Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fast Lentil Salad

I have a new favorite processed food to recommend--WAIT! Did I just say that? Yes, I did, but let me explain. Anyone who knows me will also know that I advocate cooking and eating at home, and avoiding processed foods.

There are, however, a few exceptions that I consider what I call "acceptable compromises," meaning minimally processed foods that have been altered only slightly, with very few ingredients added, if any. An example of this would be Italian "passata di pomodoro," which is nothing more than ripe plum tomatoes that have been skinned, seeded, and passed through a food mill to form a smooth puree--all organic, and sold in bottles or aseptic tetrapaks, not plastic or cans. The reason I favor this exception is that it saves a considerable amount of labor, produces exactly what I would if I did it myself, and--very importantly--removes a barrier that might deter many people from cooking and eating at home.

Other examples include frozen corn or peas, vegetable bouillon cubes, and organic canned beans. I regard all of these as ingredients that I might add to something I'm cooking, not a pre-made dish or (worse yet) an entire meal. Usually the only stowaway item in these is salt, and I prefer minimal salt if at all, so it will not throw the dish I'm adding them to off balance. Now back to what I was saying.

When I was at Whole Foods in Chicago last weekend, shopping for my presentation at the Chicago Veggie Fest, I picked up some subsistence food to have in my hotel room--simple, easy things like fresh fruit, nuts, olives, and a big container of salad I assembled from the salad bar. I had a room with a refrigerator and small kitchen, so why eat out? While I was there, I spied a package of "ready to eat" steamed lentils--similar to one I had bought at Trader Joe's just the weekend before, in California. These are so much better than the canned version, because they have no liquid added, making them perfect for salads.

It's ridiculously easy to build a delicious salad from these lentils. All I did for the one in the picture was add a bunch of diced celery, red onion, one little plum tomato, and the stems from baby red Swiss chard. Then I made a quick, easy vinaigrette by pounding a few garlic cloves and a handful of fresh oregano leaves in a mortar with fine Celtic salt to a smooth paste, and then working in some sherry vinegar, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, freshly ground black pepper, and finally, the oil--half Udo's Oil and half EVOO. After folding the vinaigrette into the lentil salad, I let it sit a few minutes for the flavors to meld and develop. I cut the baby chard leaves into wide strips, formed beds on the plates, and mounded the lentils mixture in the center of each.

Maybe you noticed that I didn't dress the greens first. Good catch. But this wasn't necessary, because the dressing that clung to the lentils was ample enough to make for a very moist, flavorful mouthful, greens and all. The salad was just as good the  following day; the lentil component was still perfect, and we had plenty of greens to reproduce the entire experience. My wife took a container of the lentils and a bag of the greens to combine at work, and I had the rest for lunch. Yum.

What about the baby red chard (and their tender stems)? My wife has a steady supply growing in our garden, so I always have them on hand, which perhaps you don't. Don't worry if you don't have access to these; you'll find many other vegetables to add, at your local natural foods market. Fennel, radishes, grated carrot or beet, scallions, and peppers are all prime candidates. For the greens, you also have several options: arugula, baby spinach, watercress--any lettuce, really. The key player in this salad is the lentils, and having them precooked is a major leg-up for the rushed home cook.

So there you have it: some processed foods can be a good thing--if they encourage and empower you to cook and enjoy fresh food at home!


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