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Deborah Madison’s Lentil Minestrone

Deborah Madison’s recipe for minestrone soup with lentils was perfect for what turned out to be a cold spring day. Some weeks ago I’d bought some black beluga lentils — “the caviar of beans,” according to the bag — and left them sitting next to my bowls of onions and garlic on my chopping table.  And yesterday, when we were all in the mood for a warming dinner, I flipped through my cookbooks for a lentil soup.

Lentils, because of their small size and thin seed coats, cook faster than most other beans. But because it was a first-time recipe, it took me longer than it should have to get the soup on the table, and by the time I was ready the NBA play-off game that The Professor had planned to watch last night had already begun. Nevertheless … he gave the dish an A- — a rarity for a first attempt!

The Professor liked the flavors. The recipe begins with cooking the onions until they brown and that, combined with a generous amount of garlic, lots of diced carrots and celery and a good handful of bay leaves, parsley branches and sprigs of thyme, gave the broth a richness that is often missing in vegetarian soups.

“It almost tastes like it’s been cooked in a meat stock,” he noted. “I wouldn’t want this soup in the middle of summer,” he added. “But it’s good.”

He also liked the different texture of the pasta, which I’d cooked separately, run under cold water a minute shy of its full cooking time, and and then added to the soup before serving.

“The lentils gave it a nice substance,” he said on the issue of satisfaction, “And it was more interesting than the average lentil soup because of the greens and pasta.”

He paused while I scribbled down his comments, and then added, “Though if there were a few cubes of ham in here, it would be the bomb!”

I ignored the final comment and turned to Ella, who had been trying to get in on the conversation. “The lentils are good with the pasta,” the three-something said seriously. “They would also be good with purple.”

With that said, here’s the recipe:

Lentil Minestrone
Adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Ingredients
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra virgin to finish
2 cups onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste (I didn’t have tomato paste on hand so I added a half cup of chopped tomatoes.)
1/4 cup chopped parsley
4 garlic cloves, chopped
3 carrots, diced
1 cup diced celery or celery root
1 cup French green lentils, rinsed ( I used black beluga lentils, which are similar in size)
Aromatics: 2 bay leaves, 8 parsley branches, 6 thyme sprigs
9 cups water or vegetable stock (it will look like too much liquid but add it anyway)
Mushroom soy sauce to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch greens—mustard, broccoli rabe, chard, or spinach (I used chard)
2 cups cooked small pasta (I used lumache, which my “Italian mother” calls little snails)
Thin shavings of Parmesan (be generous!)

Instructions
Heat the oil in a wide soup pot with the onion. Saute over high heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.

Add the tomato paste, parsley, celery, garlic, vegetables, and 2 teaspoons salt and cook 3 minutes more.

Add the lentils, aromatics, and water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 30 minutes. Taste for salt and season with pepper. If it needs more depth, add mushroom soy sauce to taste, starting with 1 tablespoon. (The soup may seem bland at this point, but the flavors will come together when the soup is finished.) Remove the aromatics.

Boil the greens in salted water until they’re tender and bright green, then chop them coarsely. (Or, add the chopped greens to the soup while the pasta is cooking.)

Just before serving, add the greens and the pasta to the soup and heat through. Serve with extra virgin olive oil drizzled into each bowl, a generous grind of pepper, and the Parmesan.

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Faux Faux Meat? A VegNews Scandal and a Promise.

It seems that VegNews, a magazine about vegetarian and vegan cooking, has, on occasion, used photographs of juicy beef patties to illustrate articles about   so-delicious-you-won’t-believe-it’s-not-meat meatless burgers! For articles about meatless ribs, they simply photoshopped out the bones!

Vegan bloggers are, as you might imagine, up in arms!

So let me make a promise to you. As an amateur cook and a novice blogger, I can’t promise much! But this I guarantee: The photographs that you see on this site are, for better or worse, taken by me or The Professor of the food that I am writing about. Any exceptions will be clearly noted.

