Lentils for breakfast- welcome

Here is your invitation to sample beautiful recipes that are good for you, good for the planet and good to eat. They mainly feature plants, because that's what I try to eat the most. I am not a fancy cook, but I believe that food is one of our greatest pleasures and deserves to be celebrated. Real food, whole food, kind food. Welcome to the feast!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

6 things about cooking lentils you need to know

No recipe today, folks. Thought this was a good point at which to pass on what I have learned so far about lentils. Surprising how little I knew about them when I started, and how much wiser I am now. A few unappetising breakfasts will do that for you.

The authority from whom I have learned the most was, surprisingly, Stephanie Alexander. Surprising because I always considered her approach to food and cooking to be so different from my own - but perhaps our philosophies are closer than I realised. She does seem to be a genuine authority in the mould of Mrs Beeton or Julia Child and she certainly outlined a couple of eternal verities of the lentil kind that have improved my understanding. And, as I apply them, my cooking, I hope.

6 things about cooking lentils
Here beginneth the lesson.

1 Use the right lentils for the recipe. They are not endlessly interchangeable, but have their special qualities which must be respected. If the recipe calls for brown lentils, you can use green or Puy or beluga as they all keep their shape as they are cooked. You can't use red or blonde or split peas. Won't work.

2 If you cook the lentils in advance, or open a can, you may require less liquid than stated in the recipe. It's preferable to start with less and add more as you go, rather than trying to soak up or make evaporate excess liquid at the end. Trust me. Not a nice way to spend Sunday afternoon: devising ways to reduce unwanted lentil liquid.

3 Keep your eye on them. As Stephanie points out, 'they can take a surprisingly short time to cook' - and this 1 observation revealed to me my greatest failing. I used to think lentils could boil away merrily for ages, but I am now more circumspect. Particularly with dals. Don't dilly-dally with the dal.

4 Brown lentils etc are great for European style dishes: soups, salads, shepherd's pie, as a vegetable accompaniment, anything flavoured with thyme, rosemary, parsley. Red lentils and Indian lentils (like urud dal) are excellent as dals with Indian or South Asian flavours: ginger, coriander, coconut, mustard seeds, turmeric. Split peas are not lentils but pulses, and adapt well to both types of flavouring, but turn to a puree like red lentils.

5 Dals are the more appetising style for breakfast. There is something about the taste of onion and thyme that is not breakfast but another meal entirely. But spicy ginger and coconut is perfectly acceptable, even pleasantly palatable, on the morning palate.

6 Do not start eating lentils for breakfast in the expectation of losing those pesky couple of kilos. You will introduce more fibre and slow-release carbs into your diet, and if you add vegetables you will also benefit from the antioxidants and phytochemicals. Lentils are fantastically healthy. But if you want to lose weight you may also have to reconsider the 2 glasses of wine a day or the full-fat cheese on an oatcake before dinner or the 4 squares of dark chocolate after dinner. Just a thought.

Here endeth the lesson.

Apposite to finish with a plug for Droptober, a campaign designed to raise funds for Kids for Life. Participants pledge to lose 2 kg. I have registered and plan to pursue my slow-carb principles to effect my weight loss. That was always the original intention, and it's time to take that effort more seriously.

One last item: I was in Perth recently and had breakfast with my dear friend Jude. I always relish our conversations - a mix of publishing, nutrition and recipes. Here we are. Her new book will be on wholefood baking, and given the debates raging on the toxicity of sugar, it will serve as a reminder that delectable goodies can be wholesome too. Jude believes strongly that the deliciousness of food arising from the quality of the ingredients and the method of cooking contributes materially to its nutritional value.

What do you think? Any tips on cooking lentils you can pass on? Any ideas for slow-carb lunches? (I'll need 'em!). Anyone want to join me in Droptober? Let me know your views.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Stephanie's basic lentils

When I listed the ingredients that Stephanie Alexander nominated as going well with lentils, I had a good look through her lentil chapter and decided to give a couple of her classics a whirl. Here's the first one. It's very simple, which appealed to me partly because it was a busy weekend and I didn't want to spend hours faffing in the kitchen. I followed the recipe exactly, people, except that I used tiny green lentils and not big brown ones (cuter) and1tsp Herbies' Italian herbs instead of the sprig of thyme.

