Smile Politely

Learning to Live on Lentils

Several years ago, my friend, Russ Northrup, made a stunning bronze sculpture of a blindfolded woman with her head turned to the sky as she sat on her knees with her hands bound behind her back and her feet bound at her ankles. Though it was less than a foot tall, it was powerful, both for its beauty, as well as its brilliant title, “Debt.”

While last week proved we are not beholden to a king, collectively, and for many of us, individually, we are now in the service of debt, serious debt. Learning to live on cheaper proteins like lentils can make that service less arduous. Lentils can help put some distance between us and our credit card balances, and help us save a little extra cash in the event the next “layoff Monday” comes our way.

Most lentils are grown nearby in North Dakota. A cup of lentils has 18 grams of protein, but packs less than 1 gram of fat. That’s 43 grams less fat than a 6 ounce porterhouse steak and 17 less than a serving of salmon. Lentils take only a fraction of the cooking time of other legumes like beans. They also are very versatile. You can use them in soups, stews and salads. By salads, I don’t mean in the U.S. sense of fresh greens that are served regardless of the date on the calendar, but in the European sense of composing seasonal grains, legumes and vegetables, and serving them warm or chilled as the weather dictates.

January is one of the harder months to find local vegetables in our area. It’s the time when my own stash of squash, cabbage and beets begins to dwindle. In the absence of local vegetables, eating ones that are seasonal will be less damaging to your wallet. That said, you can still find a few area squash and pumpkins at Common Ground Food Coop in Urbana.

Late season vegetables like squash, carrots and beets are excellent compliment to lentils. If you have not liked beets in the past, this recipe could make you a convert. Roasting beets, instead of boiling or pickling them, concentrates their natural sugars. This makes them sweeter and takes the edge off their earthy flavor.

Warm Lentil and Roasted Vegetable Salad

16 oz brown lentils

6 c stock
2 bay leaves
1 lb, 2-inch diameter red or golden beets, unpeeled (save the greens)
1 lb peeled butternut squash, or carrots, or combination cut into similar size as beets
2 large onions thickly sliced

olive oil for drizzling

salt and pepper
10 to 20 large basil leaves, or equivalent dry, or frozen puree
5 cloves garlic peeled and smashed
3 T olive oil
1 t salt

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Rub beets with olive oil and place in shallow roasting pan or cast iron or other ovenproof skillet. Place squash in a separate shallow pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil. Strew onions over top of squash. Drizzle with a little more oil. Cover tightly with foil.

Combine lentils, broth and bay leaves in covered 6-quart lidded stock pan/Dutch oven.

Place all pans in oven. After 30 minutes, check for doneness. Lentils should be tender but still toothsome. Beets should be fork tender. If not, roast 10 minutes more or until done.

When beets are cool enough to handle, peel and cube into similar dice as squash.

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Mix together:
1/4 c olive oil
1/4 to 1/3 c balsamic vinegar

1/2 t dried basil

Pour over lentil mixture. Toss. Adjust with salt and pepper as needed.

This dish gets better as it sits, albeit more magenta from the beets. However, it is still really good when just made. Serve warm or at room temperature with some crusty bread.

You can extend any leftovers by sauteing any beet greens or some lacinato kale (the only kind that isn’t shoe leather at this time of year) with garlic. If you are feeling flush, you can extend the salad with some local bratwurst from Moore Family Farm or Triple S, or top your bread with some local fresh chevre from Prairie Fruits. All are available at Common Ground Food Coop.

This dish also can be served chilled in summer with fresh basil substituted for the dried.

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