Giada De Laurentii’s Couscous-stuffed Peppers

Yes — I’m posting about stuffed peppers again. I’ve starting seeing them everywhere. I almost want to call it the “Subaru Effect” — because once we bought our Forrester, I noticed the cars everywhere! But I guess other new car owners feel the same … unless they’ve bought a Lamborghini.

In any case, The Professor (who’s a bit of a Food Network junkie) saved an episode of Giada De Laurentii cooking stuffed peppers for me. And they look great! The peppers are stuffed with a mixture of couscous, currants, chick peas, feta cheese, and baby spinach, and I’m definitely going to try it.

I’ll let you know how it turns out. In the meantime, here’s her recipe.

What’s in a Grade?

What earns a dish an A or a B? Or, I dread to think, a C? Why did The Professor deem the beet risotto an A+ but give my pasta with kale and walnut pesto a B+?

You, dear readers, have a right to know. In fact, you need to know, so that you can decide whether or not to trust The Professor’s opinions. So one recent evening I made the case. My argument (and you must have a strong argument when dealing with a professional philosopher) was part candidate Obama (“Transparency promotes accountability …” and so forth) and part Food Network. “Think of Throwdown! with Bobby Flay,” I offered, knowing it is one of The Professor’s guilty pleasures. “The judges use an established system for scoring dishes. On Iron Chef too.”

He was convinced. Below is an explanation of The Professor’s grading system — his logical approach to evaluating a meal.

Taste — First and most important, he evaluates the taste of a dish. Is it flavorful? Are the flavors well-balanced? And while a simple dish can be delicious, it can also leave your taste buds underwhelmed, so he’ll also look for  depth of flavor and evaluate a dish’s complexity.

Satisfaction — Some dishes taste good or even great, but don’t satisfy. Or at least, they don’t satisfy The Professor. With 6’3″ to fuel (and despite a relatively sedentary lifestyle) he wants a hearty meal — not a heavy meal, but one that fills the belly, satisfies the brain, and doesn’t leave him thinking, “that sure would have been better with some pork.”

Interestingness — The Professor is easily bored. I think that’s why he was drawn to philosophy, with its gnarly questions and debates so deep and complex they evolve over centuries. A meal isn’t likely to sustain our interest over time, but it shouldn’t bore you before it’s even over. So The Professor looks for a variety of flavors and textures that combine slightly differently with each bite. He looks for surprising ingredients and/or unusual combinations.

He’ll grade a dish along each of these three dimensions, and combine the grades to determine the final score.

Of course, The Professor is no logic machine. Inevitably, the grades he gives will be influenced by personal preferences, by likes (basil, ginger, crispy pizza crusts) and dislikes (dill, coconut, okra, and anything “mushy”) that you may or may not share. So to bring a bit of transparency to the subjective side of grading, here is a brief history of The Professor’s tastes.

As you know, he is from the South, and grew up eating typically Southern food: fried chicken, collard greens, and lots of Jiffy corn bread. Typical family meals included pot roasts, baked pork chops, and fried fish most every Friday. Most of their vegetables were canned or frozen, and they were almost always cooked with some kind of pork. Spaghetti sauce came from a jar.

He didn’t taste duck, lamb, or any ethnic food (with the exception of Chinese) until he moved to the Midwest for graduate school. There, Indian and Middle Eastern food soon became staples. His culinary education continued when he took his first job — two colleagues (and, he says, “serious foodies”) introduced him to homemade pesto, wine and the idea of cooking with fresh vegetables.  Today, he is no food snob, though he does enjoy a nice meal at a top Zagat-rated restaurant, and vacations abroad are as much about cuisine as they are about museums. He likes strong, complex flavors and has a high tolerance for spice.

Southern Sojourn

I almost laughed out loud when, minutes after we arrived at my Grandmother-in-law’s house in Jacksonville, my husband’s Uncle Peter announced he was going out to pick up some wings!

