One of the first German recipes that I made once I moved to Germany was Linseneintopf, a thick and hearty lentil stew, often served with sliced or whole sausages as one of the components. We were really taken with the original dish, but it has been nagging at me for some time that it would make a wonderful vegetarian (or vegan) main course as well.
Just for the sake of variety, I made this one into a Shepherd’s Pie rather than making the potatoes simply part of the stew, but you could do it either way. This is the sort of hearty, vegetarian dish that shows it European heritage in its flavours, and is intensely satisfying to eat.
As this is a compound dish that is baked in the oven, I suspect German cooks would classify this as an Auflauf (casserole), rather than an Eintopf (one-pot stew).
Lentil, Mushroom, & Walnut Shepherd’s Pie
Serves 4 (generously)
250 grams dry brown lentils
400 grams fresh mushrooms
1 cup toasted walnut pieces
1 medium onion, diced finely
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 medium carrots, diced finely
3/4 cup celery, diced finely
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 bay leaves
pinch of marjoram
4 cups vegetable broth or water
pinch kosher salt
4 medium-sized potatoes, peeled
1/4 cup milk or non-dairy “milk”
1 tablespoon butter or mild-flavoured oil
To toast the walnuts pieces, spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 350 F for about 10 minutes, or until fragrant. If the skins are too bitter, you can rub the warm walnut pieces with a towel, which will remove much of the skin. You can also toast walnuts on the stovetop in a dry skillet, but you need to watch them very carefully, and stir frequently, or they will burn. If you have walnut halves, chop them roughly.
Wipe the mushrooms clean, remove any gnarly bits or tough stems, and coarsely chop. I used a mixture of chanterelles and hedgehog mushrooms, because my farmers market is awesome, but you can use any fresh mushrooms you like — to be honest, really fancy mushrooms may get a bit overwhelmed by the robust flavour of this dish.
Wash and pick over the lentils. In a dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Saute the onion, celery and carrot briefly. When onion turns translucent, add the garlic, bay leaves, marjoram (you can substitute oregano if need be) and pinch of salt. If you are using water instead of broth, increase the salt to a half teaspoon.
Add the chopped mushrooms, and stir through. When the mushrooms start to give off a little liquid, add the walnuts, and stir through again.
Add the (washed, drained) lentils, the broth (or water), and bring to a low simmer. Cover and simmer gently for 20 minutes, or until nicely thickened. Taste, adjust for salt, and if necessary, add a small pinch of sugar to balance the flavours. If it tastes a little flat (for example, if your lentils were a bit old, this can happen) you may wish to add a teaspoon of red wine vinegar, to brighten it up and provide a little acidity. Finish with with freshly ground black pepper.
While the lentils simmer, make your mashed potatoes. Boil or steam your potatoes until tender, and drain. Keep the potatoes in the same, hot pan, and break them up with a spoon (or the edge of your masher) so that excess moisture can evaporate. That’s advice from Julia Child, folks, and ever since I adopted it, my mashed potatoes have had a more awesome texture. Add the butter (or oil) and milk (or “milk”) and mash until smooth.
Dollop the mashed potatoes carefully over the lentil stew, and smooth the top down (or crenellate it with a fork, whatever you like). Brush the top with a little extra butter or oil if you like it to be a bit crusty on top. You could also sprinkle it with a bit of paprika. Bake the stew at 350 F for about 20 minutes, or until the top is golden and inviting. Use a large serving spoon to dish into serving bowls or plates.
Leftovers heat up fairly well in the microwave, or in an oven-proof dish in a regular oven.