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Prunes, Lentils, and “Cookin’ Cheap”

When I was a kid, PBS, which had made a gourmet name for itself with The French Chef, decided that if one chef was good, six or seven had to be better. Suddenly the public and cable airwaves were  bursting with the Frugal Gourmet, the Galloping Gourmet, Yan Can Cook, Cookin’ Cajun, various shows with Pierre Franey and Jacques Pépin, and one…ummm…less glamorous show called Cookin’ Cheap.

This was hosted by Larry Bly and Earl “Laban” Johnson, Jr. out of Roanoke, VA–-not too far from where I grew up–and featured two viewer-submitted recipes per episode, which the guys bravely cooked and sampled on the air. At the end of each show, just like Julia Child, they sat down at the table for the tasting… and decided whose recipe had come off worse.

Now, Cookin’ Cheap was not for tenderfoots–if you couldn’t handle ingredient lists that included whole sticks of margarine and self-rising flour, or bring yourself to shop in one of the ordinary supermarket chains that had never heard of organic anything (this was the South in the ’80s), you would have done better not to watch. But if down-home cooking delivered with a touch of schadenfreude was your thing, it was a great little show.

Unfortunately, my favorite early episode doesn’t seem to be available anywhere on the ‘net. But the clip above, the Cookin’ Cheap 2.0 (YouTube) version of about a third of Episode #609, will give you some idea. (see copyright disclaimer below…)

In my actual favorite episode, Bly and Johnson hit their personal limit with a recipe that had them both making faces and apologizing to the audience that “there’s cheap… and then there’s too cheap.”

The dish in question was “Lentils ‘n’ Prunes” (you can guess the entire ingredient list). And it was indeed cheap. Unfortunately lentils, though incredibly cheap and nutritious, cook up kind of gray, especially on a semi-rural public TV station with early-’80s (i.e., yellow-ocher) set lighting. Trust me when I say the addition of mashed prunes did nothing for them aesthetically or otherwise. How on earth could they have put this on the air?

Of course, these guys didn’t have to take the blame for the recipe, and it was great entertainment to see some of the strange things your neighbors might be cooking at home and writing in to the show about with high hopes of being selected. I understand the Food Network is now copying Bly and Johnson’s reality-cooking formula shamelessly for the fall lineup…

[Actually, I didn’t realize the show had such a good run, but it started locally in 1981 and only ended its nationally syndicated run in 2002. Johnson passed away a few years before the end, but he managed to publish the Cookin’ Cheap Cookbook in 1988. Bly kept the show going with Johnson’s friend and successor Doug Patterson and has since made a couple of rescued episodes available on DVD. And the show still has fans on YouTube and — surprisingly just this March–in the New York Times.

Disclaimer: YouTube removed the first clip I linked to for copyright violation–so my apologies to Bly; the intent in linking here isn’t to rip anyone off but to highlight a too-little-known show. Because the original Roanoke station managers were too shortsighted to save the episodes (they apparently trashed them!), Bly was only able to rescue a couple of episodes for the DVD, and I think some of the others posted at this point were recorded at home from TV.]

Ah, well. Times change, horizons broaden, and we aim to challenge our palates in a sophisticated world beat kind of way even with limited cash and ingredients. The wolf may be at the door, we may be on the rice and beans yet again to make up for unreimbursed conference travel, but we are determined to do it in style–that means Indian, Moroccan, Mediterranean–French? Well, at least by not mixing plain lentils and prunes together in a hideous gray mash.

…I’m not actually sure how the French feel about lentils with prunes, or what they’d do about it if you suggested it. But I have a huge bowl of cooked lentils to deal with from a 1-lb. bag at $1.29. And a 1-lb. bag of non-sorbate pitted prunes at $2.99. Less than $5 total. And a number of ideas about how to deal with each of them, separately or together. Enough ideas that I’m probably going to have to split this post so it doesn’t turn into War and Prunes.

This, I think, is going to become my How to Cook a Wolf Challenge, 21st Century Edition.

Because I have fantasies (not many, and relatively tame though entertaining) of the Iron Chef America and Top Chef hosts announcing, for the next quickfire competition, a challenge to find three or four good ways to combine lentils and prunes in dishes where they’re the main ingredients and for which the total bill for the tasting menu comes to something like $10, including spices (prorated as used…) Can’t you just see the contestants’ faces? Take a moment to enjoy their obvious panic. The restaurant industry hasn’t trained them for this.

But seriously. What was actually behind this Cookin’ Cheap dealbreaker, other than the obvious frugality factor plus the even more obvious digestive humor that follows prunes and lentils wherever they roam?

Is there any way on earth that prunes and lentils could really go together?

