Project Sauce: Bechamel

I think it’s a good idea to start with the basics. I don’t rush my students straight into composing multi-source research papers; starting a new project here seemed to hold to the same strictures. I’m not racing right into hollandaise. I’m not drenching your January palates with demi-glace, homemade mayonnaise, or even beurre blanc (though these are coming, have no fear). No, we’re going to start with something foundational, and at least for me, something familiar: bechamel.

Food Blog January 2014-3092Here’s the thing, though. As I’ve dipped my toe tentatively into the field of culinary history (side note: one of my new secret pretend-careers is culinary historian – fascinating!), what stands out more and more brightly to me is how rarely familiar actually is. Bechamel is an excellent example. It’s a white sauce. It’s one of the classic mother sauces. It forms a base for numerous other sauces: the luscious cheddar and beer laced concoction you drape over toast to make Welsh rarebit. The silky, creamy mess redolent of parmesan that becomes alfredo. Even the simple melting glory you toss with elbow noodles to make macaroni and cheese (can you tell we’ll be delving into cheese sauces?!). But its history is not without contradictions. Even the Medici family figure into it! According to some Catherine de Medici brought a retinue of Italian chefs with her into France when she married Henri, Duke of Orleans, and bechamel sauce flowed straight from their kitchens out into the rest of France. There are stories that it was invented by (though more likely named for) a steward called the Marquis Louise de Bechameil. The tradition of reducing cream sauces probably began in 18th century France, but the “mother sauces,” of which bechamel is one, were created in the 17th century. And boiling or simmering food items in milk, as some bechamels do, goes back to medieval cuisine.

Food Blog January 2014-3086National and temporal origins aside, there are even disputes about what goes into it. I’ve always made a bechamel sauce from three main ingredients: butter, flour, and milk. But there are thoughts about what kind of dairy should be used, and which flavoring agents are permissible, and some traditional recipes even call for sticking an onion with cloves and letting this flavor the milk as it heats.

Food Blog January 2014-3090Lest we get confused right out of the gate, however, I’m going to stick with what feels familiar and comfortable. Butter, flour, milk. A pinch of salt. A grind or two of pepper. French traditionalists would have me use white pepper, since it won’t disrupt the homogenous ivory color of the sauce, but I like seeing those little specks of flavor. Not to mention, I didn’t have any white pepper in my kitchen. A sauce made of butter, flour, and milk can only taste like so much, so I’ve also adopted the Italian addition of some nutmeg, freshly ground, to amp up the flavor. Now we have a lightly speckled pool of creaminess, like the slight freckles on a fresh egg.

Food Blog January 2014-3087Here’s how a bechamel works: you melt butter, add an equal portion of flour, and cook for a minute or two to allow the flour to dissolve and distribute. This combination – equal parts butter and flour – is called a roux, and it is the classic thickening agent. Everything from gumbo to cream gravy is thickened with roux.

Food Blog January 2014-3088To transform the roux into a sauce, then, you have to add liquid. For bechamel, that’s milk. So we add a quantity of milk, preferably warm, a little at a time, whisking and whisking until a velvet smooth sauce forms. The quantity of milk added depends on the desired thickness of the final end product. Being sure the milk is warm, and adding it slowly, guards against lumps. This sauce is about luscious smoothness and creamy thickness. Lumps won’t do.

Food Blog January 2014-3117The magic of bechamel is that you won’t know how thick it is going to be until it starts to simmer. It takes a bit of time for the flour granules to hydrate, and only once they are fully incorporated and warm enough to bubble will the true viscosity of the sauce reveal itself. The one we are going to produce here gets just a touch thicker than a pool of melted ice cream. It’s easily pourable, but it will also coat the back of a spoon, clinging in a smooth layer until you, say, run a finger through it to have a taste.