Basic brown lentils a la Stephanie
500 g lentils, washed and drained (that's a whole packet)
1 onion quartered (yippee, no real chopping)
1 clove garlic (ditto)
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
salt, pepper, lemon juice
butter or olive oil
chopped parsley

Place lentils, onion, garlic, bay leaf and thyme in a saucepan and cover generously with cold water (I used vegetable stock. I could have sworn I followed the recipe exactly, but clearly can't help myself.) Cover and bring slowly to a boil. Reduce heat to maintain a steady simmer and test lentils after 20 mins. If tender, drain into a colander and discard onion, garlic, bay leaf and thyme.

Return lentils to rinsed-out pan and season with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Stir in butter and parsley.

And that's it!

Stephanie's basic brown lentils with basic boiled cabbage. Now, who wouldn't love that for breakfast with a boiled egg?!
They were delicious when first cooked and would have been lovely as part of dinner with some grilled chicken breast (or roasted squab pigeon, guinea fowl, quail or wild rabbit, if you're Stephanie). The recipe made plenty for breakfast and a nice extra amount to freeze for later. That batch will end up in one of my husband's soups. Yes, I also eat lentil soup every week.

But as breakfast lentils . . . boring. Day after day, basic lentils and cabbage . . . Not an appetising start. I took them for lunch one day with some leftover chicken cacciatore and spinach and that was a divine combo and very filling. Note to self: dals are more flavoursome for breakfast and worth the extra effort. Chomping away despondently I thought again about the mighty Tim with his canned lentils, spinach and cold boiled eggs. What a slow-carb warrior.

By way of contrast, here is a pic of my husband's too-amazing-for-words salad just before he added slices of dry-fried haloumi. Note the tiny roasted golden carrots from the markets. Spring!

This is what I have to put up with for dinner.
Have I persuaded anyone to give up their muesli yet? Let me know your must-have breakfasts, and send me any lentil ideas you'd like me to try. Speak to me.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Judy's delicious dal

I wanted to try this recipe because it was created by my friend Judy, who is a wonderful wholefood cook and a woman of original views and high principles. And Scottish, like moi, to boot. I found it on her Food Coach website, which is well worth checking out if you're looking for something stylish, seasonal, delicious and high minded.

One of the reasons I liked the sound of Judy's delicious dal was the combination of eggplant and potato. I think eggplants complement lentils beautifully because they cook down to a silky consistency that provides extra texture and sweetness. And because potatoes don't cook down, they provide a chunky, satisfying little nugget to chew on. They make the dish more substantial and filling. And a girl occasionally wants a break from roasted sweet potato. Then there's spinach to add in at the end - hurrah! Lentils and spinach, the mighty Tim's original breakfast prescription (which I must confess to have deviated from a little recently in my excitement over coconut cream).

As you can find the recipe on Judy's site, I won't reproduce it. Here it is.

I started with serious intentions and finished with a less than satisfactory result - as so often happens. The potatoes and eggplant looked so beautiful coated with turmeric, all golden and promising.

The vegetables looked much more golden than this in the Sunday afternoon sun.
I followed the recipe exactly as I was on my best behaviour - the only deviation I allowed myself was the addition of cauliflower because I had one-quarter of one left and I hate waste. As I rightly surmised, it was so soft at the end of the week, it mainly contributed a slight graininess.

What went wrong? Two things. I used the wrong lentils. Caviar and not red. Oh, when will I ever learn. And the lentils were already cooked. But I added the amount of water stipulated in the recipe. So it was incredibly watery as the lentils didn't absorb any liquid. At the end, everything was cooked, but there was still loads of water bubbling away.

So, I tried to salvage things by boiling it off. But that was making the silky eggplant and grainy cauliflower softer and softer . . . Then I remembered a tip from Sarah Wilson about how a couple of spoonfuls of chia soak up liquid and add bulk without taste. So glad I didn't throw out that chia meal even though I can't find a way to welcome it into my daily diet. But it just made the liquid gluggy (glug with extra plant-based ALAs, antioxidants, fibre and protein, nonetheless). In the end I decided to just leave it. There would be less liquid as the week went by.

Gluey and gluggy with firm lentils and overcooked vegetables. Result.

And that's what happened. I had the last serve for lunch on Friday with some fried tempeh. It was delicious by then.

What have I learned from this? Use the right lentils for the dish (I'd put caps lock on if I wasn't so polite). And if the lentils are already cooked, use less liquid (caps) than stipulated in the recipe. Easier to top up than boil off.

I can't be the only high functioning idiot in the kitchen. Tell me your stories. And send me your recipes. Would love to hear from you. Anybody out there?

