. tomato paste
6-8 cups tomatillo broth***, chicken broth, or vegetable broth

Cut sausage and chicken thighs into one-inch strips.  Heat 1 Tbsp. oil in a heavy bottom soup pot.  Add meat and brown on all sides.  Once the meat is browned, add the onion and cook until translucent.  Add paprika, tomato paste, and lentils and sauté for a minute or two, stirring so that all ingredients are well coated with the spices.  The sausage that I used had garlic and basil in it.  If you are using a plainer sausage, or ground lamb, add a clove of garlic, finely minced and a teaspoon of dried basil or mint.   Add tomatoes, and cook for another 20 minutes, or until the lentils become soft.  Salt to taste.  The sausage that I had was soo salty that I didn't need to add any additional salt.  Soup thickens a lot when the lentils soften.  If you'd like a thinner consistency just add additional broth or water.  Garnish with parsley, a dollop of plain yogurt, or a crumbling of farm cheese.

*I used a pre-spiced sausage from the Wild Oats butcher counter called Lamb with Basil, Garlic and Pine-nuts.  You could substitute chunks of lamb or ground lamb, but make sure to add garlic and herbs if you do.  A spicy Spanish chorizo would also be good.

**I know, I'm currently obsessed with smoked paprika.  It's that good.  Try it.  Or skip it.  You could add some chile flakes, or a small dried chile in its place.

*** I can't imagine that many of you would have tomatillo broth on hand.  We only had it because my mom boiled a lot of tomatillos from our garden so that they could be frozen for later use, and there was extra liquid left over afterward.  The tomatillo broth had a nice tangy sweetness to it that other broths won't have, so if you have tomatillos on hand you could chop and boil some of them to use as a base. 

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