Food Blog January 2014-3119You can do a lot with a bechamel. As I noted earlier, it is the foundational component of a good cheese sauce. It’s also the classic white sauce component in a traditional lasagna. It can be draped over steamed vegetables, or make the base for a chowder or other cream soup, or even rest gently over a pounded, breaded, pan-fried chicken cutlet. But since I am working with classic and simple here, I wanted to go with a dish that really lets you experience the creamy loveliness of a bechamel: croque monsieur.

Food Blog January 2014-3122Now you’re raising your eyebrows. I know; croque monsieur is essentially a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Ham and swiss, to be specific. It’s a name taken from the French verb croquer, which means “to crunch” or “to munch.” Thus the sandwich is, if I dare, a Mister Crunch. N. loved this. He’s been calling the sauce in question a “bleckmel” to make me laugh; he knows full well how to pronounce it (he did take French, after all), and he was so delighted by the literal translation of our dinner that he started to call it a “Crunchy Human” sandwich, eliminating the gendered title: a sandwich for everyone! (I should note, however, that there is a “female” version of this sandwich: a croque madame is the same grilled ham and swiss, with the addition of a gently fried egg on top.)

Food Blog January 2014-3127So let’s do this. A perfectly crunchy sandwich, laden with melting swiss and a thin layer of smoky, salty ham, topped with spoonfuls of perfectly creamy bechamel, sprinkled with more cheese, and broiled until golden bubbles swell on the surface. It’s a fork-and-knife sandwich, and it’s far from a light lunch, but it is, I think, a good way to start.

Food Blog January 2014-3130

Bechamel
Makes approximately 1 ½ cups
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 ½ cups whole milk, warmed slightly in a saucepan or in the microwave
a pinch each salt, pepper (white is traditional, but I used black), and nutmeg (freshly ground is preferable)
  • In a medium pan, melt the butter over medium to medium-low heat.
  • Add the flour, sprinkling it in around the pan rather than dumping it all in one spot; this will help it incorporate easily and quickly. Stir it around with a whisk, letting it mix with the butter to form golden clumps, which will slowly collapse into a pale yellow, lightly bubbling mass. This will take 1-2 minutes.
  • Once the flour and butter have cooked together for 1-2 minutes, begin adding the milk. Pour in only about ¼ cup at a time, whisking constantly during and after each addition. The butter and flour mixture will get quite thick and pasty with the first few additions of milk. That’s fine – just keep whisking, fully incorporating before each additional pour of liquid.
  • After a few additions, the mixture will begin to resemble a sauce, thinning out and liquifying. Keep whisking. Inattendance will result in unincorporated hunks of flour, and thus a lumpy sauce.
  • Once you have added all of the milk, you won’t have to whisk as vigorously. Just keep turning your whisk through the sauce in lazy figure eights, dreaming about your weekend or the tropics or the lecture you are planning on Anglo-Saxon England (that might be just me), as it heats through.
  • When your sauce is slightly thickened, approaching the texture of melted ice cream, add the salt, pepper, and nutmeg. You want just a nice little sprinkle of each, to add subtle flavor.
  • Continue your lazy whisking until the sauce barely begins to bubble. It will be just a touch thicker than melted ice cream now – something like a thick royal icing or even a powdered sugar glaze.
  • Lower or turn off the heat until you are ready to apply the sauce.
  • Bechamel behaves best when warm. As it cools, it clumps and forms a skin like you’d find on a pudding. It can be stored in the refrigerator, covered tightly, and reheated in a pan if needed, but will be best on the day it is made.
Croque Monsieur
Quantities are per sandwich. Make as many as you wish!
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
2 slices of bread (a french loaf would be traditional; I used sourdough, because I’m not)
2-3 thin slices of good ham
½ cup grated swiss cheese, divided (I like Gruyere. Emmantaler would also be lovely)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons grated parmesan cheese
2-3 tablespoons bechamel sauce
  • Spread the inside of each slice of bread with dijon mustard. You might want more than a teaspoon, but I tend to prefer my sandwiches light on the mustard.
  • On top of the mustard, mound all but 2 tablespoons of the grated swiss cheese, then spread it carefully and gently over the bread to form an even layer.
  • Add the slices of ham on top of the cheese, folding or manipulating their shape where necessary so they aren’t hanging over the sides. Top with the remaining piece of bread.
  • Spread the outsides of both pieces of bread with the butter. I like to do this by placing the sandwich in the cold skillet I’ll be toasting it in. That way, when I flip the sandwich over to butter the other side, I won’t make a mess or lose any of the butter – it will just be resting against the cooking surface.
  • With the sandwich in the skillet, heat it over medium heat. Don’t go any hotter than this! You’ll be tempted to crank the heat up. But it takes a while for the cheese to melt, and we don’t want the bread to burn in the meantime. Slow and steady.
  • Toast the sandwich until the bread is golden and crisp, and the cheese inside is well melted: 4-5 minutes per side over medium or even medium-low heat. Meanwhile, preheat your broiler.
  • When the sandwich is nicely toasted, turn off the stove. Spoon 2-3 tablespoons of warm bechamel over the top slice of bread. Use the back of the spoon to spread it out – you want an even layer, completely covering the slice. Corners and edges poking out will get too dark under the intense heat of the broiler.
  • Once you have an even layer of bechamel, sprinkle the remaining swiss cheese and all of the grated parmesan right over the top, again trying to create an even, complete layer.
  • Carefully place the skillet into your broiler (if you have handles on the skillet made of anything but metal, be sure to wrap them in aluminum foil first) and broil for 3-5 minutes, until the sauce and cheese on top melt, bubble, and attain a slightly crunchy bronzed layer on top.
  • Remove from the broiler (be careful – the handle of your skillet is now incredibly hot. Don’t ask me how I know this), plate, and serve bubbling hot! You can cut the sandwich in half if you like, but since you are probably going to be eating it with a fork and knife, pre-slicing might not be necessary.

