This is sheer comfort food, my people.
But first, I feel compelled to do a little proppy shout-out: My sister got me that bangin' orange spoon (part of a colorful set I adore); the seersucker fabric and the Anthropologie canister (bringing my total canister count to nine, because I am insane) were loot from Coastal Living prop sales; and as a last-minute thought because my "living herbs" thyme was attached to a healthy-but-ugly root ball, I shoved it into a beautiful gold mortar from my friend Jenny. The board was a hand-me-down from my dad, and the bowl is of course (of course) a treasured gift from my gramma.
And that little commercial break was courtesy of the fact that every piece reminds me of a person I love or a fond memory, even if that fond memory was just buying something pricey for a sweet sweet deal.
Now, back to the comfort food!
I wasn't in any particular need for comfort last night, for which I am grateful, but it was officially October, and I wanted something that said, fall is here even if the temperatures outside still hover in the late-summer region.
This also was originally intended to be vegetarian, but something about the super-lean beef just called out to me. It's simple enough to just omit and have a lovely meat-free option if that's your druthers. And speaking of super-lean, this beef was just 7 percent fat, so I had to add a little oil to the pan before sautéing my veggies. If your beef is chunkier, you can just drain all but a tablespoon or so of the fat away, and then use that for even meatier flavor.
You can simmer the lentils and vegetables in water if you like, but I used beef broth in this case. If you follow my lead, go really easy on the salt until everything has had a chance to cook completely. It can be tough to judge the saltiness of the broth you're using before then. After that, you can just salt to taste!
I pureed about half the soup with my immersion blender before I stirred the beef in. I liked the thickening effect, but still having some bite to the lentils. It's a completely optional step, though—this will taste lovely either way.
The potato puffs (hat tip to my friend Julie, who gave me the alternative to calling them "balls") were cheesy, herby little clouds that melted into the stew. You just want to put them into the pan over a gentle heat and let them develop a nice golden brownness on one or two sides—they're delicate, so they can fall apart in a heap if you try to move them around too much. And keep an eye on them: When they are just warmed through and kissed with butter, they're perfect.
It occurred to me after I inhaled a bowl of this in less than a minute or so that it's really almost a deconstructed shepherd's pie—there's the hearty meatiness and the stick-to-your-ribs veggieness and the earthy herbiness and, well, potatoes. If you're on the go, you can serve the stew with whatever quick potatoes you like. Just make sure they're kissed with butter, obvs.
Just before I plated this up (and I absolutely love it when this happens), I decided there was something about the symmetry of the potatoes that was bugging me, so I plopped a big old dollop of sour cream in the middle out of nowhere. When it was time to eat, I realized that it's absolutely essential to the flavor here—tangy and bright and cooling and perfect with the potatoes. So if you do decide to replicate this for dinner this week, don't omit the sour cream! It's just that extra oomph that's totally worthwhile.
I had a little sour cream in my fridge at home, which is how that impromptu decision came to be made, but other than a few cloves of garlic I bought everything else at the store, and came out with at least six servings for less than $20. Healthy, delicious, and smart: jackpot!
Beef-and-Lentil Stew with Romano Potato Puffs
1 pound extra-lean ground beef (93% lean)
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 cup diced yellow onion
½ cup diced carrot
½ cup diced celery
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup dried lentils
1 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
6 fresh thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
4 cups low-sodium, fat-free beef broth
Romano Potato Puffs (recipe below)
Garnishes: sour cream, fresh thyme leaves
1. Place beef in a stockpot over medium-high heat; sprinkle with kosher salt and black pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes or until browned and cooked through. Transfer beef to a bowl, and set aside.
2. Return pot to stove over medium heat; add canola oil, onion, and carrot. Cook 3 minutes or until onions are softened. Add celery and garlic, and cook 2 more minutes. Stir in lentils and next 3 ingredients, and stir until combined. Stir in beef broth, and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 45 minutes or until lentils are tender.
3. Remove thyme stems and bay leaves from lentil mixture. Puree about half the lentil mixture using an immersion blender (or transfer a few cups to a traditional blender, and puree until smooth). Stir in reserved beef until heated through. Serve stew with Romano Potato Puffs, and garnish, if desired. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Romano Potato Puffs
2 medium russet potatoes, chopped
¼ cup shredded Romano cheese
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
Fresh thyme leaves (optional)
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon butter
1. Place potatoes in cold water to cover in a medium pot; bring water to a boil and cook about 12 minutes or until potatoes are fork-tender. Drain potatoes well and return to pot.
2. Mash potatoes with cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Stir in thyme, if desired. Shape mixture into 1-inch balls. (Mixture will be dry.)
3. Heat butter and oil in a small skillet over medium-low heat until butter is melted. Cook puffs in butter mixture 1 to 2 minutes or just until heated through and golden brown on 1 or 2 sides. (Handle very carefully when turning puffs in the pan.) Serve immediately. Makes 6 to 8 servings.