Now that I’m almost a year removed from eating it, I’m surprised at how infrequently I crave meat. But it’s not that it’s completely unappetizing: Though I feel a little queasy when I think about eating a steak or chicken off the bone, I still sometimes miss the taste of a plate of buffalo wings, or a really nicely-cooked piece of lamb with a Chianti Classico. It’s not often, but there are definitely times when I miss these things, usually after something else triggers the memory of eating them.
Fake meats generally do a poor job of replicating the experience. They might look and feel like meat, but the essential goodness of the taste is missing. Meat has a depth of flavor that I have yet to get from a soy imitation.
Fake meat meets its match
But there are ways to get close to that deep flavor, and today’s recipe succeeds in doing so as well as any other vegetarian meal I’ve had. What’s more, this wine-braised lentil stew served over toast actually provides many whole-food nutrients, something that imitation meats rarely do.
Lentils are great poor-person food — they’re cheap, packed with nutrition, and they contribute their own earthy flavor in addition to absorbing the flavors they’re cooked with. This recipe, from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Suppers (my featured cookbook this week), uses green or black lentils rather than the standard brown, and elevates the simple ingredient to fancy-food status. Like so many other recipes in Deborah’s cookbook, this one’s fit for company, even the carnivorous kind.
The lentil stew is braised in red wine for about 40 minutes, but the rest of the cooking is simple and can be done while the lentils simmer. Forty minutes will cook off most of the alcohol in wine, but just to be on the safe side and not start our unborn baby on the bottle too early, I used alcohol-free wine for the cooking. I drank a glass of the wimp wine, too, and boy did it suck. Talk about “essential goodness” being missing! I can’t believe I used to drink this swill when I gave up alcohol for three months before a marathon, sort of just to prove to myself that I wasn’t addicted to a nightly glass of wine or beer. For the record, the brand is fre — I guess it’s pronounced “fray,” as in ‘fraid not.
Anyway, unlike the wine, this dish is fantastic. My sister and mom loved it when I made it for them a long time ago, and Erin and I liked it even more this time, when we made the vegan version and “splurged” for the green lentils (the term is relative; we’re talking about lentils here).
Here’s the recipe, printed with Deborah Madison’s permission. Note she does not recommend terrible, alcohol-free wine. I should have bought the Barbera.
Wine Braised Lentils over toast with spinach and red pearl onions
This may not be usual fare, but lentils over toast make a delicious winter supper, especially when they’ve been cooked in wine. Butter is very good with lentils, so use some to finish them before serving. Or use walnut oil, which is not only delicious, it makes the dish vegan.
Serve with a medium-bodied red wine with balanced fruit, acidity, and earthiness. A Barbera from the Piedmont or a Croze-Hermitage from the Rhone, make a good match with earthy lentils.
Cook the lentils first. Prepare the greens and the onions while the lentils are cooking, combine them at the end, and serve.
- 3/4 cup French green or black “caviar” lentils, cleaned and rinsed
- 1/3 cup each diced onion, carrot, and celery
- 4 teaspoons olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, 1 crushed, 1 halved
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 1/2 cups dry red wine
- sea salt and pepper
- 1 teaspoon prepared mustard
- 12 small red pearl onions
- 1 tablespoon butter or walnut oil, to taste
- 4 slices sturdy country bread
- 1 big bunch spinach or other greens, such as Tuscan kale, leaves only, washed
1. Parboil the lentils for 5 minutes and drain.
2. Heat I tablespoon of the oil in a 2 or 3-quart saucepan. Add the diced vegetables and cook over medium-high heat for several minutes, browning them a bit. Add the crushed garlic, mash the tomato paste into the vegetables, then pour in the wine and stir in the mustard. Add 1 1/2 cups water, the drained lentils, and 1-teaspoon salt. Simmer, covered, until the lentils are tender, 30 to 40 minutes.
3. While the lentils are cooking, blanch the pearl onions in boiling water for 1 minute, then drain. Peel off the outer layer, then put them in a pan with the rest of the olive oil and cook over medium heat, sliding them in the pan now and then, until tender and beginning to color. Add a splash of wine or water towards the end and deglaze the pan. Season with salt and pepper.
4. Wilt the spinach in a skillet in the water clinging to its leaves, season with salt and pepper. (Tuscan kale will take about 7 minutes.) Stir the cooked greens into the lentils, add a tablespoon of butter or the walnut oil, taste again and season with salt, if needed, and pepper.
5. Make the toast and rub it with garlic. Cut each piece in thirds and arrange them on the plates. Spoon the lentils over the toast and garnish with the onions.
Alright, I’m out. More snow’s a’comin’, so I’m going to try to log in some miles today while I can, even though I’m still recovering from a killer speed workout yesterday. I’m need to get back in 3:10 shape before I even think about 3:00 shape!
And as I finish this post, I’m polishing off the last of my raw chia energy bar stash. Time to make more!