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Prunes and Lentils III: The Lentil Variations

Today’s (and last week’s, and the week before’s) topic is STILL the lentils-and-prunes challenge.

Before I get on a roll about lentils, I should mention that the first Prunes and Lentils post was my 101st post for this blog. I don’t know if we should celebrate, but why not. Woo-hoo! Good enough. Consider it celebrated.

It’s taken me a full two weeks to put up this post because this is where the rubber meets the road, or at least where the lentils meet the prunes. The moment of courage. And I don’t know whether it’s going to be great or whether people will go back to wondering why anyone ever let me in a kitchen. (That’s easy: because no one wanted to do the cooking  themselves.)

Ordinary brownish-green lentils are kind of a workhorse ingredient in European, Mediterranean and Near East cooking (also in Indian and African cooking, though red lentils are better known). Unlike restaurant chain buffalo wings, lentils are actually rich in protein and iron, and they aren’t surreptitiously pumped up with sugar, salt and fat to entice you to overeat. The Center for Science in the Public Interest is not likely to sue, because a bag of lentils doesn’t come with a deceptive toy to con the kids. (See? we can be topical and up on the hot news of the moment even while discussing an arcane Slow Food subject like lentils).

And lentils are CHEAP–the whole point of starting this Prunes and Lentils challenge in the first place. Somehow even the big supermarkets that push shoppers to the middle aisles to buy boxes instead of actual food always carry dried store-brand lentils over near the bags of rice and split peas and kidney beans and such. It’s one of the few middle-aisle purchases that are worth it.

I don’t know if lentils have even kept up with inflation over the past 20 or 30 years, because they’re always something like $1-$1.25 for a one-pound bag. Same as when I was a student on a $20 a week food budget. And a pound makes 5-10 meals, not just one serving.

Actually, the recent agroeconomics of growing lentils in the US makes unexpectedly interesting behind-the-scenes reading for policy wonks like me. Lots of people are now clamoring for the US to change the crop subsidy laws to encourage more nutritious crops than corn, soy and wheat. Lentils are still a minor crop, but apparently the USDA introduced new marketing loans and other incentives for lentils, peas and chickpeas under the Farm Act revisions of 2002 and 2008, and exports for pulses have risen by about 45% in the last few years to India, Spain, the Philippines, and other major lentil and chickpea consumers. The rest are bought for animal feed and international food aid programs, especially those for sub-Saharan African nations.

That’s because lentils still fly under the radar here. The average annual consumption in the US is still just about a pound per person. Up from 0.8 pounds in 2008, so a 20 percent jump, but still. One pound per person in a year. If my continuation of the Prunes and Lentils Challenge posts has no other benefit to humankind, I would hope that it inspires you to buy and cook–and eat–at least one additional pound per year in a creative and satisfying way. Pass it on–Two pounds per year? At a cost of $2-3 total? We can but dream…

Of course, now that bean cuisine has become a point of pride for Meatless Mondays and other trends in eating green (if not eating local), lentils don’t just come dry in bags or bulk anymore–not glamorous enough, perhaps? If you’re upscale, you can get them precooked in little cans at your Whole Foods or steamed in vacuum packs at your Trader Joe’s, but those chic packages are much, much more expensive per meal and don’t taste as good. I frankly wouldn’t bother unless you’re on the road or camping or something and don’t have a kitchen at your disposal. Dried lentils don’t need a presoak to cook up within about half an hour even on the stove top, and they’re so easy to cook in a microwave (and avoid the watched-pot-never-boils problem) that the extra expense and time trying to find the precooked ones is usually not worth it. (And what about all that extra plastic and metal packaging? Be righteous–buy ’em dry.)

If you cook up a whole pound bag at once, you can use it throughout the week or (better, for a lot of people) freeze half of it with a bit of cooking liquid in a microwave container and save yourself some time the next time you want a batch. I keep thinking of that old “Cook Once, Eat Twice–That’s Italian!” lasagna ad (can’t remember if it was for noodles or sauce) from the 1970s. It’s a bit old-fashioned, but still a good idea for  when you’re too tired to cook for real.

In this post, I’ve got 3 or 4 main “strategic” ideas for the prunes and lentils challenge, along with more recipes and variations than should really go in a single post (and THREE more prune accompaniments as well), so just roll your eyes, bear with me, and if you decide never to let me in your kitchen, I’ll understand (plus I’ll never have to do the dishes–win/win!).

