French Lentil Salad

The winter rut has been hitting hard over the last few weeks. You can eat only so much kale, roast, and potatoes before you start longing for plums, or a peach, or a tomato. But good luck finding plums or peaches that aren’t tasteless balls of concrete or a tomato that has more flavor than the box it came in.

Last Saturday, then, I found myself roaming the aisles of Whole Foods for novel fare, carefully adding up each item as I placed it in my basket, trying desperately not to exceed our miserly monthly food budget with the purchase of a fillet of fish or a single Meyer lemon.

In the spirit of cash-strapped shoppers everywhere, I trotted over to the rice and beans in the bulk aisle. There, after buying some arborio rice at $2.49 a pound, I found these lovely little French lentils (also $2.49 a pound). Feeling wildly indulgent, I poured two pounds of each item into an ecologically disastrous plastic bag (happily noting the irony that I’d brought a canvas bag to carry home my groceries).

These French lentils were a joy to prepare and eat. Not only do they look like tiny pebbles, but they also hold their shape nicely when cooked–making them ideal for salads when other lentils can be easily overcooked and fall apart (much like I did when I realized that I’d managed to blow ten bucks on rice and beans). They also have a nuttier flavor than other lentils, so they require very little seasoning to add a little culinary spark to a dish.

I cooked two cups to start, pulled out a cup or so partway through the process to make a salad and letting the rest simmer a little longer to soften them for a soup. The salad turned out to be the perfect winter meal–hearty enough to satisfy on a cold day but offering a welcome hint of summer.

French Lentil Salad

Note: Adjust amounts as needed to suit your taste; I feel silly offering a recipe for salad in the first place. These portions will serve 2 as a meal.

1 cup French lentils
3 cups water, and more as needed
4 mushrooms, sliced
2 cups fresh baby spinach leaves
1/4 cup olive oil
Kosher salt
Fresh ground black pepper

Sort and rinse lentils. In a medium saucepan, bring lentils, about 1 tsp. salt, and water to boil. Reduce heat. Cover and cook 20 – 25 minutes, until lentils just become soft. Drain lentils and rinse in cold water for a few seconds, until they are warm but no longer hot. Allow lentils to continue draining while you prepare the rest of the salad.

Toss spinach, olive oil, and kosher salt to taste in a large bowl. Slice mushrooms and add to salad, then lentils. Place in serving bowls and top with more salt, if desired, and fresh ground black pepper.

Vegetarian Boston Baked Beans

Every winter the urge for Boston baked beans comes upon me, and with the holiday weekend I decided it was time to make them again. Not able to find my own recipe–a meatless version I cobbled together during my six-month vegetarian phase in 1987–I turned to dear, reliable James Beard.

But I was dismayed to discover that my beloved Beard did not like Boston baked beans: “The worship of Boston baked beans,” he writes, “is a mystery to me, since my palate cannot reconcile the sweetness of syrup or molasses and the simple hardy flavor of pork and beans.”

My palate has no problem with this, and it should be no mystery why a nation that adores honey roasted peanuts and chocolate covered pretzels would love the salty-sweet combination offered in this dish. The traditional version calls for salt pork, which adds a rich, flavorful smokiness. Not having any salt pork on hand, I considered using the applewood smoked bacon in our freezer. Bacon that costs $8.00 a pound,  however, deserves a more prominent place in a recipe. And with no extra cash in our budget this month, I couldn’t spring for even a few ounces of salt pork. So it was back to the vegetarian version.

Beard’s recipe called for maple syrup, which I knew was not part of the recipe I’d lost. So I left him to huff over America’s proletarian taste buds and turned instead to Fannie Farmer (13th edition), where I found what looked like the right proportion of sweetener (in this case, molasses) and dry mustard. I also liked her addition of brown sugar, since the organic molasses on my shelf–bought in desperation one day at Whole Foods–has a bitter taste. The addition of onions, garlic, and extra kosher salt adds enough flavor to make up for the lack of salt pork. Almost.

But perhaps the best part of making Boston baked beans is that I get to use my grandmother’s bean pot–a simple brown clay vessel that she never used much but which looks great on the shelf, like you really know what you’re doing in your kitchen.

 Vegetarian Boston Baked Beans

3 tbsp. canola or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. kosher salt
2 cups white beans (navy or Great Northern)
2 tbsp. dry mustard
5 tbsp. dark brown sugar
4 tsp. molasses

Soak beans in water overnight or use short method. For short method, place beans in a covered pot with water twice the depth of the beans. Bring to a boil. Cover and let sit for one hour, then follow directions below.

Preheat oven to 300. Drain beans, reserving liquid. Put beans in bean pot or tall casserole dish. Saute onion in oil on medium high heat. Add garlic and stir. Remove from heat. Add to bean liquid along with remaining ingredients and stir until mixed. Pour over beans.

