When I was in my 20s I decided to live alone, finally, after sharing homes and apartments with an ever-changing stream of roommates. That first year in my solo apartment was the genesis of my desire to learn how to cook well. I knew how to follow a recipe, but I realized there's so much more to becoming a cook at ease in the kitchen. I remember staring at a pile of brown and wilted vegetables in my fridge and thinking how recipes are nothing more than the gleaming tip of the iceberg, shiny and alluring, but not signaling the many demands they make on a cook: how to shop, how to plan, how to make the most of the ingredients in your fridge and pantry every single day.
There were a few recipes that got me through those early days of starting to acquire the 95 percent of kitchen knowledge that isn't found in recipes. No matter how empty my fridge, I always had eggs, lentils, and spices, and maybe you do too. If so, this is the simplest weeknight meal — homey and comforting.
I ate this many, many times in my solo apartment days (most memorably, I had a dish slowly over-baking in the oven while on the phone with my now-husband, who had finally called to ask me out).
It's a simple and forgiving dish, made with lentils cooked with shallot, garlic, and toasty Indian spices. I like to use a mix of red lentils and yellow split peas. The red lentils cook quickly into a mash of comfort food, but the split peas stay a little more toothsome, adding a nice balance of texture to the dish.
The best thing, though, is that you can make the lentil mix ahead and refrigerate or even freeze it. Then it's ready and waiting for you to plop an egg on top and bake until it's a little crisp on top, with warm soft lentils beneath, and a gooey egg for you to drag your fork through.
It's a dish for one, two, or more. I've skipped the spices, and the cilantro, at times, substituted more garlic or a handful of fresh rosemary or parsley. You could add sun-dried tomatoes or a splash of coconut milk. Think of it as your own vessel for using up what's in your own pantry and stretching your wings as a cook.
As long as you have lentils and eggs, it will fill you up and make you feel right at home in your kitchen, as it did for me.
Spiced Lentils with Egg
1 cup red lentils
1 cup yellow split peas
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 large shallots or 4 small shallots, minced (about 1/2 cup)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons garam masala
4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup finely chopped cilantro leaves, from one small bunch
4 large eggs
Rinse the lentils and split peas thoroughly under running water. Drain and set aside.
Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat and add the shallots and garlic. Cook, stirring, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the garlic and shallots are golden and fragrant. Add the lentils and split peas and stir in the garam masala. Stir the pot thoroughly to make sure the garam masala and shallots are fully distributed in the lentils.
Add the broth (or 4 cups of water) and turn the heat to high. Bring to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer and cover the pan. Cook for 30 to 35 minutes or until the yellow split peas are just tender. (The red lentils are smaller and will cook faster; the yellow lentils will stay distinct and al dente while the red lentils will cook down into a pleasantly rustic mush.) Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir in the cilantro.
At this point the lentils can be covered and refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen in portions for up to 3 months (thaw in the fridge overnight before using).
To serve: Heat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease individual ramekins or small ovenproof baking dishes. Mound about 1 cup lentils in each then make a deep hollow in the center and crack in an egg. Sprinkle salt and pepper over the egg.
Bake for 18 to 25 minutes, or until white is set and yolk is cooked to your liking. Serve immediately with a green salad.
Updated from recipe originally published October 2013.