So first things first–gotta cook that bag of lentils (and recycle the bag). This recipe is probably longer than the actual process but it contains valuable survival tips for dealing with a whole pound of lentils. So you might decide it’s ok to splurge on a second bag this year.

Microwaved Lentils

Makes 8-10 cups of cooked lentils (whole 2.5 qt/liter bowlful)

  • 1 lb ordinary brown/green dried lentils, the cheap kind
  • 6 to 8 c. water, maybe a bit more as needed

Fill a 2.5 qt pyrex bowl a little more than halfway up with water, place a dinner plate or microwave lid on top and heat to steaming by microwaving on HIGH 5-7 minutes. Meanwhile, wash and pick over the lentils VERY carefully in a colander–sometimes there are tiny pebbles or sticks, very occasionally you might find things as strange as bits of asphalt (don’t ask, don’t ask). Scoop the lentils by spoonfuls into the hot water (keep an eagle eye on them, sometimes pebbles are still hiding in there). Stir, discard any suspicious-looking floaters, put the lid back on and let sit 10 minutes in the closed microwave oven (the insulated box keeps the heat pretty well). Add water to about 1 inch (2-3 cm) above the level of the lentils, or within an inch of the rim of the bowl, and put the lid back on. Microwave 5 minutes on HIGH and check progress so the lentils don’t boil over–be prepared to hit stop. Let them sit 10 minutes again and test for doneness. For soups you want them pretty soft, maybe even near-falling apart; for salads and side dishes you want them still whole but tender. Add a couple of minutes time as needed but keep an eye on things.

Survival (storage) tips:

  • Store cooked lentils (also applies to other beans and tofu) in the fridge in amounts you can use within about a week (see next point). Keep them covered with water in a lidded microwaveable container.
  • Divide and conquer: Divvy up the cooked batch and freeze extras in microwave containers so you can thaw them easily when you’re ready.
  • You can stretch the 1-week limit a bit if you change the water every couple of days and refresh them at that point by microwaving the container 5 minutes or so to steaming/boiling (cool to room temp before putting back in the fridge). It’ll retard spoilage and keep the lentils usable a few days longer.
  • Check for off (funky or sulfurous) odors before using them, particularly after 4-5 days in the fridge. If they smell bad, better to toss them.
  • If you have to travel for more than a  day or two and you have a container of cooked beans or lentils in your fridge, change the water and pop the container into the freezer before you go.
  • But remember, you can only freeze foods once safely–if they’re from a previously frozen batch, either eat them or pitch them.

Whew. OK. Now that we have lentils, how to address the challenge?

I’ve decided the main aesthetic problem with prunes and lentils isn’t the flavor combination. It’s the risk of mashing them together in an ugly, unappetizing way. They need some kind of separator to give them visual and texture contrast. Good fences make good neighbors, and all that.

The first (fairly obvious) separator is rice. What about a spicy and well-balanced dal (substituting brown lentils for red), served over basmati rice, and paired (NOT mixed, that’s just ugly) with some kind of tart, chunky microwaved prune-apple-ginger-vinegar (or lemon juice) kind of chutney on the side?

Microwave Gingered Prune Chutney

  • handful of chopped prunes
  • 1/2-1 c. water
  • chopped peeled Granny Smith or other tart apple
  • grating of ginger
  • 1-2 t apple cider or other mild vinegar OR lemon juice
  • dab of mustard or 1/4 t. curry powder
  • water or sugar to adjust sweet/sour balance to your liking

Microwave the prunes and water in a covered container 1-2 minutes on HIGH and let sit 15 minutes to absorb. Mash lightly to a chunky paste, add the apple, ginger and vinegar and microwave 1 minute covered. Stir in the mustard or curry powder and taste. If too acidic or sharp, add a spoonful of water or a pinch of sugar and taste again.

Or the milder Lebanese-style Green Lentil Stew with (or without, in this case, your choice) Pineapple. Serve with rice studded with pine nuts, chopped prunes and browned onions, maybe a few sprigs of thyme, with or without a dusting of sumac powder, cinnamon and allspice on top. Or the pilaf without prunes but with a Syrian Jewish sweet-and-sour “mock tamarind” prune sauce. This one’s adapted from A Fistful of Lentils by Jennifer Felicia Abadi, whose book traces her family’s Syrian Jewish culinary traditions, but my version uses a microwave and cut-down proportions (and no icky “prune juice”) to shorten the ingredient list and the time  to a few minutes. I’ve also cut down some of the sweet.