Bake 6 hours, checking every hour or so to make sure there is enough liquid in the pot. I like my beans to be coated with a gooey, sugary paste, so I typically don’t add water. If they begin to reach this state before the last 30 – 60 minutes of cooking, however, more water should be added to keep them from drying out.

Warm Food for a Chilly New Year

We are back for 2010, after a long vacation over Christmas that included our third wedding anniversary and a week in Jackson Hole, WY, with family. We limited the possibility of injury by sticking to snowshoeing. Fred also took his first cross-country ski lesson, during which they taught him to fall down. He was so pleased that he practiced falling down quite a bit thereafter, and seems to have mastered the technique quite well. 

I was also reminded why I married him, because he is the only man I know who would bring a copy of Poetry magazine on a snowshoeing excursion. (I post this photo as a tribute to Ruth Lilly, the benefactor of the magazine, who died while we were on the trip.) 

Returning to Durham, we were surprised to find the temperature was very nearly the same as it had been in Wyoming. The cats responded appropriately. See if you can spot which one made herself at home in our sweater drawer.

And finally, I made this delicious pork and bean soup. I post it despite my concern that it’s not possible to replicate it. For starters, the broth I used was from a Cornish game hen I roasted over Christmas. The hen was stuffed with sage dressing, and the flavors may have infused the broth. 

Second, the pork came from a container of pulled pork “barbecue” from Whole Foods. As barbecue, it was lousy–tender but lacking anything in the way of zip, zing, or flavor. Not even worthy of a sandwich, it was heartlessly tossed into the pot, where it took on a new life so tasty that it may convince me to buy it again for the sole purpose of making this soup.

Pork and Northern Bean Soup

Makes 3 – 4 servings

About 1 quart chicken or other poultry stock
1 medium onion, chopped
3 – 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup dry Great Northern beans
1 cup small carrots, sliced
1 tbsp. herbes de Provence (could substitute a mix of sage and thyme)
1 cup mild pork barbecue, shredded or chopped*
1 small can evaporated milk, or more to taste
Kosher salt and pepper to taste

*Note that this is North Carolina-style barbecue, which is vinegar based and uses no tomato. If this type of barbecue is not available, I would substitute leftover smoked pork shoulder, pork chops, tenderloin, or even ham.

Put enough chicken stock in bottom of soup pot to cover and saute onion on medium high heat. Add garlic and stir. Add beans, remaining chicken stock, and a large pinch of kosher salt (a teaspoon or so–it really does not matter as long as you don’t overdo it, since seasonings will be corrected at the end.) Bring to a boil and let boil for 1 -2 minutes. Cover, reduce heat to medium low, and let simmer until beans are just tender, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Check every half hour or so; add water or more stock if liquid level begins to get low, enough to keep ingredients well covered. Add carrots and herbes de Provence. Cover and continue to simmer until carrots are tender, 15 – 30 minutes. Add pork and evaporated milk and stir. Remove from heat immediately or when soup is sufficiently warm; do not overcook the pork. Add more salt to taste and pepper if desired. Serve immediately.

Summer Black Bean Salad

After our beach excesses, Fred and I crawled back to Weight Watchers a couple of weeks ago, tails between our legs, shame-faced and begging forgiveness. But God was merciful and good, and we actually lost a little.

In general, though, we remain stuck. (Eating rabbit in cream sauce at the Federal isn’t helping.) Fred has lost close to 40 pounds and needs to lose 20 more, but the scale has not budged for him in months now. I’m trying to hang on to my own 17-pound loss, but keep creeping over my goal.

I explained our frustrations to our leader before the meeting. She said that we should try what’s known as the “Simply Filling” plan, in which you don’t count your points but eat primarily from certain groups of foods. She began to describe it.

My eyebrows went up in skeptical anticipation. I’d done the “Simply Filling” plan once before. I knew what it meant. Lots of vegetables and lean meats. Lots of fruit and milk. A lot less of our most recent dietary staples: bread, pizza, pasta, and potatoes.

The leader finished. “Why are you looking at me like that?” she said.

“It won’t work,” I said bluntly. “I’ve tried it and I hated it.”

“Really?” she replied, looking surprised. (It must be incredibly difficult to be a leader, forced to display cheerful optimism when confronted with people like me.) “I’ve found it’s a great way to kick-start my weight loss again.”

She handed me the booklet detailing the plan. “Just see what you think,” she said. She didn’t pat my hand, but I know she wanted to.

I took the book and grumped into the meeting, where I started flipping through the pages to avoid our leader’s upbeat smiles. About halfway through the book, I stopped. There was a photo of what looked like a pretty darn good black bean salad.

I read through the recipe, which included mangoes, limes, cilantro, and jalapeno pepper. This looks promising, I thought.

