Thursday, February 28, 2013

Lentils and Caramelized Onions with Angel Hair Pasta

When I was a kid I picked the onions out of everything: chili, spaghetti sauce, meatloaf; most meals ended with a loathsome little pile of onions on the side of my plate.

I'm still kind of picky about onions. I don't much like them raw, and I strongly dislike them undercooked. But I am crazy about onions caramelized in olive oil. My younger self would be shocked to learn that caramelized onions, brown, sweet, and melt-in-your-mouth tender, are one of my favorite things in the world to cook and eat.

For this week's cooking lesson I had three aims: to show Henry another great way to serve lentils; to teach him how to caramelize onions; and to convert my onion-hating son into an onion aficionado.

Mission accomplished for two out of three, but I was so busy devouring my meal (this dish is mysteriously delicious) that I didn't notice until washing-up time that Henry had arranged his onions in a tidy pile on the side of his plate.

The circle of life.

Lentils and Caramelized Onions with Angel Hair Pasta
Serves 4

3/4 cup dried green lentils, rinsed and drained
2 medium onions, cut in half and sliced thinly
8 ounces angel hair pasta (if you don't eat pasta, omit and double the lentils)
6 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus two pinches for cooking onions and pasta
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
pinch cayenne pepper, optional
parsley, chopped

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add lentils, reduce heat to medium and simmer 15 minutes or until lentils are tender but intact.

While lentils are cooking, caramelize the onions: Heat olive oil in a large, deep skillet, add onions and cook over high heat, stirring constantly, until onions start to sizzle. Add a pinch of salt, stir well, and reduce heat to medium-low. Cover onions and cook for 5 minutes. Uncover and cook 10-15 more minutes, stirring occasionally, until onions are sweet and delicious and you are tempted to eat them on the spot with a spoon. Resist.

After lentils have cooked 15 minutes, add angel hair pasta with a generous pinch of salt, and cook 4-5 minutes, until pasta is al dente. Drain and return to big cooking pot. Gently stir in caramelized onions, salt, pepper, and optional cayenne.

Serve warm, garnished with lots of parsley. If you have leftovers, this makes an excellent next-day lunch.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Lentil Loaf with Mashed Potatoes and Gravy

We have been eating a lot of beans lately, and my family is begging for a break; anything, they plead, anything other than beans.

Fine - they can have lentils.

It's time for Henry to add a few good lentil recipes to his repertoire anyway. Lentils are versatile and inexpensive, they cook quickly, and don't require soaking. I already love them but my son has never been a big fan. "It's just hard to get very excited about lentils," he says.

Not for me it isn't.

Nobody tends to swoon over a bowl of lentil soup (except me, and maybe my friend Jennifer), but lentil loaf with mashed potatoes and gravy seemed like a more exciting starting place to sell lentils to Henry. As an added bonus, I could fold in a mashed potato lesson and a roux review. I used to make lentil loaf all the time.(In fact, if you had a baby in Bloomington, Indiana circa 2001 I probably made one of these for you and brought it to your house, with the gravy in a glass jar, remember?)

But I haven't made it much lately, so it was fun to dust off the recipe (originally from The Rice Dream Cookbook) and update it. Here's our vegan and wheat-free loaf. It makes a great family dinner with a side of green beans, and from here I can report at least minor swooning.

Lentil Loaf

1/2 cup lentils
1/2 cup white basmati rice
3 1/2 cups water
1 vegetarian bouillon cube (I used wheat-free bouillon cubes)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3-4 medium cloves garlic, minced
1 large carrot, diced small
1 large stalk celery, diced small
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 tablespoon dried thyme
1 cup rolled oats, blended or food-processed into a course meal
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
salt and pepper

Mashed Potatoes

4 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tablespoons vegan margarine, optional
1/3 cup or more almond, soy, or rice milk
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus big pinch for cooking water
pinch white or black pepper

Country Gravy

1 cup almond, soy, or rice milk
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon dried sage
1 teaspoon dried thyme
big pinch black pepper
optional pinch cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup spelt or other flour

Put lentil, rice, water and bouillon in a medium sauce pan, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer 30-40 minutes until everything is soft and cooked and water is absorbed.

(While lentils and rice are simmering, put up a big pot of water for cooking potatoes).

While lentils and rice are simmering, warm olive oil in a skillet and sauté garlic, carrot, and celery for 10 minutes until mostly tender. Stir in basil and thyme. Remove from heat and set aside.

Peel potatoes and add to boiling water along with a generous pinch of salt. Cook until very soft (15 or so minutes), drain, and mash with optional margarine and "milk"until the consistency seems right. Add salt and pepper, taste and adust. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 and oil a 9x5x3 loaf pan.

When rice and lentils are cooked, combine in a big bowl with veggie/herb mixture. Add oats and mustard and use a wooden spoon or your hands or some combination to blend everything together very well. Now you need to taste it and decide if it wants a little more mustard or a shot of soy sauce, but the mixture should be fairly stiff so it will hold up later to slicing.