Microwaved Syrian Prune Sauce

Abadi’s version calls for 4 cups of prune juice, a cup of lemon juice, a 23 oz. jar of unsweetened applesauce, a 10 oz. jar of apricot jam, a cup of packed brown sugar, and 2 tablespoons of worcestershire sauce, all mixed together, brought to a boil, and simmered down to the consistency of apple butter over 2-3 hours. Expensive and time-consuming, for sure.

Mine: Bring up a handful of chopped prunes and dried apricots by microwaving 2 minutes covered on HIGH with a cup of water and let sit 15-20 minutes to soak up. Puree in a food processor with a peeled granny smith or other tart apple. Microwave 1-2 more minutes; if it’s too thick dilute with a little water to the consistency of apple butter.  Add a good squeeze of lemon juice and correct the taste as needed with more lemon juice or a spoonful or so of sugar, but not a ton.

The next separator possibility is baked stuffed vegetables with a lentil filling and a prune-based sauce or relish.

An Italian-style lentil filling I’ve been playing with layers lentils with three of my fridge’s perennial staples: z’khug (hot pepper/garlic/cilantro paste),  microwave marinara and garlicky marinated artichoke hearts. A pinch of fennel seed, shredded mozzarella over the top for melting, and a final sprinkling of oregano and it comes out tasting something like a lentil version of Italian hot sausage. Perfect for stuffing bell peppers or zucchini.

The question is what to do about the prunes. Two possible answers: chop and mix a few with the filling (not necessarily my recommendation, though I’ve eaten pasta in Sicily that included raisins, artichoke hearts, spinach and pine nuts and it wasn’t bad), or else do a prune-tomato-cracked-olive chopped relish on the side, à la the Silver Palate Cookbook version of Chicken Marbella, only without the chicken or the brown sugar.

Italian Sausage-Style Stuffed Peppers with Lentils

  • Red or other color bell peppers, washed, stemmed, seeded and halved lengthwise
  • 1-2 c. cooked green lentils (decide how many peppers you’re doing)
  • 1 c. leftover cooked rice, couscous or bulgur, optional
  • a good dab of z’khug or else a grated clove or so of garlic and (if you don’t like heat, leave it out) a pinch or so of hot pepper flakes
  • chopped pitted prunes if mixing with the lentils and rice
  • microwave marinara (or your preferred garlicky tomato sauce)
  • marinated artichoke hearts
  • shredded low-fat mozzarella (unless your cholesterol and waistline are both tiny enough to go for the full-fat)
  • hearty pinches of fennel seed and oregano

Microwave directions: Microwave the peppers uncovered 1-2 minutes in a pyrex pie plate or other microwaveable dish to parbake. Drain the lentils fairly well, for a dry filling, and mix with the rice or other grain and/or the prunes if using any of these options. Mix in the z’khug or hot peppers and garlic and stuff the peppers a bit more than halfway. Top with a generous spoonful of chunky tomato sauce and sprinkle a pinch of fennel seed on, lay a few artichoke heart quarters on top, then shredded mozzarella and a pinch of dried oregano. Stand the pepper halves up in the bowl or pie plate, put a lid on or invert a pyrex bowl over it and microwave 4-5 minutes or until the peppers are tender.

Oven (or toaster oven) directions: If you’re baking the peppers, stand them cheese-side up in a foil-lined baking dish as best possible and bake at 350-400F for about 20 minutes or until the peppers are softened and wrinkly.

Marbella Relish (scale up or vary proportions at will)

  • Chopped prunes (a decent handful, 15 or so)
  • red wine, optional, about 1/2 c., or water, or both
  • Chopped tomatoes (2-3 medium, Roma or other)
  • Sliced or chopped (pitted, of course) good Greek-style olives, any color (enough for accent, not enough to choke on the salt)
  • Coarsely chopped grilled or pan-grilled onion, fairly well browned at edges
  • Shredded basil and/or thyme
  • a bit of shredded lemon zest or pickled lemon
  • Red wine vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil
  • Fresh-ground black pepper

Chop the prunes in quarters and microwave covered with a little water or red wine or both for a minute or so and then let sit 15 minutes or so to soften and soak up. Drain if there’s a lot of liquid leftover. Mix the soaked prunes with the tomatoes, onion if using, olives and herbs, and dress with the vinegar and olive oil.

