Over a year ago, I had this crazy idea of going vegetarian. Okay, I’m not telling the truth here. I had the idea of going pescatarian, and only for a month – it was not to be a permanent change. It seemed doable, and this is coming from someone who tends to really like meat. I fought my way through it, even tossing away a lovely piece of pork that I mistakenly ordered, thinking it was a dish full of wheat berries and ramps (don’t ask how I screwed up there….). I didn’t order beef pho the first time I went to a place that served it, and at a tapas restaurant, I chewed on cheese and peppers, drank lots of wine, and tossed back mussels like it was my job.
All in all, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Would I ever give up meat completely? I seriously doubt it. For one, I couldn’t imagine a visit to the South without barbeque (not the fake stuff). And two, I love the smell of cheeseburgers on the grill. Also, bacon is pretty awesome.
But sometimes, I do manage to go a few days without eating meat, and I can honestly say that I usually don’t even notice it. I’d even go further to say that, sometimes, eating vegetarian is a lot healthier, as long as you watch the cheese and carbs.
It seems that every time I talk about vegetarian food, I feel the need to insure you people that I do not intend to eat this way full-time. I’m not sure why? Maybe because I know many of you enjoy the meaty posts, and I assure you they are here to stay.
But the other day, I discovered lentils. Don’t ask me why I’ve never cooked them before; I have no intelligent answer. A friend of mine let me borrow a cookbook of hers that is all-vegetarian, and while I didn’t expect this to be the case, I have a lot of the pages marked and as a result, wonder if I should just buy the dang thing myself.
Yottam Ottolenghi’s Plenty is that book. And of course, I’ve cooked a slew of things (no, I haven’t written about them all) from Heidi Swanson’s new book too, which also happens to be vegetarian. What I’ve realized is this: as long as flavor is brought to the dish, I don’t miss the meat. But the second you make something bland and boring, I may as well be eating tofu from the container. Or tempeh, which is still gross to me.
Ottolenghi seems to know what’s up on that front. His secret? He’s not vegetarian. Of course, some people seem to have a problem with that, but for me, it’s a match made in heaven. He knows that meat tastes good, and he knows that many vegetarian dishes lack flavor. The result? He makes his recipes scream with flavor, belting out ingredients like mustard seeds and curry powder, fenugreek and pomegranate molasses – and it works.
Also! he made me fall madly in love with lentils, an ingredient I’ve never really taken an interest in before. So yeah, maybe I just realized that I’m probably never giving this cookbook back to my friend (shhhhh!), and maybe as long as I locate vegetarian recipes that are actually locked and loaded with flavor I’ll be able to eat somewhat like a ‘flexitarian’, or whatever it’s called. But at the end of the day, I’m sticking to my beliefs – and that’s that meat is meant for me to eat, and I was meant to eat meat.
Spiced Red Lentils with Cucumber Yogurt
adapted from Plenty; serves 4 as a light dinner
time commitment: 1 hour, about half of which is active
notice the piece of naan tucked alongside this dish. I didn’t make it this time, but you can. Or you can just buy some . also, one of these spices is possibly tricky to find: fenugreek. It’s nice, if you have it, but don’t sweat it if you don’t.
1 c split red lentils
1 1/2 c water
half a regular bunch of cilantro
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
1 1-2″ piece of fresh ginger, peeled
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 green chile
1 1/2 t black mustard seeds
4 T sunflower oil
1 1/2 t g coriander
1 t g cumin
1/2 t g turmeric
1/4 t sweet paprika
3 Roma tomatoes, diced
2 t sugar
1/4 t fenugreek (if you can find it)
1 small container of Greek yogurt
1/2 of a cucumber, finely diced
1 1/2 T olive oil
3 T butter
1 1/2 T fresh lime juice
salt and pepper
wash the lentils under cold water and pour into a bowl with the water. let soak for 30 minutes. get the rest of your ingredients ready and chopped.
meanwhile, cut the cilantro bunch halfway between the top and bottom. give the leaf top a rough chop and set aside. add the bottom stalky part to a food processor along with the onion, ginger, garlic and chili. pulse a few times until ingredients are broken up, but not pasty.
grab a heavy pot (Dutch oven time!) and turn on medium heat. add the mustard seeds and when they start to pop, add the chopped mixture and the sunflower oil. cook on low heat for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. add the coriander through the paprika, and continue cooking/stirring for five minutes. the mixture may appear very dark, which is just fine.
add the lentils and their soaking water, tomatoes, sugar, and fenugreek, as well as a little salt. cover and simmer for 30 minutes, or until lentils are cooked. you’ll probably want to check on them occasionally, as mine were about 5 minutes overdone since I abandoned the kitchen for too long…
meanwhile, make the yogurt by whisking the yogurt, cucumber, and olive oil together. add salt and pepper to taste.
once the lentils are cooked, stir in the butter, lime juice, and most of the cilantro leaves. season with salt/pepper if needed. divide into 4 dishes, topping each with a large dollop of yogurt and cilantro leaves to garnish.