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.

Finish line

The problem with cramming for final exams – as many of my students were doing only a few weeks ago – is that you end up trying to process too much information, and just as quickly as you learn new things, the old things you thought you knew start sliding away. That’s the glory and the power of writing. Once it’s on the page, it’s solid. No matter how many holiday dinners you eat (I’m onto my third or fourth at this point), those words will still tell you exactly what you did and (sometimes) how you felt about it.

I feel like I’m cramming for my final. Last week, before the holiday, before the family time, before the outpouring of memories and laughter and swallowed tears of all kinds and barking and yelling and joy, I made three Bittmans in a desperate bid to stay on top of the project.

42. Brussels Sprout Sliders: Trim and halve large brussels sprouts, toss with olive oil and roast at 400 degrees until tender but not mushy. Using the brussels sprout halves as you would hamburger buns, sandwich them around a piece of crispy bacon or ham, maybe a little caramelized onion, and a dab of whole grain mustard. Keep everything in place with toothpicks.”

I always intended to make this one for a Halloween party. It seemed fitting: for some, brussels sprouts are a frightening, disdained vegetable. But this new perspective on them makes them fun and perhaps even appetizing to those disbelievers who see them only as a bitter waterlogged grenade of disappointment. But I never did. So they became an appetizer for two:

6 brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved

2 strips bacon, cut into eight even pieces (you’ll use six for the brussels. Eat the other two, or share with a tall, handsome somebody who shows up in the kitchen when the smell becomes too enticing to ignore)

dab (maybe 1 tsp total?) whole grain mustard

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Line a small baking dish (I used a 9” cake pan) with aluminum foil and drizzle the foil with olive oil. Brush or rub the olive oil into an even layer so every millimeter of foil is covered.

Set the sprouts, cut side down, on the oiled foil, spacing them evenly so none are touching. This will ensure even roasting rather than steaming.

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Roast for 15 minutes, until the cut edges are browned and just crisp. Using tongs, flip over each sprout so they teeter on their curved sides. Roast for another 15 minutes.

While sprouts are roasting, cook the bacon. Mine was already cooked – saved from another porky occasion – so during the last five minutes of sprout roasting I added the bacon pieces to the pan to heat them up a little.

When the sprouts are browned and lightly tender, set them aside until they are cool enough to handle. As soon as you can bear to touch them, add a tiny spread of mustard across one cut edge, seat the bacon atop it, and place another sprout half on top to complete the sandwich. Drive a toothpick through the whole thing and serve as an hors d’oeuvre.

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We gobbled these down like we hadn’t eaten in weeks. They were delightful and I highly recommend them as a party item: crisp bacon, zesty mustard, and the nutty crunchy slight bitterness of roasted brussels sprouts, all collected together in one perfect bite. Perhaps a New Year’s Eve treat to help the hours pass.

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Soup and bread seemed like a good meal to follow our sprouts.

82. Cornmeal Flatbread with Onion and Sage: Mix 1 cup cornmeal with 1 teaspoon salt; slowly whisk in 1½ cups water. Cover and let sit for an hour (or up to 12 hours in the refrigerator). Put ¼ cup olive oil in a 12-inch ovenproof skillet along with a thinly sliced red onion; stir. Heat the skillet in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes, then stir and pour in the batter. Bake at 375 degrees until the flatbread is crisp at the edges and releases easily from the pan, about 45 minutes.”

I followed these directions fairly exactly, with the exception that I used only half an onion. The olive oil and onion went into the oven for five minutes at 400F, at which point the onion slices were sizzling and the oil was shimmering beautifully.

Bittman neglects to note where and when to add the sage, so I stirred a tablespoon of finely chopped fresh sage into the batter just before adding it to the skillet.

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This concoction baked for 45 minutes, until it was set, the onions were crisp-tender, and the whole thing loosened easily from the skillet and slid almost gracefully onto a serving tray.

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We cut large wedges and tasted. It was unlike any other bread I’ve come across – more like baked squares of polenta than anything else, which made sense when I stopped and thought about it. Were I renaming this dish, I think I would call it Polenta Pizza. It was well oiled and spongy in texture, squishing pleasingly between our teeth and driving us back for additional tastes. N. wasn’t sure he liked it at first, but then he went back for a second slice and then a third. When I ribbed him about this, he said he was still deciding what he really thought, and needed more samples to truly make up his mind.

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This odd little bread course could easily be dunked in saucers of warmed marinara sauce, or sprinkled with mozzarella or parmesan for a pleasing salty bite. Though the onions and sage were good, you could probably saute almost anything in that skillet before adding the batter: sausage, peppers, mushrooms… anything you’d put on a pizza.

A decadent appetizer and a well-oiled pizza/bread need a sober, sensible kind of soup to balance them out.

19. Saute chopped onions, garlic, celery and carrots in olive oil, then add chopped tomatoes (boxed are fine) with their juice, lentils and stock or water to cover. When everything is soft, add a squeeze of lemon juice or a splash of red wine vinegar. Garnish with parsley.”

Since we were leaving town the next day, I didn’t want huge quantities. (This still made enough for four, but I froze the leftovers so nothing was lost)

½ red onion (left from the flatbread, so convenient), diced

4-6 small cloves garlic, minced

1/3 cup each celery and carrots, sliced

¾ cup lentils

13.5 oz can petite diced tomatoes

2½ cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth, or water)

1 TB lemon juice

2 TB fresh, finely chopped parsley

salt and pepper to taste

I heated 2 TB olive oil over medium heat, then tossed in the onions to sweat for a minute or two before adding the garlic and the other vegetables. When the onions were translucent and tender, I added the tomatoes, lentils, and broth and turned the heat up to medium high until the whole pot came to a boil.

Once boiling, I gave it a healthy stir and then turned the heat down so the soup would just simmer, letting the lentils soften gently and the vegetables tenderize.

Simmer for at least 35 minutes, then taste the lentils to see if they are tender enough for your taste. We like them soft but not mushy, with minimal resistance but still able to hold their shape.

Just before serving, squeeze in the lemon juice, stir gently, and dip into serving bowls. Scatter the surface with a grassy sprinkle of parsley.

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We liked this, though it wasn’t the best lentil soup I’ve ever had. The flavors were enticing and the lemon juice made it a bright, rather than heavy, soup. The problem with it was that I like my lentil soup more like a stew or a chili. The brightness of the lemon made the shower of shredded pepperjack cheese I was considering adding seem extraneous and out of place, and I tend to get crotchety when denied cheese. But alongside the flatbread and the richness of the brussels sprouts, it was hearty but didn’t weigh us down.

2012 is fading like the last sheen of daylight across the hills in winter. 2013 charges toward us, all mystery and sharp promise. I thought about cheating and saying I was done; these three dishes are the final three, I made it, all boxes are checked, all questions answered, funtoosh, kaput (extra points if you can name my source!), but I just can’t. I’m too close. This final exam is too important. This resolution needs to be one I keep. I have two dishes left. I have two days, one of which will be spent driving from the Sierra Nevada foothills where N.’s parents live back to Los Angeles and my little house. I hope I’m going to make it. The finish line is in sight. Now I just have to stagger across it.