Goat Cheese Tomato Pie

All over the food blog world, folks are declaring that fall is here.  It’s the season for pumpkins and root vegetables and casseroles and braised meats.  Except that I live in Los Angeles, where it has been close to or over 90 degrees Fahrenheit for the past week and a half.  Where was this in June, Los Angeles?  Where was it in July (when we were further north and would have missed it!)?  Why now, now that school has started and I have to wear professional clothes all week and can’t be here to keep the windows open all morning, do we finally get the month or so of scorching temperatures when everyone else has packed up their popsicle molds weeks ago?

Food Blog August 2013-2488Well I’m not convinced that it’s fall.  I’m calling it late summer.  And this is convenient, because the heirloom tomato bushes that have grown into a vast jungle in my backyard are still heavy with fruit.  The Farmers’ Market we frequent is still bursting with bright bell peppers and corn and stone fruits, and hasn’t yet been taken over by cruciferous vegetables or potatoes.

Food Blog August 2013-2468A few weeks ago, stunned by the number of gleaming tomatoes we’d managed to produce, in shades of deep crimson and flame yellow, I did what anyone trying to find inspiration would do.  I asked Facebook.  And my friend M. responded with an idea I’d never considered: tomato pie.

Food Blog August 2013-2474Food Blog August 2013-2479Since tomatoes are a fruit, I suppose it shouldn’t seem so strange to put them in a pie.  (Isn’t pizza, in fact, the ultimate incarnation of a tomato pie?)  But I quickly determined that mine would be savory rather than sweet, and from there things fell together with little effort.  Creamy, tangy goat cheese pairs so well with the acidic sweetness of tomatoes, and a handful of fresh herbs from the garden add a grassy complexity to the dish.

