Sunday, November 21, 2010

Elevating the Lowly Lentil

I did not grow up eating a lot of lentils because my mother doesn’t care for them. It actually wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I even tried them, but when I finally did, it was love at first taste. I’ve always been a healthy eater, so it was probably as much a philosophical love as a gustatory one. Lentils are packed with protein, fiber and vitamin B, and have an intriguing earthy flavor. They also take on other flavors quite well, making them somewhat of a chameleon in the kitchen.

Green and Red lentils make lovely soup as they break down and become creamy while cooking, and I love the bright color and rich flavor of a hearty red lentil soup. But it is the French Green Lentil, or Le Puy Lentils for the region in France they come from, that I really love. These lentils look more brown than green, and are probably one of the most boring looking ingredients, cooked or raw. But for something that looks like little pebbles, these lentils are surprisingly versatile and delicious. Unlike their more colorful counterparts, they hold their shape when cooking, so they can serve as a base for other ingredients. The classic dish of salmon over lentils is one of my favorite meals.

Despite their versatility and nutritional benefits, you don't see a lot of lentil main courses featured in food magazines or restaurant menus. I think it is time for the hard-working lentil to get some recognition in its own right. They don’t really need another protein for flavor since they can take on whatever flavor you are in the mood for. They're cheap and they cook relatively quickly so they're great for a weeknight dinner on a budget.

Today, the weather was cool but the sun was shining, the best kind of fall weather. I wanted a hearty dish that wasn’t heavy to match that cool but sunny weather. Lentils fit the bill perfectly. I sautéed some carrots, onion and celery with baking spices, smoked paprika and chili powder. Cinnamon added an earthy sweetness, while the paprika added a nice smokiness, and the chili gave a subtle heat. I stirred in some ribbons of collard greens for some color and for a nutritional boost. It turned out to be a perfect one-pot meal. I’ll happily let Lentils move beyond side dish to steal the show from now on.

Lentils and Collard Greens

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium carrots, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
½ onion, chopped
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup white wine
1 cup French Green Lentils
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 pound collard greens, stems removed, cut into ½ inch ribbons
Salt and Pepper

Heat a saucepan over medium heat. Add olive oil, and sauté carrot, celery and onion, stirring to coat with oil. Add cinnamon, chili, paprika and nutmeg, and stir to coat. Cook veggies until onions are translucent and spices are very fragrant, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook for one minute.

Deglaze pan with white wine, and cook until wine is reduced by half. Stir in lentils, then add stock and bring to a boil. When liquid is boiling, reduce heat to a simmer, stir in collard greens, and cover. Simmer for 40 minutes, or until lentils are tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

There may be some liquid remaining, but if you have any leftovers don’t strain this off, as it absorbs as everything cools and allows this dish to reheat well.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Lazy Days

There are days that I love to spend hours in the kitchen, and then there are days that I want to eat something that tastes like I spent hours in the kitchen but that actually materialized out of thin air. In other words, there are motivated-to-cook days and there are lazy days.

The other day was a lazy day that happened to occur right after a binge-at-the-grocery-store day. The timing could not be worse; you’re supposed to be excited to cook when you have a fridge full of food. To make matters worse, I still had a few kohlrabi from my CSA that I needed to use. I hadn’t ever had kohlrabi and was half-heartedly looking for an inspirational recipe.

Fortunately, inspiration had struck sometime several months ago, and I rediscovered a recipe I had clipped for a Savory White Bean and Vegetable Bake by Tucker Shaw from the Denver Post. I had been looking forward to making this recipe for a long time but somehow it had been edged out by something sexier, something that took more effort. But not tonight; the time had come for Savory White Bean and Vegetable Bake, or something like it.

I didn’t have half of the ingredients called for, but I did have fennel, carrots, parsnips, potatoes and of course, those kohlrabi. So I went with it, and my grocery store binge turned out to be a good thing, since I had a lot to work with. In the end, I used half as many beans, making this more of a vegetable hash with some protein. I also completely forgot the breadcrumb topping. But you know what? It didn’t need a topping. It was completely flavorful and satisfying all on its own as vegan main dish with a green salad and some cranberries on the side, and my husband enjoyed his with a roasted chicken leg and cranberries on top.

While this is definitely an easy recipe, it did call for some chopping, but it was the kind of mindless cooking that you do with the TV on and you still won’t screw it up, so I consider it a pretty lazy recipe. All in all I spent probably 20-30 minutes chopping things up and browning the veggies, but then I stuck it in the oven, poured myself a glass of wine, and plopped down on the couch. A half an hour later, dinner was served.

Winter Veggie Hash

I approached this dish with a laissez-faire attitude, not really knowing what was going to wind up in the pan when I finished. It turned out to be what I’d call a hash, which sounds like something you’d get at a cheap diner, but with tons more freshness and flavor. I kept wanting to eat more after I was full, which is always a good sign, and snacked on the leftovers straight from the fridge for the next few days.

This calls for a lot of veggies, and if halfway through chopping you worry that you should have halved the recipe, things are going swimmingly. They really cook down quite a bit, plus it made for excellent leftovers, either warmed or cold. Use whatever veggies you have on hand; I’m sure a sweet potato or diced squash would be lovely and bring great color.

2 Tablespoons Herbes de Provence
½ teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon dried mustard
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 fennel bulb, chopped
1 onion, chopped coarsely
3 medium carrots, chopped into 1/3 inch pieces
2 medium parsnips, chopped into 1/3 inch pieces
2 bulbs kohlrabi, peeled and chopped into 1/3 inch pieces
4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, chopped into 1/3 inch pieces
6-8 garlic cloves, minced
1 can of cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 bay leaves
2 springs of thyme
1 spring rosemary
2 cups veggie stock
Salt and Pepper
Parsley leaves, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350. In a small bowl or cup, combine the Herbes de Provence, fennel seed and mustard.

Heat a large, deep, oven-proof skillet over medium heat. Add the olive oil, and, working in batches, brown the fennel, onion, carrot, parsnip, kohlrabi, and potato. I needed two batches to cook the vegetables and get a nice brown crust on them; put the first batch in a bowl while you’re browning the second batch, then add them back in when they’re done (or use two pans if you don’t mind the extra clean up). Cook for about 10 minutes, until the vegetables are starting to soften.

Once the vegetables are softened, stir in the garlic, beans, bay leaves, mixed dried herbs and the fresh herb sprigs. Stir it all to mix well, then stir in the stock.

Transfer skillet to oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the veggies are all soft. Remove the bay leaves, thyme and rosemary stems. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and garnish with leaves of fresh parsley.