Friday, February 15, 2013

Mess of Pottage

by Sheila Connolly

FYI, the term refers to the Biblical story of Esau's sale of his birthright for a meal of lentil stew, and connotes shortsightedness and misplaced priorities.

Don't think so, folks, at least for the priorities part.  I was in the midst of a two-day power outage, thanks to the Blizzard of 2013, and I realized I had all the ingredients for a lentil stew, which is actually one of my favorite winter dishes. It was Julia Child who first introduced me to this dish (I'd never seen a lentil before), on The French Chef, although I've simplified it a bit. 

I have to say that after two days in the cold and dark, I have a lot more respect for my forebears, and even in the people who lived in my Victorian house.  I quickly arrived at several observations. One, it is best to plan ahead for your meal, because it's not easy to locate and dice your ingredients in the dark.  Two, candles and oil lamps are not very bright, so it's hard to see what you're doing at any stage, and chopping with a sharp knife in the dark may be dangerous to the health of your fingers.  Three, I realized why so much traditional Irish food consists of stews cooked on a crane over the fire:  peat does not produce a lot of heat, so it takes a while to cook anything!

The fireplace for the last Connolly home, built 1907,
abandoned 1956 and now falling down.  You can
see the crane for cooking.
Once upon a time, lentils and other beans had to be presoaked and boiled for hours.  Luckily those days are gone, and a quick simmer is enough.

I usually make this dish with kielbasa, but regular sausage (which was what I had on hand) works fine—just leave it in good-sized chunks. This time I substituted leeks for onions, because I didn't have many onions and I wasn't sure when the power would be back or the snow would stop.


2 cups lentils, washed
6 cups water

Cook the lentils slowly, at a bare simmer, for half an hour, and drain.

1 lb sausage (ground or link)

Saute the sausage in a pan until it loses its pink color (it will continue cooking later)

2-4 carrots, depending on their size (enough to make 
     1/2 cup finely chopped)
1 onion (or 2 leeks), finely chopped
3 Tblsp butter
3 Tblsp flour
1/2 cup red or white wine
1 1/2 cups meat stock or canned bouillon
1 bay leaf
½ tsp dry thyme or several sprigs fresh thyme

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and sauté the carrots and onions until tender.  Blend in the flour and cook on low heat, stirring, for a couple of minutes.  Remove from heat and beat in the wine, then the broth, and simmer for 5 minutes.  Add the herbs, then taste for salt and pepper.

In a large pan, combine the lentils, the sauce and the sausage (including the fat in the pan you cooked it in) and heat through.  Cook for a while at low heat to blend all the flavors.  You can eat it right away, or you can reheat it later.  Just don't let it overcook because it dries out.

 And voila!  Cooking by flashlight.


  1. Sounds yummy Sheila. I had some the other night that a friend made with turkey meatballs that had been flavored with fennel. Delicious!

    But how in the world did you stay warm?

  2. Lovely warming soup.
    I finished your Buried in a Bog yesterday. Utterly delightful! Makes me want to catch the next plane over.

  3. I will confess to sitting in the kitchen with all the burners on. Yes, I know about the dangers of carbon monoxide, but one of the plusses of a Victorian house, under these circumstances, is that it leaks air all over the place, so there's always ventilation. Apart from that? Cats and lots of blankets, combined.

  4. Sheila, I'm so sorry you had to go through that. Your dinner sounds perfect for a cold wintery night, though. Thanks for posting this today. You reminded me that I meant to make lentils for lunch!


  5. Sheila, dinner via flashlight. You are so inventive. And I'm glad you survived the cold. No fun. Been there, done that. (Not in California, but in Charlotte and in Hartford)

    Daryl / Avery

  6. This post brought back memories of a storm in 2009 that left us without power for 3 plus days. We also could not use the oven or range. I tried using the fireplace for heating & cooking with mixed success. I hardest to go without was water! My hat is off to our forefathers & mothers also! Your stew looks lovely. My boys would like it.

  7. Great post, Sheila. It brings back memories for me. I grew up in Western Pennsylvania hill country (amid one section of the Appalachian Mountains) where we often had a few power outages a year.

    Popcorn on the gas stove, blankets, candles, and fellowship made those days some of my very favorites. My best friend lived next door in our street's oldest home, the original farmhouse of the area, and her parents uncovered an ancient fireplace in the oldest part of the house--the field stone basement. Like your photo, their fireplace had the original metal crane for cooking. At the time, as a little girl, this completely amazed me.

    The family restored that fireplace, hung a cast iron pot on the crane, and used it for cooking, which continued to delight me: a little Colonial Williamsburg action right next door.

    ~ Cleo