Tag Archives: Oxford Companion to Food

Fresh from the pantry (almost)


Red lentils are also called Egyptian or Mansoor lentils

THE ENTRY FOR LENTILS in the Oxford Companion to Food follows closely behind the one for lemons — and that seems right, as lemons add brightness to this easy-to-cook-but-sometimes-a-little-dull legume. A recipe on my lemon blog for Lemony Lentil Soup with Spinach (scroll to second recipe) is testimony to this great marriage.

Lentils have been cultivated since antiquity in Egypt, and evidence of lentils has been found in many prehistoric sites in Europe. In India, the largest producer of lentils today, they are an everyday food called dal, often cooked with onion and spices and served with rice. Next to soy beans, lentils have the highest protein content of all vegetables.

There are dozens of different colors and sizes of lentils, each with their own character. Brown or green lentils are fine, but red lentils are very nice for soups as they cook quickly and break down into a puree. And, of course, there’s the color. Some of that lovely salmon color fades with cooking, though, so I was happy to find New York Times’ food writer Melissa Clark’s recipe for Red Lentil Soup with Lemon, which adds carrots and tomato paste to the pot to bring some of the color back. And this time of year, when it’s often grey and dismal outside, I really appreciate a burst of color in the soup bowl.


When cooking any kind of lentils, don’t forget the lemon

Another thing to love about this soup is that (as long as I’ve got the red lentils in the pantry), I usually have all the ingredients on hand. Lemon, onion, garlic — check. Cumin, chile powder or cayenne, tomato paste — check. I don’t always have fresh cilantro, but parsley or even chives will do in a pinch.

Truth be told, I very rarely follow a recipe precisely (often not even more-or-less) but this one was so simple and easy — and didn’t call for any unusual ingredients — that I didn’t have my usual tendency to depart from it. (That is, aside from adding an extra carrot for more orange flecks, and a good squeeze of lemon juice in the serving bowls for brighter flavor.)

I made some popovers and a green salad to go with it, and called it supper.

RedLentil soup





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Filed under Praise for other cooks, soup, spring, vegetables, winter

A Valentine vegetable

Have you ever noticed that out-of-season produce such as asparagus and strawberries are popular choices for Valentine’s Day dinners?

What’s wrong with a good winter root vegetable with a deep garnet color and a heart-like shape? Yes, of course, I am talking about our humble friend, the beetroot.

Its cultivated form, says the Oxford Companion to Food (on whose cover is a photo of beetroot), is descended from the sea beet, B. maritima, that grows wild around the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Europe and N. Africa.  There are various forms and colors, but the red beet, with purple and yellow pigments combining to produce its strong scarlet color, was embraced soon after its introduction to England in the 17th century. Its juice is often used as a natural food coloring.

French and Italian chefs cut the beets into interesting shapes and figures for their salads.

That reminds me that my sister Milly once made a beet borscht for Valentine’s Day, cutting all the beets into heart shapes.

Though heart-beets (pun intended) were too much trouble for me — and even Milly noted that she did that only once, long ago — I did think a beet salad would be nice around Valentine’s Day — a salad described quite fittingly in 1699 as “a grateful winter Sallet.”

The salad I made is a classic combo: cooked cut beets are dressed with a vinaigrette and served atop greens with some toasted walnuts and a dollop or two of goat cheese.

Of course there are countless variations on this theme. I added orange zest and a little fresh orange juice in addition to the oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, but a dressing made with lemon zest and juice would certainly be just as nice.  You could serve it warm and serve on gently cooked beet greens. You could use hazelnuts in place of walnuts, feta cheese instead of goat cheese. Or omit the cheese altogether, and add some segments of orange or mandarin….

About cooking beets: I wrapped them in aluminum foil, put them on a baking sheet and baked them at 350 degrees for a long while –about an hour — but I’ve  read of a quick method for those with microwave ovens: simply put a few beets in a covered microwave dish and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.

In both cases, rinse the beets under cool water and slip off their skins (which will temporarily stain your fingers pink) before cutting into wedges, slices, matchsticks, or whatever shapes strike your fancy. Even hearts.

I did cut one heart-beet for this quick little print

After your grateful winter beetroot salad, there will still be plenty of room for dessert.

A happy Valentine’s Day to all of you!


Filed under salad, supper time, Uncategorized, vegetables, winter