And it was. It has not revolutionized our weight loss yet, but it’s a sign of hope.

Black Bean Salad

I’ve substitued peaches for the mango, since peaches have been in season here, and added avocado because we had some on hand. The avocado could be omitted, but it adds a nice creamy texture.

For this dish fresh ingredients are absolutely essential. It will be ruined if you try substituting lime juice from concentrate for fresh, or use canned chopped garlic (or worse, garlic powder), or dried cilantro. I find that canned beans work just as well as cooked dry beans, but cook your own if you feel otherwise.

1 15 – oz. can black beans (you can also use dried beans that you have cooked), drained and rinsed
1 peach (peeled or unpeeled), cut into 1″ pieces
1 avocado, scooped from skin and cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 fresh jalapeno pepper, minced (I leave in the seeds for more kick)
Juice of two limes
3 – 4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbsp. minced fresh cilantro
Salt to taste

Mix lime juice, garlic, and cilantro in small bowl. Add remaining ingredients to medium-sized serving bowl. Pour lime juice mixture over bean mixture and add salt. Stir until thoroughly mixed.


My confidence as a cook was somewhat restored last night when I used my Ranney Ranch soup bones in what I can only call Un-Split Pea Soup. (I don’t offer a recipe, though, because while the beef was good, the recipe itself still needs work.) These tasty little morsels consist of a bone (obviously) surrounded by about three inches of meat. This time I kept it simple–searing the soup bones in a little olive oil, sauteeing with onion, adding garlic and then soup ingredients. The smell of the meat cooking in the pot was heady, with a slight undertone of something else–cloves, perhaps, or New Mexico grasses, or maybe just a memory of home.

I also discovered that the ranch offers a recipe for arm steak on their web site. It does not call for smothering the meat in bad barbecue sauce.

As for the Un-Split Peas: These were acquired on our trip to Food World (home of the mysterious and delicious little peppers I have yet to identify). I was excited to try them. They were labeled “whole dried peas,” and they consisted of small, yellowish-green pods that I imagined would puff up slightly, like black-eyed peas, and might make an interesting addition to a salad.

It’s probably pointless to go on. You know how the story went–the slowly dawning realization during cooking that the pods looked an awful lot like peas, only dried; the wonder at how quickly they were softening; and the final burst of insight upon tasting them: “Whole dried peas. Oh yes. Split peas, only . . . not split.”

Cooking Extravaganza (Beef Burritos, Beef and Lentil Salad)

I’ll say this for Weight Watchers: I’ve been spending more time in the kitchen in an effort to create dishes that won’t be awful and that won’t leave us starving. And it’s been . . . oh damn and blast it all, I have to admit it. I’m having fun.

In what is surely the crowning irony of this whole weight loss experience, our fridge is now groaning with food. Most of the new residents are vegetables and herbs–squash, carrots, celery, mushrooms, watermelon, cilantro, parsley, plums, and so on. We’ve always eaten them, but not this much and not as fast. And we need them now like never before–they are our front line of defense against the battallions of cheese and chips that have been invading our waistlines over the years.

The vegetables also helped us use the leftover steak from Fred’s birthday. Leftover steak wasn’t a familiar concept to Fred in the past, but we’re in a crazy new world now.

They key to our leftover steak preparation were these little babies, picked up at Food World (401 E. Lakewood Ave., Durham.)

Unfortunately they were not labeled, and my search of The Chileman’s database did not produce results. They are tiny dried peppers, about 1/2″ long, with a wonderfully rich flavor–slightly smoky, but not like a chipotle, a good bit of depth, and heat in the same range as a jalapeno. (I’ll keep trying to find out what they are!)

On Saturday, we had these steak and vegetable burritos, which were far more beautiful and delicious than my limited photography skills can convey here.

Here is the recipe. I’m guessing each burrito would have 9 points, but they are a complete meal.

Steak and Vegetable Burritos (serves 2)

2 large flour tortillas
4 oz. cooked steak or beef, sliced into 3″ strips about 1/4″ wide
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 large onion, sliced thin
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 – 1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 yellow squash, halved lengthwise and sliced thin
1 red pepper, chopped
1/4 – 1/2 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
1 – 2 tbsp. cumin
1/4 cup tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes
6 – 8 of the tiny peppers pictured above, minced, or 1 tsp. crushed red pepper plus 1 minced chipotle (adjust spices to taste)
1/4 – 1/2 cup crated white cheddar cheese

Saute onions in olive oil over medium heat in large skillet until translucent. Add garlic and stir. Add squash, pepper, cilantro, 1/4 cup lime juice, cumin, and salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add tomato sauce and more lime juice as needed. Add beef and peppers. Cover and cook until vegetables are softened, about 5 more minutes. Remove lid and cook until liquid has evaporated, about 5 more minutes. Turn off heat. Put tortilla shells on top of skillet and let steam for 1 minute. Put tortilla shells on two large plates. Divide beef mix into shells, placing slightly to one side. Sprinkle with cheese, roll up, and serve.