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Crazy as a coconut

Naturally, lentils have a natural affinity with certain tastes. In the magisterial Cook's Companion, Stephanie Alexander gives her list: onions, garlic, olive oil, butter, parsley, coriander, cumin seeds, mustard seeds, ginger, chillies, carrots, spinach, lemons, tomatoes. And because this is Stephanie the gourmet omnivore we're talkin' about, she also lists bacon, salt pork, sausages, rabbit, hare, squab pigeon, venison and guinea fowl. These latter ingredients are unlikely to ever make their way into my breakfast, but thought you might like to know in an FYI kind of way.

And one ingredient not in Stephanie's audit that totally rocks the lentils is coconut. Not namby-pamby, low-fat coconut milk, but sweet, creamy, delectable, premium coconut cream. This is a new ingredient for me, and I'm a believer.

Coconut is a vexed fat. It is derived from a plant but contains palmitic acid, which is a saturated fat, and therein lies the source of vexation. Saturated fats are more stable than their skittish counterparts, monounsaturates and polyunsaturates (especially diva-like). This means coconut oil can be heated to a high temperature (smoke point: 170 C) without damaging its nutrients, which makes it a desirable fat for frying for some health-minded cooks, like Jude. She calls it 'fabulous and flexible' and praises its antiviral, antifungal and antimicrobial properties. She also states that it does not require emulsifying with bile acids from the liver, but is digested in the gut and provides energy while not contributing to weight gain.

So much for the coconut cheer squad. For most dietitians, when it comes to saturated fat - animal or plant - the message is always just don't do it. Well, certainly limit it. The NHMRC Dietary Guidelines for Australians does not single out coconut oil per se, but states that when palmitic acid predominates in dietary fat, this tends to raise plasma cholesterol. The Healthy Food Guide of the Dietitians Association of Australia advises eating 'minimal amounts of saturated fat' and points out that coconut cream is high in such fat. The Heart Foundation of Australia nominates coconut milk and oil in its list of 'unhealthy fats'. No mention from these august bodies about its nutritional excellence.

Not that I'll let that stop me. I don't eat a great deal of saturated fat as I don't eat red meat or commercial foodstuffs like pies or cakes or ice cream. So, a little bit of coconut cream in my lentils doesn't trouble my conscience. On the other hand, I'm a bit sceptical about the claim that it coconut oil/cream does not require emulsifying with bile acids (plan to investigate that further) and I wouldn't eat anything just because it has antiviral, antifungal and antimicrobial properties. They're a nice little bonus, I suppose, but not the point. The point is flavour and texture.

And coconut cream is beautiful with red lentils. This dish is one of my new favourites. It comes from Jude's fascinating and thoughtful cookbook for the littlies, Wholefood for Children. I riff freely with this recipe and don't use all her suggested ingredients - in particular dulse flakes and 1/2 an apple. The dulse flakes add extra minerals and I'll add them if and when I ever buy any. The apple is to off-set astringency, and mirin works just as well.

Vegetable and red lentil coconut dal

1 cup red lentils
Ghee or coconut oil (I used cultured butter because I live dangerously)
A couple of shallots
Bit of grated ginger
1 teaspoon each cumin, coriander, turmeric and garam masala
Pumpkin and/or sweet potato (roasted first, as I do)
2 cm kombu (to help the lentils soften: this recipe is designed for toddler palates)
I cup vegetable stock
1 cup star ingredient
Chopped coriander
Green beans
Mirin, tamari, squeeze of lemon or lime juice at the end

Heat the butter over low heat. Add onion and ginger and cook for 2-3 mins. Stir in spices, carrot, lentils, kombu, stock, premium full-fat coconut cream and some coriander. Make sure kombu is submerged in liquid to do its softening thing, cover with a lid and simmer gently for 15-18 mins. Add cauliflower and  green beans, the simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally until vegetables are tender. Add roasted pumpkin or sweet potato and peas. Mash any bits of kombu into the mix and splash in the mirin, tamari and lemon juice.
With boiled egg and a spoonful of 92% fat free natural yoghurt for breakfast.

Jude recommends cooking up leftovers for breakfast in a small frying pan, making a clearing in the middle and frying an egg. Don't mind if I do.

Didn't manage to get my fried egg in the middle!

So, are you all assiduous sat fat-avoiders? Do you think the official prescription should be to avoid crap, processed junk and loadsa cheap meat instead? (leading question, sorry!). Leave a comment and let me know what you think.