Food Blog August 2013-2480Making a pie, of course, entails making a pie crust, and this remains one of my greatest nemeses in the cooking world (it’s all about the butter, I’m sure of it.  The size and the temperature are almost impossible for me to get right, and given this and all the trouble I had with buttercream frosting I’m almost convinced I should just have gotten it out in the open from the beginning and renamed this blog Butter Problems).  But I considered a few techniques I’d read about recently in Shirley O. Corriher’s genius book Bakewise, which takes a scientific approach to baking, not only providing stellar sounding recipes, but explaining carefully what each ingredient does for the final product, and offering options that will result in a subtly or staggeringly different end product.  In her section on pie crust, Corriher explains that crust texture is a near catch-22 between flakiness and tenderness.  Flakiness comes from leaving the butter in sizable chunks, so that during the baking process the crust puffs into layers before the butter has had a chance to melt fully.  Tenderness, though, comes from being sure the flour has been fully hydrated, which can only happen with full incorporation of the liquid element.  Yet overworking the dough makes it tough, and the flakiness quotient disintegrates as you break the butter into smaller and smaller bits.  See why I don’t like making pie crust?

Food Blog August 2013-2462Food Blog August 2013-2466But this crust was magic.  I decided that if what we really wanted was flakes and tenderness, and if fat helps along hydration and acidity contributes to a tender final product, then the little container of buttermilk that had been sitting quietly at the back of my refrigerator for weeks was the consummate answer.  And it was.  The crust came together quickly, rolled out like a dream, and was stable enough that I was actually able to give it some decorative edging before I packed it full of goat cheese and thick slices of tomato and shoved it into the oven.

Food Blog August 2013-2482Food Blog August 2013-2483Food Blog August 2013-2485Food Blog August 2013-2491Food Blog August 2013-2495We weren’t exactly sure what to expect of this dish (in fact, when I said “tomato pie” to N., he made a very interesting face), but after we’d both gone back for a second slice, and then a sliver of a third, we decided that we must like it.  It’s a really nice balance of flavors, with the sweet sharpness of tomatoes mellowed into something almost meaty, but still light in spite of the layer of tangy cheese.  The perfect late summer supper.  But it would also, I think, be a great brunch option, or a light lunch with a fresh salad, or, cut into very thin slices, a beautiful canapé for a bridal or baby shower.

Food Blog August 2013-2499Goat cheese tomato pie
makes one 9-10 inch pie
For the crust:
6 oz. flour (or a fluffy 1 ½ cups)
1 tsp sea salt
¼ tsp ground black pepper
1 stick butter, very cold, cut into 8 pieces (if you are going to use your food processor to make the crust, the butter can be frozen)
3-5 TB buttermilk, very cold (I put mine in a little glass in the freezer for 5-10 minutes before I start making the crust)
For the filling:
8 oz. goat cheese, at room temperature
1 TB milk
1 clove garlic, finely minced, or ¼ tsp garlic powder
2 TB chopped chives
1-2 tsp chopped mixed herbs (I used thyme and oregano)
2-3 large heirloom tomatoes, cut into ½ inch thick slices (this quantity is inexact, since heirloom tomatoes differ in size.  You are looking for enough slices to create a slightly overlapped single layer over the goat cheese filling)
Salt and pepper to taste
Drizzle of olive oil

 

