“Cooking by the seat of my pants” is a concept I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s a skill I started to hone when I was young and broke and vegetarian and worked at the grocery store – I saw my customers buying interesting fruits and vegetables and knew which staple goods were cheapest. I’d come home with a bag full of canned beans and whatever (canned) vegetables had caught my eye, plus the quinoa I had just discovered, look at my purchases, and say “What the hell am I going to make with this??” I’d cook the quinoa, dump in a can of beans and tomatoes (or corn, generally), mix in powdered garlic, and call it a couple days’ worth of lunch.
My ingredient choices and cooking skills have evolved a bit from that point, but this is still a skill I practice regularly. I put it to use at work when it was my turn to make the soup of the day or when I had a bin full of frozen bananas and needed a dessert. I put it to further use when I started shopping at the farmer’s market and came home with a giant box of tomatoes and red peppers. And these days when our CSA is in full swing and we’ve got a freezer full of pork and beef, I have to figure out how best to use stuff up before it goes bad but also keep in mind that I have three other people in this house who can be some of the toughest customers ever.
On top of the usual reasons I cook this way, this week I have an additional reason – our oven died! While I’m waiting for the new (fancy sexy exciting) one to be delivered, I’ve challenged myself to focus on making meals that are made on the stovetop or crockpot rather than looking for things that can be done without an oven. It’s a minor distinction, and perhaps it might not make much sense to some people, but I do much better with a challenge when it’s framed the right way. I have a tendency to focus on what I *can’t* do and don’t want to head down the road of being unable to cook anything because I only want to eat things that require the oven (bread and cookies, for example).
I’ve been craving hearty winter foods lately, specifically this lentil dish that a friend had once brought to a party. I never got her recipe and haven’t been able to replicated it, so the memory of that dish had been stashed away on a dusty shelf in my mind. Something knocked it loose and it’s been underfoot all week. I checked the pantry and found a bag of french green lentils, also called lentils du puy, rather than the brown lentils that the were in the original dish. I grabbed some brown rice, which seemed like a good addition to what I remembered. I found carrots and celery in the fridge onions and garlic and a jar of tomatoes in the pantry. And curry powder, because it sounded perfect. I wanted coconut milk but was out, which ultimately was for the better – it would have been far too rich (but so tasty!) with the delicious delicious coconut milk. Everything pretty much just went into the pot together, along with a whole bunch of water, and simmered until it was all cooked and delicious. And because I was scavenging in the pantry, I pulled out a jar of the kimchi I’d made last fall, and put a bunch of that on top. I ended up with a huge pot full of this stuff and might just eat it all myself rather than share – it turned out to be exactly the food I’ve been craving while not tasting much at all like the food memory I was shooting for.
Lentils du Puy with Brown Rice and Vegetables
- 2 TB coconut oil (substitute butter/lard/oil at will)
- 1 onion, diced
- 2 ribs celery, diced
- 2 carrots, quartered and cut into 1/4″ chunks
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 TB sweet curry powder (my favorite kind)
- 1 quart home-canned tomatoes (or the equivalent in fresh, frozen, or commercially canned tomatoes), liquid included
- 1 cup french green lentils, rinsed
- 1 cup short-grain brown rice
In a 3-quart or larger pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add chopped onion and cook over low heat until it starts to become translucent. Add celery, carrots, and garlic and cook for a few more minutes. Stir in curry powder and cook until it becomes fragrant, then add lentils, rice, and tomatoes. Add water to cover everything and bring up to a boil. Lower heat to a low simmer and cook, stirring periodically, until the rice and lentils are tender. You will probably need to add more water at some point – I ended up adding a total of about 5 cups of water in addition to the liquid from the tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and serve. I found the addition of kimchi to be delightful, but I know it’d be great with a dollop of yogurt or no topping at all.
Chopped cabbage would be a delightful addition to this recipe, if you had it on hand, as would spinach, kale, or some other hearty green. Modify to your heart’s content, omitting the curry and substituting in whatever spices or herbs you have on hand.