 

Grilled Salmon Sandwich with a Fried Green Tomato

That said, the trip reminded me that Southern cooking is about more than just meat. The hotel menu, for instance, offered fried green tomatoes along with more common burger toppings. And everything is served with that warm Southern charm, from the bartender who mixed me a bitters and soda when I started feeling sick one evening to the grandmother making omelets-to-order in the hotel restaurant every morning, who kindly lent us a stroller.

Now we’re home, our taxes (which, for some reason, fall to The Cook rather than The Professor) are done, and I am back to blogging. I have many posts to catch up on, from shrimp tacos to stuffed poblano peppers to an utterly experimental “Thai risotto.” So more soon.

Housekeeping

As you can see, I’m trying out a new design for the blog. There are a few kinks that still need to be worked out, but I’m excited about the possibilities. It was created by Khoi Vinh, a very talented designer whose work you’re probably already familiar with: he is the former design director of The New York Times website. (To give full credit, Khoi co-designed the layout with Allan Cole.)

Next week I’ll be learning some basic CSS and HTML and tweaking the look of the site. But today — assuming it stops snowing long enough for our plane to take off — we’re headed South to visit The Professor’s family. Chicken wings, here we come!

Smoke and Spice

There’s something about food with a smokey flavor that has near universal appeal. Bacon, dare I say it, comes to mind. Or the alluring scents of smoke and spice that fill the air at a summer barbecue. Maybe it’s primal.

In any case, it’s usually associated with meat. But it doesn’t have to be, right? After all, carnivores don’t have a monopoly on smoke and spice.  So how, I’ve been thinking, can I use smoke and spice to bring more and deeper flavor to my cooking?

The question was wandering around in my head when, a few weeks ago, I saw a package of grilled artichoke hearts at my local Whole Foods.  I bought them and, after a first tentative bite, quickly gobbled them up. I bought another package and shared them with The Professor, making sure to eat faster than he did. When they were finished, I flipped the package over to read the ingredients: artichokes, olive oil, salt, smoke flavor.

Smoke flavor?

I rummaged through my spices and found a small bag of “Mexican smoked salt” that I’d picked up at a great local spice store. I opened a can of artichoke hearts, drained them, mixed them with some olive oil and smoky salt and grilled them up.

My attempt to grill baby artichokes

They tasted OK, but not nearly as smoky as the ones that I’d bought,  so I continued the search.

Next I bought some smoked paprika, tossed it with some carrots and turnips and roasted them. The dish delivered some nice smokey flavor and a little bit of spice. It was definitely more successful than my artichoke hearts, though still … I felt underwhelmed. Next time I’ll add more paprika, I told myself.

 

Smoked Sweet Paprika

But before “next time” could come around, my friend Tom came over for dinner. Or, to be accurate, I convinced Tom to come over and make dinner. (He is a fabulous cook.) He suggested roasted fish and a salad of roasted sweet potatoes, black beans and corn with a chilpotle dressing.

I’d seen recipes that called for “chilpotle peppers in adobo sauce” before, though I’d never tasted them myself. But after one bite of Tom’s salad, I realized my search was over. What a mouthful of smoky spiciness!

Tom's Sweet Potato Chilpotle Salad

I’ve already incorporated chilpotles into my shrimp tacos and salmon cakes (more on those recipes soon) and am now actively looking for excuses to use the smokey little chilis. Suggestions welcome!

Food, Inc.

Last night The Professor started watching Food, Inc., and I watched some of it with him. Yes, I’m late to comment on the film — with a toddler and a six-month-old, I haven’t had much time for movies. And yes, I promised this blog wouldn’t delve into food politics. But … wow.

To that, let me add:

If you or someone you know wants to eat less meat, watching Food Inc will add some oomph to that effort.

If you want to continue eating meat, it will make you think hard about where you get it — preferably from a small, local farm that values the health of their livestock (and, ultimately, your health) above their profit margin.

And, finally, if you have children, think twice as much about where you get your food and how you clean it once it’s yours. Food Inc includes the heart-aching story of Kevin Kowalcyk, a 2-year-old who died a terrible 12 days after eating a hamburger tainted with E-coli.