The next version of stuffed vegetables comes from a cross-section of Middle Eastern cookbooks, particularly A Fistful of Lentils again, and the more recent (and photo-studded) coffee-table travelogue/cookbook Turquoise by Greg and Lucy Malouf. Both feature a variety of stuffed vegetables to be drizzled with sweet-and-sour sauces featuring apricots, tamarind, pomegranate molasses, or prunes.

This versatile lentil filling is a drier mix of well-drained lentils with onion, garlic, shawarma-type spices featuring caraway and allspice, and some hot pepper mixed in. It works well mixed with cooked rice for a somewhat spicy version of mujeddrah, but it’s also a very reasonable and satisfying substitute for ground beef or lamb in Greek, Turkish, Middle Eastern or North African baked stuffed vegetable dishes, and cabbage rolls, which in Abadi’s versions are baked slowly in a sweet-and-sour tomato sauce with tamarind or prunes, pretty similar to the Eastern European classic holishkes (stuffed cabbage). I’m not as crazy about holishkes as my parents and grandparents were but I’ve come to appreciate them as an adult. I still can’t help thinking a hit of shawarma spices is a huge improvement, though.

Lentil Stuffing for Cigares, Stuffed Vegetables, Stuffed Grape Leaves, etc.

  • drained cooked green lentils (2 cups or so, whatever amount you feel like using…)
  • fried chopped onion (anything from 1/4 to the whole onion, as you like, and anything from just golden translucent to really brown)
  • grated/minced garlic (go for at least one decent-sized clove)
  • lemon juice to taste
  • drizzle of olive oil
  • chopped cilantro OR a good dab of z’khug (hot pepper/garlic/cilantro paste)
  • shawarma spices (see real or quick-and-dirty mixes, below)
  • pinch of salt, optional

Mix the lentils with everything else to taste and use as filling.

Shawarma Spices (use mixture to taste, might not use it all in 2 c lentils):

  • 1 t caraway seed
  • 1/2 t nigella (“black caraway” or “black onion seed”)
  • 10-20 black peppercorns
  • 4-5 allspice berries

Toast the caraway and nigella seed carefully for a minute or so, just until the fragrance comes up, in a dry metal (not nonstick) saucepan over a low-to-medium flame, swirling gently the whole while so they don’t burn. Grind them with the peppercorns and allspice berries in a coffee or spice grinder. (you can clean it out afterward by grinding a little bit of raw rice or a little bit of salt, dumping that, and then wiping it out with a barely damp napkin or paper towel.

Quick-and-dirty version (can scale up if you want more)

  • 1/2 t Chinese 5-spice powder
  • 1/2 t ground coriander
  • 1 t+ cumin
  • dash of cinnamon, dash of allspice and clove
  • 1/4-1/2 t ground caraway
  • good grinding of black pepper

Stuffed Vegetables

  • Shawarma-spiced lentils as above
  • cooked (for the microwave version) or uncooked-but-soaked-and-drained (traditional oven-baked version) rice or bulgur, somewhat less than the amount of lentils
  • 1/2 c. water
  • Zucchini, yellow squash, small eggplants, medium-sized tomatoes, red bell peppers…
  • Tomato and prune sweet-and-sour sauce for baking (2 6-oz cans tomato paste, 2 c cold water, 1/3 c Mock Tamarind sauce, 2 1/2 t garlic, 1/4 c lemon juice, 1/4 t salt)

Scrub and scoop out vegetables to leave a 1/4″ thick shell (Abadi says 1/8″, I’m not talented enough for that). Microwave 2-3 minutes on a plate to parcook. Chop the pulp and mix with the lentils and rice or bulgur, stir or knead in a little bit of water to moisten the filling, and fill the shells. Leave a little room so the rice can expand without spilling over as it cooks. Put a little of the sauce in the bottom of a baking dish, set the stuffed vegetables cut-side-up in the dish, and sauce them.

