Sunday, June 20, 2010

Lentil Soup Sort Of Like Yia Yia Made

My Grandmother was a "Toastie." She was a part of a generation of immigrant women who lived through the Great Depression. Very few depression era immigrants had access to refrigeration and in order to preserve their weekly bread, the women of the household would slice and toast the entire loaf on the first day. Apparently, when bread is toasted it looses some of it's moisture and is then less likely to mold. Hence the name "Toastie."

I never knew that there were others like her until I was in high school, when my US history teacher explained the story of the "Toastie." I had always just assumed that my Yia Yia's toast-related behavior was exclusive to her and her Greekness or that she had accidentally toasted too many pieces of bread and saved the extra. But then it occurred to me that that was not all she saved; safety pins, rubber bands, paper napkins from church and cereal boxes (that she lined her trash cans with). It was an entire generation groomed out of necessity to keep and preserve and save for the winter. She wasn't a hoarder because she wasn't a consumer, she just never wasted anything.

There is a lot I really love about this. I live in a generation that celebrates wild and grotesque excess. Her style of life feels really appealing and almost subversive now. I'm not saying that I'm going to start taking sugar packets from friends houses, hanging my pictures on the wall with used chewing gum or making melted cheese sandwiches by melting my cheese in my morning coffee and then removing it and squeezing it between two hard previously toasted pieces of bread. Yes, all true. But there are a few lessons from my Yia Yia's generation that I think are very practical, the overall themes of simplicity and conservation being the most important ones of all.

My grandmother was not impoverished toward the end of her life but she still applied her depression era philosophy toward everything she did, most actively in her approach to food. She never ate out or ordered in. She walked to the market. She would make a stew once a week, refrigerate it and eat it all week long. She would add to the stew or fish out what she wanted that night. Outside of the week, there was some variety. Some of her stews were made with lamb, some chicken, some pasta, some beans, some were more like soups. Most had a tomato base and she usually cooked seasonally (what's in season is always cheaper). She used mint from her garden and lemons from her own tree. She also (much to my great embarrassment) would pull the wild greens (horta) from the church yard and take them home to eat. They always tasted wonderful.

It was an honest way to eat and although unrealistic for most of us now, still important to recognize. Plus, I get tired of eating the same thing after a few days. When I cook one of her dishes, I often freeze individual portions and The Husband takes them for his lunch. But don't freeze it too soon, because as she knew very well, her dishes are best after a couple days. The flavors marry and settle and sing. Day 3 is ideal. When you reheat it from the refrigerator, just portion out what you want and add a little water and cook it on the stove top until hot. From the freezer, just nuke it. One of my favorites were her lentils.

Yia Yia's Lentil Soup (the closest I've gotten to the real deal)

1/4 cup olive oil (add more if you want, she did)
4 cloves of garlic
1 large yellow onion
5 stalks of celery (yes Mom, you can leave this out)
4 large carrots
1 lb brown lentils
1 cup pearled barley
1 Quart + of vegetable stock, chicken stock or water
(following spices are approximate add or subtract whatever you prefer)
3 Fresh bay leaves
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
1 t of cumin
1/2 t of each- onion powder, garlic powder, dried oregano, dried thyme, dried basil
Dash of cayenne
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large cast iron pot on medium heat, take olive oil, chopped garlic, celery, carrots, onion, fresh herbs and saute until fragrant. When onions are translucent, toss in brown lentils and fill pot with stock or water (if you use only water, be prepared to season a little bit more) then add the remaining spices and let it simmer away.
In a separate pot, boil 1 cup of pearled barley with 2 1/2 cups of water. When the barley is tender but chewy add it to the soup and cook until beans are tender. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve right away or for up to 3 days before freezing left overs. When you serve it add a squeeze of lemon, a sprinkle of Parmesan and a big piece of fresh crusty bread (sorry Yia Yia but I have a freezer now and a Trader Joe's a block away). This is what it looks like the next day.

To be honest, we didn't even freeze any this time. Best batch yet. To simplicity...

1 comment:

  1. I love this! I love the story and I love how you tell it! Your yiayia's horta picking and your subsequent embarrassment made me laugh because it is our story too! We would have to pull over on the highway for picking and I vividly remember having to stop and knock on someone's door to ask if she could pick the weeds out of their yard for us to eat. I wanted to die!!

    Your lentil soup recipe sounds amazing. I will have to try it. I have one too - we call it "fakes. Mine is really simple, but you might like it. I also have the avgolemeno recipe if you want it.

    Even though I don't comment every time, I read all of your blogs, and they are so entertaining! xo Effie