  • To make the crust, combine the flour, salt, and pepper in a bowl.
  • If you are using a food processor, dump in the chunks of butter and pulse on three-second intervals until the butter has been broken up a bit and some pieces are the size of walnut halves, while some are more like peas.  If you are using a mixing bowl, cut in the butter with a pastry blender, two knives, or your fingers.
  • Dribble in 3 TB of the buttermilk and pulse again on three-second intervals (or use a fork or your fingers to combine).  If the dough begins to clump together like wet sand or crumbly cake, you are done!  If it is too dry to come together, add another TB of buttermilk and pulse again.
  • Dump out your crumbles of just-tacky dough onto a big piece of plastic wrap.  Using the plastic wrap to help you, press and squash and manipulate the dough into a disc of about 1 inch thick.  Wrap it up and stow it in the fridge for 30-45 minutes.
  • While the dough chills, prep the filling ingredients.
  • Place the sliced tomatoes on a double layer of paper towels lining a cookie sheet.  This will allow them to drain a bit, so they won’t expel quite as much juice in the oven.  Let them sit for at least 15 minutes.
  • Once the goat cheese is at room temperature, combine it with the milk and the chives in a small bowl.  This miniscule quantity of milk thins the goat cheese out just enough to make it spreadable.  The chives are, of course, all about flavor.
  • Preheat the oven to 400F and transport your disc of dough from the fridge to a well-floured board.  Unwrap it and let it warm up just a touch – no more than five minutes or so.
  • With a rolling pin, push from the middle of the dough circle out away from you – toward what we might term the top edge.  Then, return to the middle and push back toward you.  You will now have a strange, elongated oval.  Rotate the disc about a quarter of a turn and repeat, so you’re slowly returning the dough to a circular shape.  If you get some cracks, don’t worry about it – you can either press the dough back together manually, or it will miraculously repair itself as you roll.  If things get sticky, sprinkle on some additional flour.
  • When your dough is rolled out into a basic circle with a diameter 1-2 inches bigger than your pie dish, it’s time to transport it once again.  Roll it up loosely around your rolling pin, then unroll it into the pie dish, draping it gently into the crease where the bottom of the pan becomes sides.  You should have some excess dough around the top.  That’s good.  In small sections, fold it in on itself so it is even with the top edge of the pie dish, creating a thicker edge.  If you wish, make this edge decorative by pressing it in at intervals with your thumb or the tines of a fork.
  • With a spatula, spread the goat cheese mixture in an even layer across the bottom of the crust.  Be careful not to press too hard, as you’ll squash the crust down.
  • Next, layer the tomatoes as attractively as you can manage (for me, this was not very much) over the cheese.  You can overlap them slightly, but the point here is to completely cover the cheese in something as close to a single layer as possible.  This will allow them to receive heat evenly – we don’t want some of them roasty and others stewed.
  • Sprinkle the tomato slices with your 1-2 tsp of mixed herbs, salt and pepper to taste, and a good glug of olive oil for gloss.
  • Bake at 400F for about 30 minutes, until the crust is cooked through and becomes golden, and the tomatoes begin to crumple.
  • Remove from oven and let cool for 10-15 minutes before slicing, to regain some structural integrity.  Tomato juice will gush about when you cut into it; there’s just no avoiding it.  But it will be that utterly delicious kind of gushing that you end up feeling pretty pleased about.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Cream cheese and onion dip

I am a list writer.  I love lists.  I live my life by them.  I am addicted to my day-planner, where I write in even the most menial of tasks (eat lunch! unload the dishwasher!) just so I can have the satisfaction of crossing them off.  I have a three page document on my laptop of “blog post ideas” – names and concepts of dishes I’ve never even tried that I’d like to develop and perfect to share with you.

Food Blog August 2013-2444Thus it should come as no surprise that I can’t go grocery shopping without a list.  Every week I make one, and every weekend before the big trip, I hand the list over to N. so he can add his requests.  He writes funny little notes on random lines all out of order (doesn’t he know the list is arranged by where in the store the product is found?!) and tries whenever possible to convey his desires in puns or wordplay or goofy spelling.  A few weeks ago, he wrote “chip-snack” near the bottom of the list.  I knew this meant we’d be trying something new – a change-up from the standard yellow corn tortilla chips we usually have lurking about in our pantry.

Food Blog August 2013-2438We came home with thick ridge-cut sweet potato chips.  And they were… okay.  N. noted astutely that they were tasty, but after a few you felt like you’d eaten, well, a sweet potato.  And I guess that’s a sign that they are what they advertise, but maybe they aren’t our ideal snack.

Food Blog August 2013-2439As I was munching my way through a second helping one afternoon, trying to pinpoint what it was about these chips that I wasn’t crazy about (I know, I know, why would I eat more of them if I didn’t really love them?), I realized they just needed a little help.  Without as much sodium as a standard potato or tortilla chip, I was missing some of the savory oomph that you really want from a chip.  This meant they were going to need a friend to play with: a salty, creamy swirl of dip to plunge into.

