Home Cookin’ with Dave’s Mom was a gift from my own mom, by way of the clearance shelf at the discount bookstore where she worked. And my mom may have had a passing thought that a cookbook might be practical for a young, newly married man setting up housekeeping, but she also knew that I loved David Letterman and anything with his goofy gap-toothed smile on the cover was a perfect gift.
Now these days Dave is an old, grumpy guy with a Santa Claus beard who conducts Very Serious Interviews on Netflix but during my formative years he was at his grand and goofy best. I’m not sure if late night hosts have fan boys, but my best friends and I would stay up late (and later videotape) episodes of Letterman and watch them obsessively. I lived through the whole Letterman-Leno kerfuffle and still get a little bit angry whenever I see Jay Leno’s smug smiling face. Most of America seemed to prefer Leno’s middling and safe comedy, but Letterman absolutely killed it over on CBS. The landscape today is pitiful in comparison and while they are all indebted to Letterman there’s no one in his league. (Except maybe Conan)
Dave brought his mother, Dorothy, into the national spotlight as an occasional guest on his show. It started off small with simple phone calls , but she went from novelty to celebrity when Dave sent her as a correspondent to the 1994 Winter Olympics. Despite being 73 and having no prior experience, she was granted interviews with everyone from athletes to Norman Schwarzkopf to Hillary Clinton (!). It was brilliant television, even moreso because goofy Dave cleared adored his mom. She went on to cover Winter Olympics in Japan and Utah and appeared regularly on the show for well over a decade.
The idea for a cookbook probably came from a recurring bit where Dave would call his mom to guess what kind of pies she had made, usually aired around Thanksgiving or Christmas. A remote crew would interview Dorothy directly from her kitchen – both the familiar kitchen and pie are prominent in the cookbook. The proceeds from the cookbook were, in part, given to Dorothy’s local Kiwanis club to improve the conditions of children suffering from iodine deficiency. (Dorothy passed away in 2017)
For a novelty cookbook they don’t skimp on the recipes. Despite being stuffed with Letterman family history and weird anecdotes from Late Show crew, there are still nearly a hundred recipes crammed into a hundred-and-seventy page book. It’s hard to pigeonhole them into a particular style or genre – there are recipes that match the expected mid-West mid-century profile and others that seem bright and modern.
In thumbing through the book I realize how many of these recipes were staples in our household. The spinach-pumpkin seed pesto and hot tuna sandwich got a lot of mileage when money was tight, and the Coca-Cola cake was my birthday cake several years in a row.
Vintage spot from David Letterman showcasing his mom’s cookbook.
Lentil Soup is far and away our family’s favorite recipe from Home Cookin’ with Dave’s Mom. The recipe comes to us by way of David Letterman’s sister Jan, without any backstory. Like any good cold weather soup it’s warm and rich and sticks to your ribs, but what makes it special is a healthy dose of vinegar in the roux. The acid counterbalances the earthiness of the carrots and makes it feel fancy, even though you can churn out four hearty servings for eight or nine dollars. This recipe was a winter favorite back in our college days, and is one of the few “starving student” recipes that still finds its way onto our table twenty-odd years later.
As our family grew I learned that this recipe doesn’t double properly. For nearly every recipe in my repertoire doubling a batch simply means doubling the ingredients. The first time I decided that our family needed more than four adult servings I ended up a bland and watery soup. After some trial and error I came up with a proper procedure to make a double batch: I’ve included details in the recipe below. Other than that preparation is straightforward and difficult to screw up. You’ll need to know how to make a roux and crisp bacon properly, but there’s otherwise not any secret or special technique required. Vegetables are sauteed with bacon and mixed into cooked lentils. This mixture is stirred into a thick broth, not quite a gravy, and simmered to combine flavors. The only real active time is chopping and making the roux, meaning that the whole meal can be on the table in about an hour.
Jan’s original recipe is fantastic as is, but we’ve made a few adjustments over the years to adapt to our family’s tastes. It seems cliché, but more bacon makes for better soup, and caramelizing the vegetables in the bacon fat gives it a deeper flavor than just sweating them out. The original also calls for red wine vinegar, which varies in quality and acidity; I’ve found that malt vinegar produces a more consistent result. I use a heavy hand with the vinegar, especially when I’m making a double batch.
Pair it with crusty bread and butter or top it with croutons. Add a green salad and you’ve got a complete meal.
You may purchase a copy of Home Cookin’ with Dave’s Mom at my Amazon Affiliate link here: https://amzn.to/2VnJCfJ1
For simmering the lentils
- 1 cup small, brown lentils
- 5 cups water
For the vegetable saute
- 4 slices thick-cut applewood-smoked bacon (or 8 slices thin-cut grocery store bacon, diced)
- 1/2 sweet onion (diced)
- 2 - 3 carrots (diced)
- 1 medium tomato (or two plum tomatoes, chopped)
For the roux
- 3 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 3 Tbsp flour
- 1/4 cup malt vinegar (or red wine vinegar)
- 2 cups beef broth (I prefer 2 tsp Better than Bouillon Beef + 2 cups water)
- Bring lentils and water to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes.
- While the lentils are cooking, fry bacon in a dutch oven or thick-bottomed stock pot until crisp. Add vegetables to the skillet and saute until onions start to caramelize and the bacon fat has been mostly absorbed by the vegetables, stirring frequently to scrape the delicious browned bits from the bottom of the pan.
- In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. When the butter is melted add the flour and stir to form a roux. Brown the roux lightly and then drizzle in the vinegar, stirring constantly, until all of the liquid is incorporated. Do the same with the beef broth, stirring constantly. Stir until the mixture resembles a thick gravy.
- Add the lentils and cooking water to the vegetable saute and stir. Then add the "gravy" and stir several times until well mixed. Cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes or until lentils reach desired consistency.
Doubling the recipe isn’t as simple as doubling the ingredients – you’ll need to adjust the amount of liquid used to avoid a very watery soup. Instead of 10 cups of water use 8 cups for a double batch, and when making the “gravy” you’ll need to make two cups of double-strength beef broth – either 4 tsp of bouillon dissolved in 2 cups of water or 2 cups beef broth + 2 tsp bouillon.
Bonus recipe: Dog Jacks