Friday, August 19, 2011

A little about lentils

It's a nice thing to go back into your childhood food memories every now and then, especially when you're lacking inspiration. It comes to you that there are ingredients rooted in your culture, waiting to be used but failing to appear in your kitchen. I've decided to pull out the lentils and put them to good use. Here's this week's column and recipe published on Saturday, October 20th, 2011. 

In my mind, lentils are those that make up the steaming mugs of spiced lentil soup, warming my hands, sipped on gently while huddled under a blanket in the winter. They are the delicateness in Koshary, a dish we rarely realize is built around lentils; but for the most part, lentils are ignored, almost on purpose. If there's one thing I've noticed, the sad little lentil is at the core of bad Egyptian food jokes and belongs in prison with the people who have been naughty and are undeserving of meat consumption. Of course, it helps that it's cheap.

As important as they should be in Egyptian cuisine what with their abundance and health benefits, the overlooked lentils just aren't.

My love for lentils is rooted in Indian food with my grandmother's extra helpings of slow-cooked creamy Dal Makhani and when I was first told that my beloved crispy Dosa, a crepe made of fermented rice and black lentils, was rich in protein and gluten-free. Apart from that, it has recently occurred to me that I know very little about lentils, away from their tender swollen bellies and fragile skin.

Some rummaging through my treasure trove of books awakened me to the enormous number of perks you're treating your body to while ingesting these little gems. It now makes absolute sense that they'd be served in prison, minus the bad recipe and additional heapings of nastiness.

Let's run through some of those fringe benefits you're providing your body with by choosing lentils. Lentils are the third highest source of plant-based protein after hemp and soybeans and have been touted time and time again as one of the world's healthiest foods. They contain a cholesterol-lowering fiber that works to aid blood sugar disorders with their high fiber content and with only 230 calories to a cup of cooked lentils, you can fill yourself up with no fat involved. Lentils being the clever little things that they are also work at lowering your risk of heart disease with their significant levels of magnesium and folate. I could continue for a while longer but I think it's sufficient to say that they're really, really good for you.

After completing the first half of Ramadan and indulging in its nightly culinary excesses, my body cannot take much more and neither should yours want to. Maybe it's time to start eating properly again, cleansing our systems like we try to do with our souls, of our gluttony and self-indulgence.

Inspired by the flavors of the mini puff pastry pizzas we would find at birthday parties when we were children, this tart is just as addictive and combines many of those bold slap-in-the-face flavors while eliminating the extra cheese as well as replacing the canned with fresh ingredients that will leave you feeling full, thanks to the lentil fiber that we just learned about, minus the heaviness. As for the pastry, puff pastry is a gift to feed that tiny little glutton you've decided to hold on to for just a bit longer.

Aromatic Lentil Tart
Serves 4

You'll need:
1 sheet of ready-rolled frozen puff pastry, thawed
1 egg, lightly whisked
½ a cup of brown lentils, rinsed
2 cups of vegetable stock or water
2 garlic cloves, sliced
2 medium-sized tomatoes, sliced
2 tablespoon of olive oil
6 pitted Kalamata olives, roughly chopped
½ a medium onion, finely diced
5 fresh button mushrooms, sliced
1 teaspoon of thyme
1 medium-sized red bell pepper, roasted, peeled, deseeded and diced
1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
1 loose handful of grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Cook the lentils in a pot of simmering vegetable stock or water over medium heat for 10-15 minutes and set aside. Place the sliced tomatoes in an over-proof dish, drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper and roast for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside. Sautée the onions in 1 tablespoon of olive oil until translucent then add the mushrooms in 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 teaspoon of thyme until tender and set aside.

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius again. Lay the puff pastry sheet out on a baking tray and fold over 3 cm of each side to create a border. Poke holes with a fork inside of the border you've created and brush lightly with olive oil. Brush the border of your pastry with the whisked egg. Begin to layer the tart. Spread half of your cooked lentils and garlic slices to cover the bottom of your tart. Begin to layer your roasted tomatoes, roasted peppers and olives then top with a second layer of lentils and sautéed mushrooms. Drizzle with a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper and move the tart to the oven. 10 minutes into baking and using a light hand, sprinkle the Parmesan cheese over the top and continue to bake until the pastry reaches a golden brown color. It should take around 15-18 minutes to bake in total.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Chicken Quesadillas, because leftovers are boring.