Food Blog August 2013-2449What came together, as I played, was the best possible version of a sour cream and onion dip.  Whipped cream cheese with a dollop of sour cream for consistency and tang.  A pile of well-caramelized onions, sweet and soft and deeply bronze, produced through considerable patience.  Salt and pepper, of course, and I didn’t want to complicate things, but it needed something else to break up the richness.  That something else turned out to be the earthy herby punch of finely chopped rosemary.

You want this for your next chip and dip party (do people have those?  We should).  You also want, I quickly determined, at least four people at the table when you serve this, because it will disappear, and you want to prevent any guilt that would result from eating the whole cupful, along with the whole bag of chips, all by yourself.

Other suggestions: double or triple this recipe, spread it evenly into a casserole dish, and bake at 400F for 20 minutes or so, until the whole thing is luscious and bubbly and mouth-searingly hot, then serve with crostini or pita chips.  And call me.  Because I want in on that action.  Or you could roast thick slices of sweet potato with some olive oil, salt, and pepper, and pipe this on top with a piping bag in pretty little swirls.  Arranged on a big square platter, that would make gorgeous passed appetizers.

Or you can just jam crackers or bits of toast into the dregs of the mixing bowl to get every last creamy bit.  It is, after all, your party.

Food Blog August 2013-2443

Cream cheese onion dip
Yield: ¾ – 1 cup
½ cup sweet onion, finely diced
1 TB butter
½ tsp salt or to taste
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper or to taste
1 tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
4 oz. whipped cream cheese, at room temperature (if you can’t find whipped cream cheese, use regular, but take an electric mixer to it for a minute or two on medium speed before you start combining things – it will mix more willingly and produce a nicer texture in the final product)
2 TB sour cream (I use full fat because I think the flavor and texture is better.  It’s such a little bit.  Treat yourself.)

 

  • Melt the butter over low heat in a small skillet.  When it has liquified, add the onions, salt, and pepper.
  • Caramelize the onions by cooking them over low to medium-low heat for 15-20 minutes.  If they sizzle aggressively or seem to be burning, turn the heat down and agitate the pan.  You want the onions to get tender and golden slowly.  This will enhance their sweetness.
  • When the onions are evenly caramel in color and sweet to taste, turn off the heat, add the chopped rosemary, and let the mixture cool to room temperature.
  • With a spatula, combine the cream cheese, sour cream, and cooled onion mixture in a small serving bowl.  Refrigerate for 30 minutes, if you can stand it, to let the flavors meld.
  • Serve cold or at room temperature with sweet potato chips, pita chips, crudités, or crostini.

 

Warm lentil and kale salad

I don’t know about you, but when I get home from vacation I feel at once heavier and lighter.  Lighter, because the toil of dragging overnight bags jammed with clothes, a laptop, a camera bag, two backpacks, a cooler, a sun hat, hiking boots, a satchel bristling with electronics, a grocery sack full of road snacks, a suit bag of dress clothes for a wedding, another satchel, this one loaded with supplies spanning the randomness quotient from shampoo to a day-planner (seriously, how can we have this much stuff???), and the leash of a dog intent on smelling every single thing she’s never smelled before from parking lot to hotel room to parking lot every other night is finally over.

Food Blog August 2013-2458Heavier, because even though I didn’t cook much, I sure ate a lot.  Plus, there’s that whole emotional withdrawal from the glory of vacation, but mostly I’m just shallow enough to be talking about my waistline.

In any case, upon our return from a trip we typically plan out a few particularly virtuous meals to combat the quantity of food we consumed, and the dubious quality of some of those choices – road food is always, alas, simultaneously necessary and a bit specious (take, for example, the Milky Way I bought at a gas station in Coos Bay to help myself stay away for the remainder of the drive to Brookings, which turned out to be open on one side.  I threw it away.  And then I almost cried).  Simple rice and steamed broccoli is one of our go-to homecoming meals.  Whatever can be scraped together from the garden and eaten with a light dressing and curls of Parmesan cheese is another.

