Lentil Loaf: Not your Usual Shades of Grey

As recent as last week, had I been asked the likelihood of lentil loaf appearing in this blog, I would have responded, “Highly improbable.” In my mind, it conjured up a bland mass of boring shades of grey not worth pursuing.  Now, thanks to Giada De Laurentiis I can happily chalk that one up as an another, “Well, I was wrong.”

In defense of shades of grey, it’s safe to say that we’ve been given plenty of reason to reconsider what grey means, and that it doesn’t have to be dull and dreary. For me, all it took was a long look at Giada’s mother, Veronica’s recipe for lentil loaf.  Amidst the vegetables and vibrant Italian flavors there were lentils, but I saw color, taste, and plenty of potential. Could it be that these mild mannered lentils were a ruse, rather a rallying point for one raucous party?

So thank you, Giada, you certainly opened the door.  For the record, here’s Veronica’s version with spinach, cheeses, and rice−likely quite delicious.

Although our approaches are similar and it is all about layering and building flavors, I veered off on a slightly different tack. I started by simmering the lentils with a bit of bacon, celery, and a light seasoning of allspice; when the lentils were almost done I added carrot. For bulk and balance, I opted to include bulgur wheat rather than rice, for its nutritional qualities and ease of preparation. (It only needs a good 15-minute soak in boiling water.)  For the vegetable component, I sautéed onion and garlic in olive oil, added chopped portabella mushrooms seasoned with rosemary and thyme, and gave it a good squirt of lemon juice. Then, it’s all mixed together.

Much like preparing a meatloaf, the lentil mixture is combined with binder: quick oats, Parmesan and a couple of eggs. There’s a final seasoning of salt, pepper, a good shot of Worcestershire sauce and plenty of fresh parsley.  It needs a short rest to redistribute the moisture content and allow flavors to permeate and blend.

That gave me just enough time to preheat the oven and make a quick sauce.  Veronica tops her loaf with a fresh salsa of sorts. For contrast I wanted a saucier consistency; we already had plenty of texture.  Since the loaf only takes about 30 minutes, I could whip up an easy Marinara Sauce.lentil loaf

As with a fine roast, once it’s removed from the oven the loaf should rest a few minutes, then it will cut easily into firm green and orange speckled slices. The Marinara Sauce adds a shot of color, more moisture and vibrant flavor.  lentil loaf sliceBest news: the following day it is even better−there’s nothing dull and boring about this lentil loaf.

Savory Lentil Loaf with Marinara Sauce 

Inspired by Giada De Laurentiis Lentil Veggie Meatloaf
 
Ingredients
1 cup brown lentils, rinsed
1 slice bacon, chopped
1 small stalk celery with leaves, chopped
3 cups water
Salt and pepper
Pinch allspice
1 small carrot, peeled and diced

2/3 cup bulgur wheat
1 1/3 cup boiling water
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 cup Portabella mushrooms chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp fresh rosemary or savory, minced
1 tsp fresh thyme, minced
1/2 tsp salt
red pepper flakes
Juice of ½ lemon

½ cup quick cooking oats
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup parsley, minced
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
2 eggs, beaten
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper

3-4 bay leaves
½ cup mozzarella cheese
2 Tbsp Parmesan cheese

Accompaniments:  serve with Marinara Sauce (see below)

Directions
1.  For the lentils: In small pot, place the lentils and bacon with 3 cups water.  Bring to a boil and skim any brown matter that surfaces to the top.  Add the celery, salt, pepper, allspice and simmer for 15 minutes.  Add the carrots and continue until lentils and carrots are tender, a total of 20-30 minutes.  Drain and set aside.
2.  Prepare the bulgur wheat: Soak the bulgur wheat in boiling water covered with plastic wrap, for 15 minutes, until the water is absorbed.
3.  Sauté the vegetables:  In medium skillet, heat the olive oil, add the onions and sauté to soften Add the mushrooms and toss to release moisture, add the garlic and herbs and continue cooking until moisture is released; season lightly with salt and red pepper flakes. Squeeze in lemon juice, sauté briefly to absorb and remove from heat.
4.  In a large bowl, combine the lentils, bulgur wheat, and the sautéed vegetables.  Add the oats, Parmesan cheese, parsley, Worcestershire, the beaten eggs, and salt and pepper.  Toss to blend well.  Let stand while oven is preheating..  Preheat oven to 350 degrees and coat a deep gratin dish or other large casserole with olive oil.
5.  Pack the lentil mixture into the prepared baking dish and round it on top.  Press bay leaves on top and sprinkle with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.  Bake for approximately 30 minutes until the top begins to brown.  Let stand 15 minutes before cutting into thick slices and serve with Marinara Sauce. Serves 6

Marinara Sauce
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ small onion, chopped
½ tsp oregano
1 tsp dried basil (or 10-12 fresh leaves on finish)
1 – 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
¼ tsp or more salt and freshly ground pepper
Red pepper flakes to taste

  1. Heat a medium pot over medium-low; heat the oil, add garlic and onion and sauté until transparent. Add herbs and sauté briefly.
  2. Stir in the tomatoes and remaining ingredients.  Simmer partially uncovered until thickened, 20-30 minutes.  Adjust seasoning.

