Here in Bulgaria we were hit by the same storm that just pelted the rest of Europe last week, but spring is on the way. The 40 cm of snow we got here in Shumen just a few days ago is melting so rapidly that it sounds like it’s raining. The heaviest day of snow happened to be on what is celebrated in Bulgaria as the first day of spring–March 1st, also called Баба Марта (Baba Marta). On this day people exchange red and white bracelets of twisted yarn and pin red and white tassels on their clothing to please Baba Marta (Granny March), thus helping to usher in the warm weather. These string creations are called мартеници (martenitsi, singular martenitsa). You wear your martenitsa until you see the first stork of the spring, and then you tie the martenitsa to a flowering tree. Although there was snow everywhere this week, seeing people selling martentsi has served as a reminder that warm weather is just around the corner.
A couple of weeks ago, I knew my next post would be my simple and tasty lentil yahniya (леща яхния, or lentil stew). I imagined this would be a simple post to make because I’ve been cooking this stew for years; I figured I would just make a batch, take some photos along the way, and post it. But I suddenly felt an added sense of responsibility that comes with posting publicly, so I decided I should do some extra research first. This additional work coincided with the start of the spring semester at the university where I teach, and making the simplest lentil stew suddenly seemed an impossible task to schedule. On top of that came the worst snow storm of the winter, and I took the train back to my town of Shumen to discover my water pipes frozen. But the snow was beautiful (though it was more beautiful back home than on the train–the photo on the right, below, is from the train), and with things back to normal, I’m finally offering a recipe for an easy lentil yahniya.
Yahniya, by the way, comes to Bulgarian from the Turkish yahni, which in turn has a Persian origin. This dish can be found in other Balkan countries, too–Greek γιαχνί, for example. Bulgaria has a whole range of one-pot dishes of various vegetables or legumes in liquids or sauces, with or without meat, ranging from supa [супа] to chorba [чорба] to gyuvech [гювеч] to yahniya [яхния] to mandzha [манджа]–basically, dishes to be eaten with a spoon. Three of these terms entered Bulgarian from Turkish, while the final one–mandzha–is from Italian. (This may not be obvious to everyone. I was having dinner at a friend’s house recently when his father mentioned the mandzha, then corrected himself, noting he shouldn’t say mandzha, because it’s “probably a Turkish word, ” so it’s better to use yahniya…) All of these dishes, regardless of vocabulary, and part of the basic Bulgarian menu.
So, back to the lentils…
A couple of weeks ago I began reading different recipes for lentil yahniya, trying to decide if I was really making it the best way I could be. I read about a dozen different recipes and tried incorporating some of their elements. In the end, I decided to stick with the recipe I usually use, because it’s delicious and easy. The basic recipe is from an American cookbook of Bulgarian cuisine, Linda Forristal’s Bulgarian Rhapsody, but with some modifications I’ve made over the years.
The major variations I saw in the many recipes I read were mostly a question of 1) whether to sauté the vegetables beforehand; 2) whether to include a fresh red pepper among the vegetables; and 3) whether or not to make a запръжка (zaprushka–a typical Bulgarian roux made of oil, flour, paprika, and sometimes onions and/or tomatoes, added to the dish to thicken and flavor it). I tried sautéing my onions and carrots before adding them to the lentils, and while this definitely gave them an aromatic sweetness, I couldn’t decide whether or not I actually preferred this flavor in the soup; because I was ambivalent, I decided it wasn’t worth complicating the recipe for a step with questionable value. I decided against trying a fresh pepper because it’s still winter, so this hardly seems like the time to be cooking with fresh peppers; maybe I’ll try that this summer. And as for the zaprushka, I decided to use it because it does add some flavor, and I prefer cooking the fresh tomato in the zaprushka before adding it (the recipe in Bulgarian Rhapsody calls for canned tomatoes, but also twice as many lentils as I use, and a whole can of tomatoes would overwhelm this quantity of lentils). Also, a zaprushka adds a typical Balkan touch to a stew or a pot of beans!
Necessary Ingredients [необходими продукти]:
- 250 grams / 8 oz. green lentils [зелена леща]
- 2 Tbsp. sunflower oil [2 супени лъжици олио]
- 1 large or 2 small onions [1 голяма или 2 малки глави лук]
- 1-2 carrots [1-2 моркова]
- 1+ tsp. salt [1+ чаена лъжица сол]
- 1 Tbsp. chubritza (winter savory)* [1 супена лъжица чубрица]
- 3 cloves of garlic [3 скилидки чесън]
- 1 tomato [1 домат]
- 2 Tbsp. high quality sweet paprika [2 супени лъжици червен пипер]
- 1 Tbsp. flour [1 супена лъжица брашно]
- 2 more Tbsp. sunflower oil [още 2 супени лъжици олио]
*Winter savory is not easy to find in the U.S., but it’s the ubiquitous spice of Bulgaria. You can substitute marjoram here if you need to, but if you plan to do much Bulgarian cooking, you should really find a source for savory.
Begin by soaking, then draining, your lentils. (While you don’t absolutely have to soak lentils, Bulgarian cooks generally do, and I recommend this as well. Soaking them as little as a couple of hours will help them cook more quickly and evenly, but I recommend 6-8 hours or overnight.) Use the freshest lentils you can–ideally, get them from a trusty lentilmonger at the local vegetable market. Here’s the market stand of my lentilmonger, who is also my paprika- and chubritzamonger:
Now, this is what makes the recipe uncomplicated: You can prepare the vegetables an everything else while the lentils are boiling, thus saving prep time.
Bring the soaked and drained lentils to boil in a pot with about a liter of water (around 4 cups). Lower the heat so the lentils are at a simmer and add the first 2 tablespoons of sunflower oil to the water. (If you are concerned about oil and this seems like a lot to you, you can lower this to one tablespoon.) Halve the onion(s), then cut each half into 4 pieces and then slice those wedges into strips of onion. If your carrot is thin, cut it into circles; if it’s thick, cut in half lengthwise and cut each half into half-moon discs. Once the lentils have been cooking for about 10 minutes, add the onions, carrots, and salt. Cook until the lentils soften, which will take about half an hour, depending on their freshness and soaking time.
As the lentils continue cooking, mince the garlic and set it aside. Peel the tomato by dropping it in boiling water for a minute and then rinsing it in cold water. Dice your peeled tomato. If you are still waiting for the lentils to soften, this is the perfect time to wash all the dishes you’ve used!
Once the lentils are cooked, add the chubritza and the garlic. You can turn the heat off and let the yahniya rest while you make the zaprushka.
Heat the other 2 tablespoons of oil in a pan over medium heat. Add the diced tomatoes and cook for a couple of minutes, stirring a couple of times. Next add the flour and the paprika, and cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring the whole time and breaking up any lumps. Remove from the heat and ladle some liquid from the lentils into the pan, then stir until it’s all blended into a smooth paste. Repeat with more liquid, and then add the zaprushka to the lentils. Stir, check for seasonings, and add more salt, chubritza, or paprika if desired. Serve with a good bakery bread.