I had to pull up the last garden carrots today. If I’d mulched, I’m sure they could’ve stayed in the beds a while longer, but there weren’t many left and I wanted a few different colors in this lentil stew. There’s a heavy blanket of snow on the ground now, and it looks as though it’s here to stay a while.
As much as I love the winter holidays, I think I’m not quite ready this year. Last summer had such a late frost that a lot of the plants were just reaching maturity. My green thumb is still itching for a harvest that will never come. Regardless, there’s not much I can do about the weather, I can only adapt. And the best way to adapt to early winter?
For me, these first cold (technically fall but very winter-esque) days are a time of settling in. I rush to finish up any outstanding projects and begin a mental shift into moving more slowly. I have to be aware that winter can be challenging for me. As a certified #sadgirl, I need to plan for the effects prolonged dark and cold can have. I don’t dislike winter (and again, we’re not saying literal calendar winter, just winter weather… which lasts a solid five months here), but she’s a tricky, artful friend. I do well with distractions, and the cold and snow don’t offer a wide variety. It’s all too easy to let the mind hibernate– which is something that a person with my tendencies must not do. I need to move slowly, but carefully, and I cannot stop.
The easiest way for me to do this is, naturally, with food. As I’ve said before, food is a necessity and an art. One doesn’t have to feel that time is being wasted, or that one is being overly indulgent or luxurious when cooking a wholesome meal from scratch, regardless of how much time it takes. This lentil stew recipe in particular is as inexpensive as it is delicious… so if it’s a luxury, it’s the humblest kind. This time of year, summer squashes like zucchinis are still practically free as everyone with a garden is trying to get rid of as many as possible. But if you’re in an area where that’s not the case, they’re totally optional (and totally replaceable with diced winter squash if that’s more readily available).
If cooking isn’t the therapeutic and comforting activity for you that it is for me, eating this definitely will be. Now don’t get me wrong, I know a lot of folks look down on the humble lentil. Being real, they taste like dirt if you cook them alone. But when done correctly, they can offer an incredibly flavorful, toothsome bite that leaves you with a perfectly rounded meal in one bowl. Nutritionally, that’s not far off either. Lentils, like most legumes, are praised for their fiber, phytonutrients, minerals, and protein content. Combined with the other veggies in this stew? You’re getting an undeniably healthy meal.
Now, my veg friends, I haven’t forgotten you. While Myles and I have drastically reduced our meat consumption for environmental reasons, we’re still often using the “less often utilized” bits that frequently go to waste, like bones, and in this case, a smoked “hock” or pork knuckle. I won’t pretend this stew is the same without it. But I CAN tell you, in full honesty, that with a few pinches of smoked paprika and some high quality vegetable broth, you can get pretty darn close. Nutritionally, you won’t need to make any substitutions since the protein is mostly coming from the lentils anyway.
The last note I’ll give about this recipe is that I like my vegetables to be those tiny, perfect cubes. But that’s totally unnecessary and takes ages and ages of chopping. If you prefer, you can totally do a larger, rougher chop or simply throw it all into the food processor and blitz it a few times. Just know that the final appearance will be slightly different. And, in speaking of differences, I used dark purple carrots for my lentil stew. The pictures you see are the result of that. If you aren’t using a dark vegetable like that, the color of the stew will be much lighter, but equally delicious!
Hearty Lentil Stew with Smoked Pork Hock
- 2 T olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
- 2 cups diced carrots, split in half
- 4-5 large celery stalks, diced
- 2 quarts beef, chicken or vegetable stock/broth (I used beef stock)
- 1 smoked pork hock
- 1 t. dried thyme (or three fresh sprigs)
- 1/2 t. dried oregano (or two fresh sprigs)
- 1/2 t. paprika
- 1 t. black pepper
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 1/2 c. dried French green lentils
- 1 c. diced zucchini, summer squash, or winter squash of choice
- salt to taste
- fresh parsley and grated Parmesan for garnish (opt)
In a large, heavy bottomed stock pot or dutch oven, add olive oil and bring to medium-high heat. Add onion, half of the diced carrots, and celery, and saute until slightly browned. Add garlic and saute another 3-4 minutes or until garlic is very fragrant. Then add your broth or stock of choice, the pork hock, and all of the spices. Cover the pan slightly (keep the lid at a tilt for some steam to escape), and simmer for two hours.
If liquid is significantly reduced, add water and check the pork hock for tenderness. By the end of this recipe, we want all of the bits of meat falling off the bone, but by this stage, it should just be pliable enough to remove some bits of meat with minimal effort. If the meat is still clinging tightly to the bone, continue simmering as needed. Once the pork hock has reached desired tenderness, add lentils, the rest of the carrots, and squash (if you’re using winter squash ONLY). If you’re using a tender summer squash, let the carrots and lentils cook for about 20 minutes before adding the diced squash.
When all ingredients (except salt and garnish) are in the pot, bring it back to a simmer and cook for about an hour. Once all of the vegetables and lentils are tender, and the meat from the pork hock is falling off of the bone, it’s ready. Remove the pork hock from pot and use a fork or tongs to remove all of the small pieces of meat, and add the meat back into the pot. Discard the remaining bone or reserve for homemade stock. Taste the soup and add salt as needed.
Serve hot and garnish with freshly grated Parmesan and parsley if desired.