Cornbead: thinking out of the box

Cooking in a small kitchen requires ingenuity and resourcefulness: a small space has limited storage and requires tough choices:  like how much heirloom china do you really need?… and severely cutting back on pots, pans, and accessories. It means taking a close look at every day food choices and meal planning―to the point of rating what falls into the category of ‘food staples’.

Such was the case recently when I threw together a lovely le puy lentil soup, replete with carrot and Spanish chorizo. Yes, it was quick to make, but it was also ready and waiting because I had failed to considered what to serve along with the soup. An oops.

I spotted a kid’s size bag of Betty Crocker cornmeal muffin mix… what about that?   And then, there was the remnants of a jar of sauerkraut in the fridge; not a bad addition to counteract the questionable sweetness of the boxed mix… and while at it, I grabbed some plain yogurt for a little more tang and further lighten it. I quickly chopped up a handful of vegetables for color and crunch, added a few sliced olives, and finished it all with a dusting of grated cheddar cheese on top.  Into the oven it went for a quick bake.cornbread

Truth is, it’s hard to screw up these packaged mixes; they are very forgiving. But how do you elevate them beyond mundane? cornbread,lentils 1

The sauerkraut became an undetectable mystery ingredient that blended with the other vegetables, plus it served to ameliorate the mix’s inherent sweetness and create a little more interest and punch.

You could say I was thinking out of the box―and it was definitely ready in a Jiffy.

Cornbread in a Jiffy

1 small box or package cornmeal muffin mix, Betty Crocker or Jiffy
2 tbsp cornmeal, if available
¼ c yogurt plus enough milk or water to equal a generous 1/3 cup
1 egg, beaten
1 tbsp olive oil
1 green onion, trimmed, chopped
1 med jalapeno pepper, seeded, trimmed, chopped
2 tbsp sauerkraut, heaping
12 green olives, sliced
1/3 c cheddar cheese, grated

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Spray or butter a 7″x5″ (approximate) baking pan or dish.
  2. In a 1 cup measure, place the yogurt and enough milk or water to equal a generous 1/3 cup and blend well; add the egg and olive oil, and combine well.
  3. Place the cornmeal muffin mix and additional cornmeal in a medium mixing bowl.  Gently stir in the yogurt mixture, sauerkraut, green onion, jalapeno pepper, and about 1/2 of the sliced olives, mixing only to moisten but not over blend.
  4. Spread the mixture evenly into prepared baking pan or dish. Top with remaining olive slices and sprinkle with cheese.  Bake for 15-18 minutes, until the top is set and cheese is melted.  Let cool briefly and cut into 6-8 servings.
  5. You could say I was thinking out of the box―and it was definitely ready in a Jiffy.

Lentil Soup for Lovers

Lentils are a great legume to have tucked in the pantry for a rainy day or an easy evening.  These little nuggets are highly versatile:  they cook up in a hurry and their earthy flavor blends with a multitude of seasonings and treatments.

Not only are lentils low in fat, high in protein and rich in fiber, they are nutrient rich:  these powerhouses are packed with calcium, potassium, vitamin K, zinc and niacin.Lentil soup

Simmer a cup or two of lentils, add a few handfuls of fresh vegetables, perhaps a smidgen of bacon and/or a little piece of frozen kielbasa for additional flavor and richness.  With little effort you’ve got an impressive, heart-thumping homemade soup in less than an hour.

More importantly, lentil soup is even better the day after…

Lentil Soup

Ingredients
1-1/2 cups dried lentils, rinsed and drained
Water to cover by 2”, plus additional as needed
1 tsp olive oil
½ onion, small chop
1 clove garlic, minced
½ cup carrots, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced (optional)
1 stalk celery, small chop
1/2 tsp mixed dried herbs (such as thyme, rosemary, sage)
1 thick slice bacon, chopped
6 oz. Kielbasa or other smoked sausage, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups beef stock or 1 cube beef bouillon plus water
3 ounces fresh spinach, cleaned and trimmed

Directions

  1. Place the rinsed lentils in a medium saucepan and cover with water by 2”.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, season lightly with salt and simmer the lentils until almost tender, about 15 minutes.  Remove the lentils to a holding bowl.
  2. In the saucepan heat the olive oil; add the onion and cook to soften.  Add the garlic and cook 2 minutes. Add the carrot, jalapeno, celery, dried herbs and cook another 2 minutes. Remove to the lentil bowl. Wipe out the pan, heat the bacon and cook until it begins to brown, drain most of the fat off and remove the bacon to the lentil bowl.
  3. In the saucepan add the kielbasa and brown lightly.  Return the lentil mixture to the pan.  Add enough water or beef stock to keep the lentils covered by about 1-2 inches. If using water add a bouillon cube; bring to a boil and simmer an additional 20 minutes.  Adjust seasoning adding pepper and salt if needed, and cook until lentils are tender and the flavors have blended.
  4. When ready to serve, stir in a large handful of spinach per serving, gently combine and cover until lightly wilted.  Serves 3-4.