In our house, we have a problem with leftovers. That problem is as simple as this: we don't like them. Having spent many years in our parents' homes being taught not to waste by coming home from school and barging into the kitchen to be greeted by reheated leftovers, we rejoiced at the idea of not having to deal with lifeless leftovers in our future grown up homes. Never again, our pre-married selves screamed. How naïve and mistaken we turned out to be.

It starts with what many experts have stated time and time again but falls on mostly deaf ears. We eat with our eyes first. This is evident in the pretty plates presented to voracious customers at restaurants, it is displayed in the homes of those hosting dinner parties and it is especially present during the holy month of Ramadan.

You enter the kitchen and gradually begin increasing the quantities you will be serving. A few extra grams won't hurt and neither will one more cup. Everyone will need to eat more than that, or so you think. After creating a lavish spread of complementary colors and watching everyone eat to their heart's content, you push them to push a little more into themselves and say a little prayer for no leftovers. It almost never works.

After one too many a time of leftovers going bad, the pangs of guilt consumed my thoughts. I would open the fridge and sigh in despair at the foods that I didn't want to eat for days in a row.

What a sad mess it all was.

Wilting salads clung to the edges of the bowl to avoid drowning in their dressing, pastas drank up all their beautiful sauces to become gluey, unfriendly specimens and chicken would just become cold, unappetizing and boring enough not to have any appetizing way to describe it.

As easy as it is for some people to go through life inconsiderately, with no thought of another's suffering, it was not about that I could not do it anymore - I would not.

Leftover bread would be toasted and made into finely ground bread crumbs, to be used later on breaded chicken or sprinkled onto a simple linguine dish. Apples would be saved from their fateful death and cooked into apple sauce and best of all, rotisserie chickens would be reinvented to fit into everything - creamy chicken soups, cold sandwiches and crisp salads.

Forcing myself to conjure up my previous self, that which worked at an advertising agency, reinvention was key.

Sohour, your past-midnight Ramadan meal, is an ideal occasion for leftovers and one of the most filling things to choose to eat is the Mexican quesadilla; and for me, the chicken quesadilla. Load it up with onions, mushrooms, peppers and olives or keep it plain, it always turns out to be better than the thought of eating reheated chicken.

Overcoming my leftovers dilemma, while liberating, also reminds me on a daily basis of the hungry and the weak and of what I can do to stretch what we have a little further so that our home doesn't end up one that is wasteful and weak-spirited. Before you groan about the day-old dry chicken lounging in your fridge, think again. You could end up making something you would order at a restaurant, except this time you would know where that cooked chicken is coming from and how old it actually is. That's a better deal in my book. I'm taking it.

Chicken Quesadillas

You'll need:
1 large flour tortilla
½ a grilled chicken breast
½ a medium onion, sliced
¼ cup of grated mozzarella and mild white cheddar
salt and pepper to taste

Moderately heat a lightly oiled pan and add the onions. Add some salt and pepper and stir occassionally until they begin to soften. This should take around 3 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle the chicken with some salt and pepper and add it to the pan to toss with the onions. Remove from the heat.

On a stable surface, place one flour tortilla at a time and spread the onion-chicken mixture over half of the tortilla. Sprinkle liberally with grated cheese and fold the other half over to form a semi-circle and press firmly on the seam to seal it. Assemble as many quesadillas as needed in the same manner.

Heat a lightly oiled pan over high heat until it begins to smoke. Once it begins smoking, reduce the heat to moderate and grill your quesadillas on one side until nicely colored. Turn over the quesadillas and continue to cook until the cheese has melted completely. This whole process should take about 4 minutes per quesadillas. Transfer with a spatula to a cutting board and cut in half. Serve hot.
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