The lentil and the lamb. The humble and the meek. Or at least, that's what they have supposedly represented. But to me, the lentil has long been the stuff of easy luxury. Hearty, filling, but a lot more elegant than boiled potatoes. Likewise, lamb has a distinctive gait across my tongue. The good stuff has trodden green, green pastures under the sun or trampled the cold-packed dirt of a milder winter pasture. It tastes of the earth in cycle and I love any cut of it. The obvious loin chops, shoulders for sauteeing or braising. But I have a soft spot for the shank.
This is a cavegirl's cut (they had to eat, too, right?). The centerpiece being a sturdy leg bone fat with marrow that along with the meat around it can be coaxed into the most unctuous tenderness.
Often, I do just that. Lentils and lamb shank into a pot. Add water and simmer. It is a lazy means to a luxurious result. And it is ideal for weather that straddles the line between heavy wool sweater and light pink cardigan/
I make this with Laurie Colwin in mind. How many times she literally made her beloved lentil soup. Always with onion. Sometimes with bacon. But yes, she, like me, extolls the addition of lamb. It is because of her I have no problem sousing my soup right before serving with a good glug of cognac, brandy and even dry sherry. It is because of her I have tried this soup at all.
The most appealing virtue about it is that it is entirely personalized according to your mood, pantry and disposition. Add some tzatziki (cucumbers shredded into thick yogurt), pita and perhaps a plate of fresh radishes with crazy good butter, and well, I call that my Monday night feast. Mondays are days where I often make the time to spend at home at my table. Usually there's the Voracious One and a good friend or two (they always show up at dinner time). The friends are even better when they arrive with a bottle of wine.
The base is essentially legume and lamb. Root vegetables are always a good thing. As are herbs. I've added spinach leaves at the end of cooking with great results. Varying up herbs and spices yields different cultures (coriander, cumin and cinnamon topped with pomegranate seeds for something from somewhere between here and the Tigris; garlic, oregano, and a can of San Marzano tomatoes for my inner-Italian). The moral of this story: Play with your food. Serves 4 to 6.
1 lamb shank (free-range is better) * 1 cup French (de Puy) lentils, washed and picked through (there are stones to be found) * 1 onion, peeled and chopped * salt and pepper * booze * [NOTE: The rest is optional] --> 1 chopped carrot, 1 chopped potato, a handful of herbs, garlic cloves, anything punchy like dijon mustard, sherry vinegar, mustard
Throw in the lamb shank, washed lentils and onion into a soup pot. If you've got anything else add it in, too. The last time I had the carrot, a handful of marjoram and garlic.
Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to a really soft simmer. It shouldn't sound like an amusement park volcano bubbling away. The pot should emit a gentle sputter, the sound of the gas range louder than the soup. If you're around, take a spoon and scoop out the grey scum that tends to appear when you cook meat in water. If you have to run to get to work on time, just leave it be. The scum will forgive you.
Let it cook at least two hours or until the lamb is tender, literally falling off the bone when you touch it and the marrow has melted into the pot. Whatever is leftover can be coaxed out with a marrow spoon or if you're ghettofabulous like me, a chopstick. I tend to cook mine all day, either over a low-low-low-low heat on the stove or in a 275 degree oven. Yes, I leave the stove unattended. I let myself a few risky behaviors in life.
Fish out the herbs if the stalks are still intact (mostly, the leaves disperse themselves with time, but it's never fun to chew on a thyme branch, unless of course you are a lamb) season with salt, pepper, booze (fino sherry was great last time), and if needed a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or a spoonful of dijon mustard and stir well.
Serve with bread (toasted pita in this case), a barely dressed salad of something crunchy and green. You'll need the lightness against the rich, dankness of the soup. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil before having your first spoonful. P.S. It tastes even better the next day.
If you want tzatziki get out the coarse cheese grater and grate about half a cucumber. Add that to about 2 cups of thick yogurt (or labneh). Season with salt, pepper and if you have it, chopped fresh dill or mint. Dollop on top of the soup or use it as a dip for your pita.