But now we have a third, which might also become a side for roast chicken, a working lunch, or a base for seared tuna or poached salmon: a warm salad of lentils, tossed with lightly blanched kale, briny kalamata olives, and the tang of feta cheese.

Food Blog August 2013-2450A few days after our return, with pantry and fridge freshly stocked, I considered my starch choices.  We eat a good bit of pasta and a fair amount of rice, but our consumption of legumes and pulses is way below par.  This had to change.  I picked out a bag of green lentils that had slowly been pushed to the back of the shelf as new and more exciting boxes were set in front of it.

Lentils are great for us.  They are packed with fiber and protein and folate, which all make them filling as well as nutritious.  But like most dried beans, on their own they just aren’t very exciting.  They call for additional flavors and textures: chilies or acid or salt, crunch or freshness.  Herby sharpness.  Crumbly cheese.  A dance of textures.  You see where this is going.

Food Blog August 2013-2453To give them as much of a fighting chance at flavor as possible, I sautéed some onions and garlic before tumbling in lentils, water, a lone bay leaf, and a bracing hit of red wine vinegar.  “And salt,” you’re surely crying, but no!  Salt should be added to lentils only near the end of cooking.  It can toughen them if you add it right away.  I’ve also read that acidic ingredients – like the red wine vinegar I used – can contribute to this toughness, but I didn’t notice any particularly virulent refusal to soften, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

You want your lentils to be fully cooked – that is, not crunchy – but to still retain a bit of texture.  They should soften but not fall apart into mush – taste a few to be sure they have achieved the level of tenderness you like, but be sure to do a good sampling – five or six – as isolated beans can cook at different rates.

Food Blog August 2013-2459Once done, add salt to taste, let them cool a bit, and then the magic happens, and it’s such easy magic, it’s worth doing any night of the week.  Torn pieces of blanched kale, cubes of feta, and halved kalamata olives.  A drizzle of olive oil if you think it’s on the dry side.   Faced with this combination – salty, chewy, crisp and fresh and soft – we scooped spoonful after spoonful, and ended up eating most of the pot.  So much for virtue.

Food Blog August 2013-2460

Warm lentil and kale salad with olives and feta
Serves 4-6 as a side, 2-4 as a main lunch dish
½ cup diced onion
2-4 cloves garlic, minced fine
1 TB olive oil
1 cup small green lentils, picked through and rinsed
2 ¼ cups water, vegetable, or chicken broth
2 TB red wine vinegar
1 bay leaf
1 tsp salt (or to taste)
4 packed cups chopped kale, tough stems removed
½ cup kalamata olives, halved (or to taste)
½ cup crumbled feta (or to taste)
Additional splash of olive oil (optional)
  • Heat the 1 TB olive oil in a medium pot over medium heat.  Add the onions and garlic and sweat them gently for 3-5 minutes, until the onion pieces are translucent but not vigorously browned.
  • Add the lentils, water or broth, red wine vinegar, and bay leaf, but not the salt.  Salt added at the beginning of cooking can toughen the lentils.  We’ll wait to season them until they have cooked.
  • Turn up the heat and bring the pot to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer the mixture for 35-40 minutes.
  • After 35-40 minutes, the lentils will have sucked up most of the liquid in the pot and they will be tender but not mushy.  You want a slight bite of resistance to remain.  Add the salt, stir well, and then pour out the pot into a colander or strainer to drain off any remaining liquid.  Pick out the bay leaf so there aren’t any unwelcome surprises later.  Set the colander of lentils aside to cool.
  • Meanwhile (if you are proactive, or in the same pot you just used, if you are lazy like me), bring a pot of salted water to a boil.  Add the 4 cups of kale and cook for 1-2 minutes, until the leaves are intensely green and barely tender.  Drain the kale into the same colander as the lentils.  Cool until just warm, or completely to room temperature as desired.
  • While kale and lentils are cooling, halve your olives and crumble your feta.
  • When the lentils and kale have reached your desired temperature, add the olives and feta and toss to combine.  If the salad seems dry, add a splash of olive oil to moisten things up a bit.
  • Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.