As a grammar snob, misused quotation marks on restaurant menus drive me a bit crazy–or perhaps make me [sic]? “Confit” and “braised” are two I've seen used often, when in fact the items listed haven't gone through a cooking process even slightly resembling, respectively, being simmered in fat or being seared hot then cooked low, slow and covered. Braising is a term and cooking method best used for meats, although certain vegetable can certainly be braised as well. But lentils? “'Braised' lentils” is the kind of menu speak I abhor. Or did abhor. While I still would argue that a lentil cannot be seared and there for cannot be braised, I've found the this usage much more applicable after making a lazy pot of soup which I cooked in the oven, at 300 degrees, covered, while I went out to run errands. Instead of simmering into mush, as they do when cooked uncovered on a burner, lentils cooked in this manner take on a more luscious texture: their shape and bite somewhat maintained, but with interiors soft and creamy. The other flavors in the soup–vegetables, herbs, tomatoes–melded into the slightly starch-thickened broth, adding depth and complexity to what was cooking-wise the simplest, most straightforward of soups.
The soup starts with a good thick-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid, like an enameled Dutch oven. With a bit of oil, sauté onions, celery and carrots–cut on the bias, because Dave Liberman told you so–until their softened and even a bit browned. Turn up the heat and toss in a bit of wine–red or white, it doesn't really matter–or some vinegar if that's all you have nearby. Scrape up any browned bits of veggies that stuck to the pot and boil it all down until it thickens up into a glaze. This may seem like an unnecessary, overly fussy step, but it gives the whole soup a deep base of flavor which you will appreciate and be glad you worked for. And from this point forward, its basically tossing everything else in the pot, putting it in the oven and walking away.
If you don't think this constitutes a braised dish or even a “braised” one, that's fine by me. I don't really either. But it does taste like and resemble one, so I'm calling it that–which makes me a bit of a hypocrite. But does the name really matter if it tastes good?
Braised Lentil Soup
3 cups green lentils (the French kind)
5 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for serving
2 medium-sized onions cut into a large dice
3 carrots cut thickly and on the bias
3 ribs of celery, cut into large chunks
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1-cup wine or ½ cup vinegar (cider vinegar is good)
1 can peeled whole tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 fresh bay leaves
A few sprigs of fresh thyme or rosemary
5 cups water
Salt, pepper and chili flakes to taste
1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees
2. Sauté the veggies in the oil until softened and a bit browned
3. Turn up the heat and add the wine or vinegar, stirring to pick up browned bits from the pot
4. Boil down until reduced by at least half.
5. Add the tomatoes–both the peeled tomatoes themselves, cut into chunks, and the remaining juices–followed by the lentils and water
6. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Season with salt and pepper and add oregano and bay leaves. If using rosemary, throw in a full sprig of the herb, stem and all (which will be pulled out later)
7. Cover and put into the preheated oven
8. Go away. Leave the soup alone. Run errands or go to the gym. Come back in about two hours and check the water level. If things look like they're drying out–a lot of lentil and not a lot of broth–ad a bit more. The lentils are “done” when they're become thoroughly softened and have melted into the broth a bit. This should happen after about three hours, but with enough water, you can cook this soup more-or-less forever, with the flavors improving by the hour.
9. Before serving, add in the sliced garlic, fresh thyme, some pepper flakes and adjust the seasoning if more salt is needed. Serve with a healthy swirl of olive oil poured over the top.