Oven-baked version: Cover the pan with foil and bake 1 hour at 350F. Uncover, baste them with the sauce, replace the cover, and bake another 30 minutes.

Microwave version: Use cooked rice or bulgur. Set the vegetables in a pyrex baking dish, cut side up, with 1/4″ sauce or water in the bottom of the plate. Cover with a microwaveable lid or inverted pyrex bowl and microwave 7-8 minutes on HIGH or until the vegetables are tender. Dress with prune or prune-and-tomato sauce as desired.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls: As with the stuffed vegetables above, use cooked grain in the stuffing if you’re going to microwave the final dish, or uncooked-but-soaked grain for oven baking. Separate large whole leaves from a head of napa, savoy, or regular green cabbage and either blanche in a pot of boiling water or microwave covered a couple of minutes with 1/4 inch of water in the bottom of the container, just until pliable. Cool until you can handle the leaves safely. Fill each leaf with a heaping spoonful or so of the lentil/rice mixture at the stem end. Roll it up while tucking in the sides of the leaf, place seam-side-down in a pyrex baking dish with a little sauce in the bottom, dress with more sauce, cover and bake as above or microwave covered (use cooked grain for this) with a little water added to the sauce in the bottom of the dish for about 5 minutes.

Stuffed grape leaves: Use the lentil or lentil-and-rice filling above, chop in a couple of prunes and add some toasted pine nuts or sunflower seeds, and use the mixture to stuff grape leaves as for Dolmas in the Microwave. Skip steps 1 and 3 with the grain (unless you need to know how to cook the rice or bulgur/tabbouleh), don’t bother with the tomato and onion and dill, and just follow the bits about soaking the brine off the leaves, rolling, and microwaving (steps 2, 4 and 5). This one really probably won’t go with a prune sauce because of the grape leaves, but I could be wrong and it might work with the Marbella prune/olive relish or else some nut-or-olive-stuffed prunes as appetizers.

My final prunes-and-lentils “separator” trick is to wrap the lentil filling of your choice in some kind of dough.

Fill eggroll wrappers, boreka or samosa dough, or phyllo strips with the same shawarma-tinged mixture as above, brush with oil or butter or a mixture and bake or else shallow-fry in a nonstick pan, and you suddenly have a vegetarian version of Moroccan cigares, a crisp and elegant appetizer to dip into one of several prune-based sauces or chutneys or else just to lay out with stuffed prunes on a tray of finger foods.

Either way, you’ve taken prunes and lentils a long way from the flavorless primordial slop that Johnson and Bly had to contend with (and sample at the end) on Cookin’ Cheap.

Phyllo or Eggroll-Wrapped Cigares

  • Lentil stuffing as above (no rice or bulgur)
  • Eggroll wrappers, phyllo dough, empanada or samosa dough (can make both of these using the Olive Oil Tart Crust)

Eggroll wrappers: Brush all the edges with a little water. Place a heaping spoonful of the filling in a line at one end of the wrapper . Tuck in the sides and fold the wrapper over the top of the filling. Roll and press the edges of the wrapper so the cigare will seal as you roll it.

Phyllo: Brush each sheet with oil or an oil/melted butter mixture (I use a sandwich baggie over my hand instead of a pastry brush, it uses less oil and works pretty well) and fold each sheet in half lengthwise (about 4-5 inches wide). Place a line of filling at one end, tuck in the sides about 1/2 inch each over the filling, and roll up.

Empanadas or sambusak: Add a pinch of aniseed or nigella seed to the olive oil dough. Roll walnut-sized pieces of the olive oil tart dough to about 3 inches diameter, put a spoonful of lentil filling on one half and fold the other half over it, pinching the edges to close.

Samosas: Take walnut-sized pieces of dough and roll them out to about 5 inch circles, and cut in half. With the cut edge down, put a spoonful of filling in the center third, wet the edges of the dough with water, and fold one of the points across diagonally over the filling. Press it closed, and fold the other side over the other way so the packet forms a triangle. Seal the top edge closed by pinching. (Some people form a cone first with the half-circle, hold it point-down in one hand, fill it and pinch the top and side edges closed.)

Brush sealed packets with oil and bake at 350F on a foil-lined tray until heated through, crisp and golden brown. For eggroll wrappers, samosas or empanadas, you could also pan-fry a batch in a single layer like blintzes.

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