The recipe for today’s installment is one of the better soups I’ve ever made! I love roasted mushrooms, I love french lentils, I love them together, but I’ve never combined them quite like this. I pureed the mushrooms with walnuts to make a lovely savory, meaty sort of bisque, with sage and rosemary, and I added the lentils and their broth just before serving.
Here’s A Wee Bird Cam’ Tae My Apron by Jean Redpath.
THE FIRST INSTALLMENT!
“Oh! It tried to bite me! Poke it with a stick!”
“Pull its wings!”
“Pluck its feathers!”
“Let’s tie its legs together!”
A Group of boys stood in a huddle, yelling with angry voices, and hitting something with a stick.
Eliza ran towards them and stepped right between them all, grabbing a stick out of somebody’s hand and waving it menacingly before her.
“What is it?” She cried. “What do you have here?”
The boys stepped back in surprise, and in fear of Eliza’s flashing eyes and flailing stick. Not one of them dared to answer her.
“Oh, but what is it?”
Eliza had never seen such a thing. It appeared to be nothing more than a small pile of soft, dull-grey fluff. She stepped closer, and was greeted with a pair of irate yellow eyes and a barrage of furious peeping.
“Oh, it’s an owl! A baby owl!”
She scooped it up, and in an instant it had sliced her hand with a sharp sliver of a beak.
“That’s quite enough of that!” She slipped the little bird into her pocket and walked away as fast as she could, without once glancing back.
She walked through dark and narrow streets, which always seemed damp, even when it hadn’t rained, because the sun rarely reached through to warm them.
She stopped at a tall, almost impossibly narrow house, with a tall thin door and a pair of long windows rising up on every floor. She glanced furtively around and then slipped inside. Up she climbed, flight after flight of steep narrow stairs. At each grey landing and hallway, she was greeted with the stale, damp smell of mildew and the sight of faded peeling wallpaper and threadbare carpets. The doors on each floor showed her closed, suspicious faces. But she barely noticed all this, as she raced up the stairs, two at a time, to the very top.
Once she had opened the door and passed through a low, dark corridor, she entered another world. All of the stagnant air, the heavy gloom, the dusk, the moldy scent, disappeared in an instant.
This room burst with a fresh green light. Though narrow as the rest of the house, it was made entirely of huge panes of glass, held together in a cast iron frame. The ceiling, also of glass, reached upward into an arch, and caught any light that managed to filter through the heavy grey clouds.
The whole long room was almost entirely taken up with several thin tables full of potted plants. Every shape of leaf and shade of green could be found here, and the scents of mint and lemon, and then of other, more uncommon smells – sharper and sweeter, filled the room. The air felt so thick and moist and warm with such an edge of strange green fragrance, that it could almost make you feel dizzy, to shut the dry grey world out behind you, and breathe it all in. Unless you were accustomed to it, of course. And Eliza certainly was. She had lived here as long as she could remember. And now, she walked expertly along the room, avoiding gusts of warm misty air, climbing nimbly over pots and hoses at her feet, to reach her own small room at the back.
Her bedroom was dark and close and tiny, with a sloping attic ceiling that stretched to the floor, and with only one small round window. She had a little bed, which just fit her if she curled up, a tea table and one low chair. She lit a candle on the table, as well as the few half-burned sticks that remained in the fireplace.
Eliza’s cloak – thick, soft and sea-grey green – had a multitude of pockets. Some were deep and secret, hidden in the lining, some appeared to be seams in the fabric, but opened to reveal many smaller pockets that fastened shut.
Her hand hovered now over the outside pocket into which she had dropped the baby owl. She reached in slowly, fearing the small sharp beak, but her fingers met only soft, fuzzy feathers. She lifted the owlet carefully, anxious at it’s stillness – had she hurt it when she put it in her pocket? She arranged her hat into a soft warm nest, and set the owlet carefully on the table before her. He was breathing! The warmth of her pocket and the rhythm of her walk through the town must have lulled it to sleep. Underneath all of the fluff, she could see a small round belly, rising and falling peacefully. He fluttered his small wings and sighed in his sleep, emitting a gentle “hoo-hoooooooooo.”
Eliza pulled her cloak close around her and laid her head on her arms, watching the little belly rise and fall and the soft feathers flutter with each breath. Soon Eliza, too, was fast asleep.
“PEEEEEEEEEP! Peep peep PEEEEP!!”
Eliza sprang awake in a panic at the piercing noise, completely confused and lost in a dream. Then she saw that she was in her own room, but darkness had fallen, and the fire had gone out…and what was that strange, high-pitched cheep cheeping?
Then she saw the quivering pile of fluff and the enraged eyes, and all became clear.
“Oh, you’re hungry!”
The owlet responded with a stamp of his tiny feet and a long cranky whistle.
“Well, what do owls eat? I’ll have to share my dinner with you.”
Eliza brought out some bread and cheese, an apple and a pear. She cut tiny pieces from each and presented them to the owl, dropping them on the table just in front of him. He gobbled them down as though he hadn’t eaten in days, and then fixed his furious yellow eyes on her and peeped for more.
“Good heavens slow down! I can’t keep up with you! I need some food myself, you know.”
The owlet pecked at his food with such ferocity, and his beak looked so sharp, that, at first, Eliza pulled her hand away immediately once she’d dropped the food. But once he’d eaten a bit, and his little round belly was even rounder, he slowed down and became gentler, and Eliza found that if she set the food closer to herself, he’d take little hopping steps towards her. And finally she put a piece of cheese on her hand, and stretched it towards the little owl. He nearly toppled over himself reaching her, and down came the little beak and sliced into her hand.
