Posts tagged lentils

Improv night: Broccoli penne with lentils

Welcome to Improv Night, when I feature a thrown-together meal from my kitchen.

Here’s the thing: As much as I love my cookbooks, and my dog-eared food magazine collection, and the wide, wide world of worldly recipes on the web, sometimes dinner is less about following someone else’s very specific instructions and more about catering to my of-the-moment whims.

Allow me to continue: Sometimes dinner is about that fresh bundle of asparagus that looked too promising to resist, or about those languishing greens or leftover salmon. Put together with some grains or legumes from the pantry, whatever herbs or spices beg to be used, and we’re one fed and happy family. No recipe required, just a little hard-won experience and well-practiced intuition.

It’s not the timid way I used to do things, back when separate ingredients like flour and baking soda were suspect time-suckers, when I thought making muffins from a mix was the modern way to do things.

These days I care less about modernity and more about scratch cooking (and aren’t we glad that cooking is the new take-out, anyway?).  Now when I use a recipe it’s because I want to learn a new technique, or get a feel for an unusual ingredient. More often than not, I’ll take a recipe as a suggestion rather than as a set-in-stone way to prepare a dish.

The keys to improv dinners are a well-stocked pantry and freezer, a few fresh herbs, a well-honed trick or two, and a willingness to experiment.

This time there was a waiting head of organic broccoli from my produce basket and a Tupperware of leftover lentils. Once I discovered some caramelized onions in the fridge as well, things really got moving.

Prep went something like this: I washed and thinly sliced the broccoli (it cooks better that way) while my medium frying pan, with a bit of olive oil, was heating. I sauteed the broccoli with a fat pinch of red pepper flakes for several minutes until it was just tender, but nowhere near mushy. I added a few cloves of minced garlic part way through the saute.

Then I poured in a can of whole tomatoes (Muir Glen’s Fire-Roasted are my favorite) and broke them up with a wooden spoon as they simmered. I threw in the caramelized onions and about a cup of black lentils, got generous with the salt and pepper, and let it bubble gently away while I cooked the penne.

I boiled the penne until it was just barely al dente, then, using a large slotted pasta ladle, transferred it to the pan with the sauce to let it finish cooking there.

Of course I topped it all with shavings of Parmesan, and of course I served it with a bit of crusty bread and a simple crunchy salad. Like I said: Fed and happy.

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Peel, chop, boil…breathe

I have these little people in my house that need to be fed on a regular basis. Meaning a few times daily (sometimes more: my five-year-old is on a somewhat worrisome pretzel bender. Although she’s contemplating making the leap to Honey Nut O’s, the Trader Joe’s version of Honey Nut Cheerios. Shall we compare the nutritional merits of each snack? Their levels of processed foodness?). The two big people who live here also require sustenance via some nutrient-delivering source or another, and I’m not talking Carnation Instant Breakfast.

The beautiful thing about all this feeding is that, more often than not, the fashioning of foodstuffs feeds not only our stomachs, but that part of me that needs to just freaking take a timeout once in a while.

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Take the other night, for example. I’d been shuttling my girls around all the late afternoon, shopping for a baby gift, as well as for the requisite accompanying big sister gift, and we ended up arriving home much later than my usual dinner prep time. Our stomachs were nagging and blood sugar was lagging and the evening still held an agenda (sound familiar, anyone?).

But I had a dinner plan, and darn it if I was going to stray from it. Even if we near imploded because said dinner required a fair amount of prep and every pot in the drawer.

On our way home, I’d been lip-bitingly close to falling into the takeout trap, tempted as I was to just ever-so-casually stop by our favorite Asian food joint and “grab” dinner, as those people who frequent takeout say. So easy, it would have been. They have curbside service and the best, perfectly spiced, not overly cheesy crab wontons, you see. But full of the knowledge that the ingredients to my dinner plan were on standby in my fridge, I just couldn’t call someone else to make me food.

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I shooed my hungry girls away to shower — the better to keep them occupied, to shave precious minutes off the bedtime routine — and got to my chopping and peeling and boiling, to my using near every pan in the house (five total for this recipe – this is craziness). I was making Lentil and Sweet Potato Burritos, a variation on a Sweet Potato Enchilada recipe I made once, and inspired by a Lentil and Sweet Potato Stew recipe I have stashed in my “Make This Soon” file.

It was one of those meals you make when it’s slim pickings in your pantry and you kind of need to get to the store. But instead, in a fit of resourcefulness, you find that if you only combine a little of this (sweet potatoes) with a little of that (lentils), and toss in a bit of something else (onions, cilantro, spices), you have a meal that couldn’t have come together better had you actually planned and shopped for it.

This is my favorite way to prepare a meal right now. It makes me feel… oh, I don’t know, a little inventive, like I’ve got a bit of domestic cleverness up my sleeve, after all. And the making of it was actually a really relaxing thing, despite the way I rushed into the kitchen and started banging around, rifling for potato peelers and cutting boards and cumin, warm and comforting.

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Sometimes it’s a relief not to have to undertake the mental exercise of following a recipe, of reading directions dictated by some detached recorder of a particular method. I’ve sautéed an onion so many times that I’m as comfortable with that as I am layering on mascara. And that, friends, does not make sautéing an onion a daily bore, but a ritual akin to slipping on your favorite fluffy socks.

You hear that exhaling sound? That’s me — all four stove burners turned on to one heat setting or another, my onion chopped and looking all glisten-y, my lentils simmering their lives away — remembering to breathe.

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