Our second beefy delight came in the form of this lentil salad.

Beef, Lentil, and Cilantro Salad (2 huge meal-size servings, 9 – 10 points each)

2 cups cooked yellow lentils
8 oz. cooked steak or beef, sliced into 3″ strips about 1/4″ wide
1/2 large red onion (about 2 cups), sliced thin
3/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon or lime juice (lime is great if you don’t spill your entire supply all over the floor as someone did this evening)
4 – 5 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 tbsp. olive oil
6 – 8 of the small unnamed peppers pictured above, or 1 tsp. crushed red pepper with 1 minced chipotle pepper

Mix together lemon/lime just, garlic, cilantro, olive oil, and peppers in a small bowl. Add remaining ingredients to large bowl and pour lemon mix over lemon. Let stand about 1 hour before serving.

And, to top things off, I roasted this chicken from Rainbow Meadow Farms. You may notice it lacks a wing, which saved us several dollars off the price. But it had the most spectacular skin I have ever eaten. I believe chicken skin, eaten by itself, has only a point or two, and so that was dessert.

The chicken preparations were of particular interest to Thelma.

At this point, however, she was asked to leave.

Why There’s the Internet

Two minutes after finishing the post on cranberry beans below, I thought, “Why not see what the Internet has to say about this?” Here’s what I discovered:

“Cranberry beans are rounded with red specks, which disappear on cooking. . . . According to the USDA, the American ‘cranberry bean’ is the same bean as the Italian ‘borlotti’ and, as a matter of fact, a large percentage of the ‘borlotti’ beans sold in Italy are actually ‘cranberry beans’ imported from the U.S. Another name for this bean in the U.S. is ‘French horticultural bean’. If you can’t locate cranberry beans, an acceptable substitute is the pinto bean, and a second (but not as close) substitute would be red kidney beans.”

Someday, I will learn to read instructions.

Not as Cranberry as We Would Have Liked Beans

We discovered these cranberry beans at the Farmers’ Market recently. Since we had never seen them before and they looked weird, we of course had to try them.

At first I thought we would end up with a big bowl of something that resembled alcoholic green beans–you know, little splotchy red faces staring up at you. You can see why from the picture below:

But when I did a taste test, I realized that the hulls resembled a cross between the bottom of my running shoe and a celery stalk. So it dawned on me that perhaps these were beans that were meant to be shelled. And lo! look at the beautiful beans in there!

And how gloriously speckled and . . . and . . . cranberryish they were when they were all hulled, waiting to be cooked.

Thinking it would be better to keep things simple, I decided just to cook them in salted water and then figure out where to go from there. I boiled them for a minute or so, then turned the heat down to low for about 45 minutes until they were tender. My heart went thump-a-thump as I lifted the lid to see the final result. What possibilites for beautiful presentations would reveal themselves! How wonderful it would be to have those little red speckled beauties nestled in a salad–maybe even with dried cranberries!

But, as is so often the case, my fond hopes were dashed. Cooked, the beans looked like . . . navy beans, white beans–every other ordinary bean you’ve ever had. They tasted like . . . beans. If you pinned me down I’d say they’re a cross between a pinto and a lima but certainly not a navy and cranberry (as I’d hoped).

I’ll serve them in a salad with olive oil, tuna, and salt. Just like I do with navy beans.

Lentil Soup

With the temperature being an absolutely ridiculous 42 degrees yesterday, there was nothing more to do than make soup.

And read Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which I was supposed to read for my book club two months ago. Let’s just say I skipped the meeting. But now I’m working on one of our next items, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and it’s so dreadfully, horribly serious that I had to turn to something fun.

But back to the soup. Fred miraculously did not finish, or even come near to finishing, the steak he ordered at Feast on Saturday night, so it ended up in the soup. I felt a little guilty throwing a lovely steak into a lentil soup, but it was either that or overcook it.

For the recipe I’ve added more meat–there really was not quite enough leftover steak.

Beef and Lentil Soup

2-3 tsp. olive oil
1 lb. beef, cut into 1″ pieces
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 carrots, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. lentils, sorted and rinsed
2 quarts water
1 can unsalted tomato puree
1/2 – 1 cup white or red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive in soup pot over medium heat. Add and cook until just tender.

Add onion and saute until translucent. Add carrots and saute about 10 minutes.

Add garlic and stir. Add remaining ingredients, stir, turn heat to high, and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium low, cover, and simmer until lentils are soft, about 1 1/2 hour.

And now–back to my day job.