“Oh!” She pulled her hand away, and the owl fell backwards in surprise at her sudden movement. “You can’t bite me! You don’t know how that hurts!”
The owl scrambled upright and fixed Eliza with glowing reproachful eyes. He clambered back into her hat and made himself as small as possible, without releasing her from his cranky gaze.
“Well, I’m sorry. But you hurt me, see?” Eliza held up her finger, which was bleeding. “I’m sorry if I scared you.” She very very slowly reached a hand to the owl, and gently stroked his soft head. He closed his eyes and stretched his head towards her fingers, hooting softly. Eliza curled up in her bed, and carefully pulled her hat, with the owl inside, onto her lap, petting the owl’s head and keeping him warm with her cloak around them both.
“What am I going to do with you? I don’t see how I can keep an owl. Sometimes I feel as though I can barely take care of myself.” The little owl whistled sympathetically. “You feel that way, too? Can I tell you a secret, little owl? I was living with my grandfather, and now I don’t know where he is. He went away one day, in answer to an urgent secret message. He couldn’t even tell me what it said. Not even me. And we tell each other everything. Told, we told each other everything. And he’s never come back. It’s been weeks now. I tried not to worry, at first, but…well, I really don’t know what to do! Don’t tell anybody, little owl, but I get very scared sometimes, living all alone here.”
The owl looked up at her with wise eyes, and it almost seemed as though he nodded, thoughtfully.
“And here I am talking to an owl!” said Eliza with a laugh. “But, to be honest, it’s nice to have anybody to talk to at all.”
They sat in silence for a while, Eliza petting the owl in the soft place just behind his wings. She was amazed at the small fragile bones underneath all the shapeless fluff on the surface. The owl sat up very suddenly, and Eliza feared that she had hurt it, but he wasn’t paying attention to her at all. He was listening, with his head on one side, and his eyes narrowed in concentration.
“What is it, little one? What do you hear?”
He shook his head rapidly, as if telling her to shush, and then cocked his head, all listening attention once again. In a moment Eliza heard it, too. Slow footsteps up the stairs. Closer and closer, until there could be no doubt that they were coming to her door. Eliza’s heart leapt.
“Grandpa!” She whispered excitedly. The little owl shook his head again, and held out his wings.
“Well, there’s nobody else it could be,” said Eliza, feeling almost cross in her anxiety to see her grandfather once again. “Nobody else ever comes up here. Certainly not with grandfather gone.”
The owl flapped his wings to silence her, and they both focused on the noises once again. The footsteps stopped, just outside the door to Eliza’s apartment.
“Oh, if it is Grandpa, why doesn’t he just come in? Come in!”
A quiet rattling of the doorknob…slow and careful. And then a more forceful noise, as if the latch was stuck. A loud jingling of keys, a grumbling voice, more jingling and banging and then…. Click. Silence, as if everyone held their breath for a moment. The door slowly swinging open, with a reluctant whine. Footsteps moving along the long room. Another muttered exclamation and a great clattering, as somebody tripped over a hose and knocked into a watering pot.
“Oh, it can’t be grandpa…he’d never trip over anything in that room.” Eliza was flooded first with disappointment, and then with fear. If that wasn’t her grandfather, who could it be?
“Sssssss!” whistled the owl in warning.
The footsteps stopped again, this time directly outside of Eliza’s room. She almost felt she could hear breathing on the other side. She blew out the candle and sat as far back in the shadow of the sloping wall as she could, pulling the cloak around to completely hide herself and the owl.
Slowly slowly the door pushed open. Eliza could feel the little owl trembling, with excitement or fear. A face appeared in the doorway, but in the dim light, it was impossible to determine anything about the person peering in. It took this person an agonizingly long time to move at all, and then the stranger slowly pushed the door open wider, and took a cautious step into the room.
Eliza tried to pull farther back into the shadows, tried to hold her breath, almost tried to quiet the beating of her heart.
10 oz baby bellas or white mushrooms, chopped
1 shallot, minced
7 or 8 fresh sage leaves, or 1 t dried
3 T olive oil
3/4 cup french lentils
1 t rosemary
1 t tamari
2 bay leaves
1 cup walnuts
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup white wine
1 T butter
1 t balsamic
salt and plenty of black pepper
Preheat the oven to 425. Combine the mushrooms, sage, shallot and about one tablespoon of olive oil. Spread in an even layer on a large baking sheet. Roast for 20 – 25 minutes, until starting to become browned and crispy. Set aside.
Meanwhile, warm 1 T olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Add the bay leaves and rosemary. After about a minute, add the french lentils and tamari. Stir to coat, and cook for a minute or two, then add about 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 20 – 25 minutes until the lentils are tender but still have a bit of texture – you don’t want them completely mushy. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Warm the final tablespoon of olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the garlic and walnuts. Stir and cook for a few minutes, until things start to brown, and then add the mushrooms and shallots. Cook for a minute or two, and then add the white wine. When the wine is reduced, add a ladleful of lentil-cooking broth, and cook for about five minutes, until the walnuts start to soften. Add the butter and balsamic, and puree until quite smooth.
Return to the pot, and pour in the lentils and their broth. Stir well, season with plenty of salt and pepper, and cook till it’s warm through, then serve.