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Lentil Stew: "A La di Stasio"

Posted by Amie / March 1, 2010

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"Cooking is an addictive game, one that is gourmet and so very sensual....Enjoyment is the key word of this book, one I've wanted to write for a long time and which is my own way of receiving you all at my table." -Josée di Stadio, A La di Stasio

Before I moved to Montreal I met a Quebecoise girl playing a music gig around a lake at sunrise for two weeks in Northern Ontario. The whole thing may have been a sleep-deprived hallucination, but I vividly remember a long conversation over lentil soup. The soup was fine, but it was the garnishes that were surprising. Fresh mint and toasted coconut. The coconut brought out the nuttiness of the lentils, and made you feel like you were eating a whole meal in a small bowl. Maybe also my stomach was fooled because lunch was at 8am and supper was at 2pm, but I'm pretty sure I started loving lentils at that moment. Until then I had only thought they were what vegetarians ate because they didn't know what they were missing. Sorry, vegetarians, but I now admit the error of my ways. So from whom did the idea of toasting coconut come? They deserved an award. In fact, the mysterious chef already had six.

The recipe was explained to me by my Québecoise cabin-mate in a very French way. "You take some of this and some of this...add this...let it simmer, then just a little of this..." etc. It turned out that the coconut and mint revelation, as well as the initial inspiration for the soup, had come from a Quebec cooking show called "À La di Stasio". The show was hosted by one woman, Josée di Stasio, who presented beautiful, simple recipes with little tips that helped the cook-at-home along. There were also two cookbooks, but both were in French, and I couldn't find any of the episodes online or on television. I was in Ontario and Quebec television seemed to like to stay in Quebec. Like it's was secret that the rest of Canada was not allowed to know, because if they did then they would have access to the secrets of amazing food.

Flash-forward three years and many, many lentil soups with toasted coconut later, and I can find the first À la Distasio cookbook at Appetite For Books, La Librairie Gourmande and even Chapters in Montreal in English. Apparently capitalism won out and anglophones are now allowed to eat well too.

The book is beautiful. The recipe titles are hand-written, every recipe has variations, notes and serving suggestions (but just that - suggestions, not rules), and the recipes themselves are classic gourmet. Smoked salmon mousse, duck confit, panna cotta, but also simple ideas like fennel and apple salad. One of my favourite ways to judge a cookbook, is by the quality of its side dishes, and this one has an entire section lovingly devoted to them. This is not a book that only considers the meat and starch in a meal. It includes two pages on roasting (rendering useless my magazine roasting bible), and two on how to cut, cook and season various kinds of leafy greens so they're not just leafy greens (mostly salt, pepper, lemon or garlic. No need to make it fancy, but a need to make it interesting). There are also two pages on how to serve cheese (how very appropriate), a page with 9 variations on mashed potatoes, one with 5 on basmati rice, two pages on oysters, and another two on making a simple cocktail hour platter (the wonderful 5 to 7), none of which are intimidating to undertake.

My point was lentil soup. I was actually surprised that there was no lentil soup in the book. Maybe Josée di Stasio had only done the recipe on her show and not put it in her book? Then I saw that there was in fact a recipe for lentil stew, and at the end of the recipe there was a note that to make it a soup, just add more broth. Simple. No mention of the coconut or mint, but she needs a reason for people to watch the show. She's such a lovely lady that it's worth watching watching for her air of dignity and calm kindness.

In true French style, here's the gist of the recipe:

1. Bring a pot of water and a few cups of dry lentils (Puy French lentils will give you a nutty flavour that works with the coconut, but other types would also work) to a boil, and when it gets there drain the lentils immediately. French wisdom. Gets rid of the starch and makes it more digestible, though they'd never talk about that...It would be awful to foolishly think you could skip this step.

2. The recipe calls to melt duck fat and sauté a few cups of diced onions, carrots, celery and garlic, but in case you JUST ran out of duck fat, olive oil or butter will do fine. You just want to sweat the vegetables, not stir-fry them, so keep the heat low for 10 minutes. They shouldn't brown. Optionally you can now add something salty diced from a pig (pancetta, a piece of bacon, etc) and sauté until it's brown.

3. Add the seasonings: stock, some bay leaves, something that seems appropriate (I used thyme, sage and a little parsley, but herbes de provence or a pre-made bouquet garni would work as well)

4. Then add the drained lentils and bring to a boil. Add more stock if the lentils aren't easily covered by the liquid. For soup, you should use three times as much stock as you do lentils, so 2 cups of lentils, 6 cups of stock. For stew, use twice as much stock as lentils. Adjust these ratios as necessary to give you a consistency you like. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.

Four steps. Leaving lots of time for your cocktail, or to prepare the meat confit she suggests you serve with it, as the stew is actually labeled a "side". This also leaves time to chop fresh mint, the smell of which will take over the whole kitchen, or to put some shredded unsweetened coconut in a skillet over medium heat until it browns to sprinkle on top. Serve as you wish.

Photo by "Loreleianne" and "Ayngelina" from the Midnight Poutine Flickr Pool



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