Saturday, September 29, 2007

Comfort Food Is Often Ugly


Lentils are ugly*. I like them. I'm not trying to slander them. But it's hard not to admit that they neither sound, smell nor look good. Lentil. Say the word out loud. It doesn’t sound tasty, does it? They don’t, while cooking in water, have a particularly appetizing aroma. When badly prepared (or just plain, undressed and unadorned), lentils are the culinary equivalent of sit-ups: extremely good for you, but truthfully, enjoyed by no one. They are extremely difficult to make attractive, or to photograph well. My camera gets quite distressed by so many little pieces and can barely sort out what it’s supposed to focus on (And yes, I need to look over the manual for the bloody thing. Again.). Very few people get excited upon learning that their menu will include lentils. Their faces take the expression that most people make when they're about to do 200 sit-ups, which would best be described as "Ugh. Well, let's get this over with."
I will say, in the defense of the lentil, that there are many intensely satisfying foods (that usually fall into the category of comfort food) that don’t look as good as they taste. Fall and winter are full of such foods. I include a photo of a wine-braised sausage and tomato sauce as evidence. It was suffused with tremendous flavor (I had some carrots and celery left from making stock, so I used them for a soffrito), but didn’t make for an amazing photo. And, okay, I didn't try that hard (but there are many foods- strawberries come to mind instantly- that are natural beauty queens, and take no effort to photograph well). It probably doesn’t help the visual appeal of the sauce to see how grubby my stove is right now (it's coffee. If we don't keep a very close eye on the little stovetop espresso maker, and we never do, it has a habit of spitting coffee all over the stovetop). Compare it to a picture of cookies (scroll down) I baked for the kids. Cookies are easy to make look tasty. Lentils? Eh. Not so much.

And yet, when cool weather comes, I have trouble resisting the lentil. Prepared well, they are delicious. The provide a lovely foil for darkly savory foods (or sharp tastes, or… all sorts of things). I saw chanterelles at Pike Place Market last weekend, and bought some while I was buying some of the last gasp peaches. I usually sauté chanterelles with a little crushed garlic and butter, and eat them on toasted baguette (which I highly, highly recommend), but this time, I knew that I wanted to have them with lentils (and a little crispy bacon or chorizo). The dark, salty, smooth brown taste was very much in my mind when I saw the chanterelles. And the whole thing was delicious. My husband is no lentil lover (he might be described as belonging to the Anti-Lentil League), and he liked it. He even went back for seconds. But… they’re really ugly. Cookies? Easy to make look appealing. Lentils? Well… you may have to trust me that they tasted lovely, because I am not of the opinion that they look all that great, even with that bit of crispy pancetta stuck in there.

We need some warmer weather for a couple of weeks, because otherwise, I’ll have run through half our nasty weather favorites before we get anywhere near November (although, at that point, pomegranates will be coming to market and I will be delighted). Tomatoes are still in stores, and technically still in season (although looking at my poor plants, you'd think it was already November. Although... they've looked like that since July). And also, soccer will be a frigid misery. The girls on my soccer team were shivering pathetically on the sidelines this morning despite the pre-game bouncy, shout-y frenzy I whip them into (This is one of the few cases in which it’s actually okay to get someone else’s kids absurdly juiced up, because they then run around in a scrum surrounding the ball for the next 30 plus minutes, working off the excitement... and shoving and kicking each another). My usual instructions about which way to kick the ball were forgotten in the excitement of the game this morning, as my girls got a little turned around and lasered the ball… into our goal. Twice. Oops. It was really hard not to laugh. Their expressions went from exultation to bewilderment.

You could see the little thought bubbles above their heads: We scored! Wooo! But... it was the wrong net? How did that happen?

When I told them they did a great job, but next time they should go the other way, they looked happy again.
Thought bubble: Coach [they actually call me Coach. Coach Meg. It cracks me up.] said we did a great job! But next time: the other net.

* I have, before you point it out, noticed that red lentils are not nearly as unattractive. But observing that is much like pointing out the least unattractive thing in a store Full O' Ugly.

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