I rarely buy meat, but I do buy containers of “triple-washed” spinach and mixed greens, which have been known to carry E-coli. Yet I’ve trusted the label enough to use those greens, unwashed by me, for salads or other recipes. No longer. I can’t imagine the horror that I would feel if a child of mine suffered Kevin’s death because I had been too trusting or lazy to clean the their food myself.

Protein — How Much Is Enough?

How much protein does a person need every day? The specific answer depends on the individual: male or female? pregnant or nursing? a growing child or an adult? But here’s the general answer: Not as much as you think.

The reality is, Americans tend to take in twice the amount of protein that they need. And too much protein isn’t good. Let the record state: I’m no nutritionist. But I do know that the traditional American diet has left many (The Professor included) with a skewed perception of how much protein they need on a daily basis. In short, your protein of choice shouldn’t take up the majority of space on your plate. According to the American Dietetic Association, people can meet all of their protein needs by consuming a variety of vegetables, legumes, and grains.

Then again, who pays attention to the American Dietetic Association?

The Professor doesn’t.

But he does love basketball.

Which brings me to an interesting article in, yes, Vegetarian Times: an interview with former NBA champion and vegetarian John Salley. According to Salley, after he adopted a vegetarian diet, he was quicker on his feet and jumped higher. “I blocked more shots and grabbed more rebounds,” he tells the magazine. “I also went up in scoring. The 1991-92 season was my best ever.”

When I told The Professor he was, to say the least, surprised that an NBA star could thrive on a vegetarian diet. “But what did he eat?” I heard him say as I walked back to my office.

He’ll find out soon enough: I’ve downloaded him a copy of John Salley’s Vegetarian Starter Kit.

In the meantime, you can watch John Salley teach a suddenly miniature Rachel Ray how to make guacamole:

A Cooking Challenge

The cooking challenge was simple: make vegetarian meals even a meat-eater would love.

Here’s how it came about: A few weeks ago, as my husband and I were sitting back in our chairs, dinner over but not wanting to clear the empty plates yet, he offered up a compliment — and a challenge. “That is an A+ dish,” he said, his professorial side coming out. “If you can master ten dishes that good, I’ll become a vegetarian.”

Now I like a compliment. But I liked his challenge even more.

You see, it goes against my grain to tell people what to eat. I don’t want to deny him the pleasure he gets from a smoky barbecue. But I’ve long worried that his diet isn’t adding any years to his life. I see the ghost of my mother-in-law, who died of a heart-attack at 48 (48! The age he’ll be just six short years from now!), hanging over his plate of pork ribs (and I know he senses her there, too). So here he was, giving me permission to cook more healthy, vegetarian meals and igniting my competitive spirit at the same time.

Little did he know where his off-handed comment would lead. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there are thousands, maybe even millions of people out there like him. Maybe they want to eat less meat for health reasons. Maybe they’ve been inspired by the sustainability arguments of Michael Pollan or Mark Bittman, or by Jonathan Safran Foer’s best-selling Eating Animals, with its passionate attack on factory farming. I won’t delve into the whys and wherefores of eating less meat. Whatever your reasons, I welcome you.

The central focus of this blog is creating healthy, vegetarian dinners, though it will touch on “pescatarian” dishes (that include seafood), which can be good transitional meals as people move away from meat. The recipes that I’ll offer (and which friends often ask me for) will be accessible and straightforward. Tricky French sauces and two-hour prep times don’t fit into my life.

It’s also worth mentioning what this blog is not. It isn’t a venue for arguments about the ethics of eating meat or why we should all be eating more plants and grains for health or environmental reasons. It won’t trade in wacky ideas about yin and yang (I’ll leave that to the macrobiotics) or push a Hindu “vegetarianism is a way of life” line. In short, I leave the philosophy to The Professor and focus on taste — on finding and/or adapting vegetarian recipes that even a carnivore will crave.