Well…yes, as a matter of fact. You don’t run across prune and lentil recipes everyday, but good-tasting and intriguing variations, or at least the components of them, exist in a number of respected cuisines around the globe. Even French. For very little more than it cost the Cookin’ Cheap guys, you could have something both appetizing and reasonably attractive. Even considering that the featured ingredients are still lentils and prunes.

–Do we need to examine the theoretical basis for this claim? I think we do.

Prunes are a natural for sweet dishes with some spice in them–lekvar or prune butter is great for stuffing hamantaschen and other European-style pastries, and the French soak prunes in Armagnac to top ice cream–an adult’s version of rum raisin. And prunes also go pretty well with dark chocolate. But prunes are surprisingly versatile–sweet, savory, tart and spicy all in one go, they’re one of those unlooked-for ingredients that can pull together complex savory dishes without disappearing altogether.

Prunes can be stuffed with nuts, marzipan, cream or goat cheese, even bleu or gorgonzola for appetizers or dessert bites. They go well with gingerbread-type spices, carrots or yams or winter squash, citrus, fennel, anise, thyme, juniper berries, rosemary and other savory herbs. Brandy of course, also deep red wines. Onion, garlic, vinaigrette–even olives, as in Chicken Marbella, the much-celebrated recipe from the Silver Palate cookbooks that is still quoted all over the web and even in a number of professional-grade cooking encyclopedias.

Ordinary brownish-green lentils and their cousins (red, yellowish-white, dark speckled Puy lentils, tiny Syrian black or “caviar” lentils) are eaten throughout Europe, the Near East, parts of Africa and as far as India. They’re nutty, earthy, and go well in veggieburgers, dals, thick winter soups and stews, pilafs like mujeddrah, variations on chili or ful mudamas, fillings for stuffed vegetables or grape leaves or samosas or phyllo. They can substitute decently enough for other varieties of lentils and a wide variety of beans–not that anyone mistakes one for another, just that a lot of recipes taste pretty good with more than one kind of bean or pulse.

There’s one other aspect to ordinary supermarket lentils: lentils have some of the same nutty/peppery/bitter/rich flavors as ground beef, lamb or liver and sometimes substitute in vegetarian versions of things like chopped liver.

Chopped liver, of course, is the Jewish version of pâté, which brings us back to the French. The French like prunes and gingerbread spices with their foie gras. They do! So a lentil mock chopped liver or lentil loaf might not look as graceful as the lobes of seared foie gras with prune and port sauce featured in Stéphane Reynaud’s French Feasts. But the prune-plus-lentil thing is looking less completely illogical at this point, at least if the lentils–and the prunes!–are well-flavored and not just boiled up in water.

If you wanted to ease into the prunes-and-lentils phenomenon, you could serve stuffed prune hors d’oeuvres or Chicken Marbella at the same meal for which you served a standard thick savory lentil stew as a  side dish. They wouldn’t actually have to touch on the same plate. But that’s avoiding the spirit of the challenge.

As an accent, chopped prunes would work in any dish you can throw raisins or dried cranberries into–not just quickbreads and oatmeal cookies but coleslaw, some green salads, even pilafs. So first–do the simple thing, maybe the best thing for summer which is already really heating up here in Los Angeles:

Cold rice-and-lentil pilaf with prunes

  • A couple of cups of cooked rice or other grain (wild, brown, barley, wheatberries, quinoa, bulgur, whatever you have and like)–still hot or else quickly reheated in the microwave with a drizzle of water and a lid, so it’s tender, not stiff from the refrigerator
  • Cooked and drained green lentils, about the same amount as the rice or a bit less, preferably warm-to-hot
  • vinaigrette–either just olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice, or mustard, vinegar and olive oil
  • Chopped prunes
  • Chopped herbs like dill, basil, or mint
  • Chopped red onion, shallot, or scallions
  • Chopped Greek-type pitted olives or capers–sparingly
  • Salad greens–torn romaine, arugula, red leaf lettuce, or mesclun
  • Crumbles of feta cheese
  • Toasted nuts–pistachios, flaked almonds, sunflower seeds, walnuts or pecans

Mix the warm rice or grain gently with the lentils, dress with olive oil and vinegar or vinaigrette, and let sit to absorb for a while (kind of the same idea as the hot potatoes in salade niçoise, and toss in the other ingredients except for the salad greens and the cheese, which should be mixed in gently just before serving.  Serve at room temperature or chilled.

But let’s take it a step further.

The challenge is a dish with lentils meant to be served with a prune-based sauce. How are we going to keep them from looking awful together?

Next post up, a couple of prune sauces–partly because they’re quicker, partly because they can go with things besides lentils. Things like grilled fish or chicken, which might be handy today or tomorrow.

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