Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Shop til Whenever
What’s cooking? Beluga Lentils

In the hunting-gathering world, I know my place. I’m a gatherer-shopper. Whatever I’m looking for, I like checking out the options, evaluating the advantages or disadvantages of one choice over the other, noticing the nuances of color, texture, or taste. And I’m always up for the shopping experience, as long as I don’t have to try anything on. There’s something about the lighting (do I really look like that?), and the mirrors (do I really look like that?), and the need to get undressed and dressed and undressed and dressed.... So I’m okay with shopping for shoes and cosmetics and sunglasses and furniture, but not clothes, please.

Also food. Especially when I’m not pressed for time or have a specific list to fill, I enjoy just wandering the produce aisles to see what’s in season now, or stopping at the nibble stations in the cheese department or the bakery. In my search for new foods to write about, I’ve put real effort over the last couple of years into trying the unfamiliar. Not weird, mind you, just unfamiliar. The challenge is to make something of them before I forget they’re in my pantry.

So when I saw these cute little black lentils, I really felt compelled to buy them. They’re called Beluga lentils for their similarity to the caviar. Even cooked, they tend to glisten in the way that caviar glistens. But they still taste like lentils, so not weird – just different. They take very little effort (prep time plus cook time is less than an hour!), and they don’t get soupy – the desired texture is toothier than with most lentils, almost like a risotto – so they work well as a side dish for chicken or pork. I cooked them first as a vegetarian dish, with veggie stock and your basic onion-carrot-celery mirepoix – the holy trinity of soup flavoring.

The second time I made them, we’d just arrived in New Jersey for the summer and I forgot that I hadn’t stocked up on things like carrots and celery. But I had onion and some yellow bell pepper, so I sautéed those together and worked some Aidells Chicken & Apple Sausage and a little brown sugar into the mix. Wow – very nice! And now I see that Whole Foods has a salad of Beluga lentils with feta, endive leaves, and tangerine segments. Looks like I have to head back to the store...

Beluga Lentils

Adapted from Allrecipes.com

Serves 4.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup diced onion
½ cup diced carrot
½ cup diced celery
1 clove garlic (roasted if you have it), minced
1 cup Beluga lentils
3 cups vegetable stock or chicken stock
6 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 rounded teaspoon dried thyme leaves
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, for 4 minutes, until the onion softens. Add the carrot, celery, and garlic, and sauté another 4-5 minutes until the carrot and celery soften.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir in the lentils until they are well coated with the oil, about 1 minute. Add the chicken stock, thyme, and 6-8 fresh grinds of black pepper. Set the heat to a gentle simmer and cook the lentils, covered, for 30-35 minutes, stirring occasionally until they are tender and have absorbed almost all of the liquid.

Turn off the heat and, if you used fresh thyme, remove the stems from the mix. Stir in the vinegar and parsley. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Kitchen Goddess note: These little lentils are endlessly flexible. You can add meat, or not. You can stir in fresh spinach at the end, or not. Here’s what I’ve done:

For the meat-eater’s version, start by sautéing 1 package of Aidells sausage (sliced in ½-inch pieces), OR 1 pound of mild Italian sausage, OR 3 slices of bacon, cut in 1-inch pieces, in a 10-inch skillet or small soup pot. If you choose the Aidells sausage, you may want to add a tablespoon of olive oil. When the meat is done, remove it to a bowl and proceed with the onion-carrot-celery sauté. Once the lentils have cooked to the tender stage, add back the meat and continue cooking until the meat is warm. Then remove the mixture from the heat and stir in the vinegar/parsley.

For my New Jersey version, start with the Aidells Chicken & Apple sausage. Then substitute ½ yellow bell pepper, diced, for the carrots and celery, and stir in 1 tablespoon brown sugar at the same time that you add the broth.

And let me know if you come up with any other great ideas!