Press mixture into loaf pan, and top with mashed potatoes. Bake for 30 minutes.

While loaf is in the oven, make the gravy:

In a medium bowl, whisk together "milk", water, salt, soy sauce, sage, thyme, pepper, optional cayenne.

Warm olive oil in a deep wide skillet, add flour and stir over medium-low heat 2-3 minutes.

Gradually add milk/water/herbs, whisking to combine fully.

Bring to a boil, stirring constantly, then reduce heat to low and cook 15 minutes.

Taste and adjust seasoning.

When loaf is done, slice carefully and serve topped generously with gravy.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Better Hummus Through Chemistry

Henry was in the kitchen with a bit of a mantra: "I'm so bored! I'm so bored! I'm so bored!" What was the boy doing? He was peeling a half pound of cooked chickpeas, one at a time.

It was all part of a noble quest for a truly great hummus recipe, and the chickpea peeling was that dark-night-of-the-soul moment in the quest. We were making four trial batches of hummus, it had already consumed most of our Sunday, and there was no turning back, we had to see this thing through. After extensive blogosphere research I'd come across a few emphatic tips about making hummus, and a recent post on the lovely Smitten Kitchen blog insisted that peeling the chickpeas was key.

There were moments in our day more exciting than peeling chickpeas, like the moment we added baking soda to one of the simmering pots and it exploded into a magnificent white puff. Baking soda apparently alkalizes the chickpea cooking water, breaking down the wall of the chickpeas, making them much more tender and yielding smoother hummus.

But the most exciting moment of the day was when Jake, Henry and I sat down with plates full of hummus for the taste test. I assumed there would be a clear winner, but in fact we all had a different favorite. Jake and Henry liked the baking soda batches, but they didn't love them, thought the texture was too creamy, too airy. Henry liked the plainest batch - no baking soda, unpeeled chickpeas, but I found this batch just slightly mealy. Jake liked the no baking soda batch with peeled chickpeas. I liked the baking soda effect; the pillowy smooth texture reminded me of hummus I've had in Lebanese restaurants.

So although all the batches were very good and we cleaned our plates, there was no consensus - other than our agreeing that life is too short to peel chickpeas!

Here's our recipe, then, taking everything into account and including optional baking soda. We consider this an ongoing quest, so please send along your tips and secrets...

Makes approximately 2 1/2 cups

1/2 lb (about 1 1/4 cups) dried chickpeas, rinsed and drained, and soaked overnight in 6 cups water
Optional: 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons tahini
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
5 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
2 tablespoons olive oil
Optional garnish: minced parsley, more olive oil, paprika, cayenne, more cumin, or harissa.

Drain and rinse soaked beans, put them in a large pot with six cups of water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 90 minutes. (Optional, for silky smooth hummus: after 60 minutes, add baking soda)

When chickpeas are done, let them stand in the pot for thirty minutes before draining. Hummus will be gummy if you process hot chickpeas, and nobody prefers gummy hummus.

Put garlic in food processor and pulse a few times to chop. Add drained chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice  water, salt, and cumin and process for about 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the food processor to stir in any stray bits.

With the food processor running, add olive oil in a steady stream through the feed tube and process for at least 3 minutes, until very creamy and smooth.

Keeps well in the fridge for a few days but tastes much, much better fresh!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

White Bean and Kale Soup

Think about that super simple song you adore, the one that is inexplicably huge, much more than the sum of its two chords and handful of lyrics.

Here are a few of my family's favorites:
Molly's Lips
The Street Where You Live
Wild Thing
Everyday People

I generally believe that less is more - in songs, in life, on drums, and definitely in soup.

But sometimes less is less, sometimes two chords and a handful of lyrics is dead boring or aggressively bad, sometimes simple food can be bland and depressing. If you've ever eaten a watery bowl of under-seasoned bean soup, you know what I mean.

But this is NOT that soup! I'm trying to teach my kids that vegetarian food can be totally satisfying and incredibly delicious, and that if you want to create something simple and elegant, you have to pick the right ingredients in the right amounts. Henry and I worked on this spicy concoction together, and it might not be as sublime as a Troggs song, but it is mysteriously bigger than the sum of its few ingredients, and on a slushy February evening it definitely made my heart sing.

White Bean and Kale Soup
Serves 4 (or 3 is you're very hungry or if one of you is a teenager)

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 huge, enormous bunch of kale, stems removed and discarded, leaves chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 or so cups cooked cannellini or navy beans (or 2 14-ounce drained cans)
4 cups water
1/4 teaspoon of cayenne*
1 teaspoon salt

*(Amount could vary depending on the spiciness of your cayenne pepper and your tolerance for heat. This made a fairly zingy soup, which Henry and I LOVED but it was a little too much for Jake).

Warm olive oil in pot over medium high heat, add kale and stir until it starts to sizzle - turn heat down to medium low and continue to stir for 4-5 minutes. Kale will shrink substantially.

Add garlic and stir 1-2 minutes.

Add beans, water, cayenne and salt, turn heat to high, and bring to a boil.

Reduce heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes.