Funny how comfort food means different things to people. For some, it’s mac & cheese. For others it’s tofu and kimchi soup. For me, it’s lentil stew. Not just any old lentil stew; it’s this smoky, meaty, garlicky one I crave — one of my top-three favorite childhood meals.
We didn’t have much money when I was young and I remember many a hearty, inexpensive stew gracing our dining table in the cooler months. My mother would usually start out with meat bones of some sort — sometimes ham hocks (mostly blubber — but boy, do they make wonderful stock!) combined with meatier shanks, at other times beef ribs, neck of lamb or chicken bones.
Once she’d extracted every last molecule of nourishment and flavor from the bones in the pressure cooker — along some soup vegetables and herbs to flavor the broth — she’d discard the lot and cook a fresh batch of vegetables in the bone broth to which she added the little meat she had scraped off the bones, and occasionally a cupful of dry beans or lentils.
The final flourish — her signature touch to this day — was a heap of fresh parsley chopped with a clove of fresh garlic that she would stir into the hot stew just before serving it — a northern European take on the fragrant lemon-anchovy-parsley-garlic gremolata that Italians sprinkle over their osso buco.
To me, this dish didn’t just taste rich and earthy — it tasted of love. The finely chopped vegetables, the smoky meat she knew we loved, the fresh garlic my father adored, the fresh herbs that gave it a refreshing zing — the creativity, time and care that went into this humble yet heavenly dish was obvious at the very first mouthful. And so I came to associate this stew with comfort, safety and love. To this day, when I plan to visit my mother and she asks me what I want to eat upon arrival, I always ask for this dish.
And whenever I feel a challenging day coming on, I crave the soothing comfort of my mother’s lentil stew. Thankfully, I usually have ham hocks or a smoked turkey leg in the freezer and always keep soup vegetables (leek, celery & carrots) in the fridge. So when I looked out of my window this morning and saw a fresh layer of April snow — compounding my mounting corona-frustration — I fired up my trusty Instant Pot and cooked this deeply nourishing meal for my kids and me. The fresh garlic and drizzle of olive oil gave it a Mediterranean touch while lightly buttered homemade sourdough toast took comfort-eating to a whole new level.
Mmmmmh, the taste of home.
My Mother's Lentil Stew
- 2 lbs smoked turkey leg or bone-in ham hocks and shanks
- 1 yellow onion halved
- 1 whole, small head of garlic halved horizontally (leave skin on)
- 5 medium carrots
- 4 celery stalks
- 2 quarts water
- 1 tsp poultry seasoning mix
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2 leeks dark green sections discarded, white and light green parts thoroughly washed and thinly sliced
- 5 oz Yukon Gold potatoes peeled and cut into roughly 1/2-inch cubes
- 1¼ cups dry lentils brown or green (French Puy lentils); no need to soak these
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cup fresh parsley
- 1-2 cloves garlic coarsely chopped
- 1-2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 8 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil to drizzle over the soup
- Put turkey leg or ham hocks and shanks in the Instant Pot along with the onion halves, the halved head of garlic, 2 of the celery stalks (coarsely chopped), 2 of the carrots (coarsely chopped), water,seasoning mix, salt and pepper. Lock the lid and program to HIGH PRESSURE for 30 minutes.
- While the meat is cooking, chop the remaining 2 stalks of celery, peel and chop the 3 remaining carrots, clean and slice the leeks and peel and cube the potatoes. Set aside.
- Once the meat has finished cooking, cover the pressure valve with a kitchen towel and shift it to VENTING; let the steam escape completely before opening the lid.
- Using kitchen tongs, transfer the meat to a plate to cool. Place a sieve over a large, clean bowl and strain the broth into the bowl. Then return the broth to the pot. Add the chopped vegetables and lentils and 2 bay leaves. Lock the lid and program to HIGH PRESSURE for 10 minutes.
- While the vegetables and lentils are cooking, finely chop the parsley and raw garlic clove(s) with a chef’s knife. Once cool enough to handle,shred the meat. When the cooking time is up, again quick-release the steam via the towel-covered vent. Lift off the lid, add the meat and fold gently into the lentil and vegetable soup.
- Press SAUTE to reheat the meat for 2-3 minutes. Stir in the chopped parsley and garlic mixture. Season to taste with salt, pepper and red wine vinegar.
- Ladle into bowls and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil. Accompany with a slice of toasted sourdough bread, if desired. (Bread not included in the nutrition calculation below.)