Protein Rush: Provencal Lentils with Spinach

This doesn’t taste like diet food to me…


I saw my friend L at our weight training class at the Y the other day and noticed how svelte she looked. When I asked her about it she told me she’s been on the South Beach diet for a few months now, and not only is she losing weight and feeling fantastic, but her eating habits have changed; like she no longer craves bowls of pasta for dinner and bagels for breakfast. Instead she and her husband (who’s shed more than 20 pounds so far) are eating more lean meats and salads.

It made me think about how my own food preferences have evolved of late. While there is no denying that I will happily shovel a bowl-full of spaghetti into my pie hole, more often than not these days it’ll be the whole wheat kind. My ten-pound bag of white jasmine rice sits aging in the back of the pantry closet because now I make brown rice instead.

I’d never been a dieter; until I had kids I was one of those people with a “fast” metabolism — I could easily eat my husband under the table and never gain a pound. And don’t even talk to me about low or no carb — I become a mean, unhappy person when deprived of a large hunk of crusty bread or some kind of starchy sidekick with meals. But a few years ago I examined a photo of myself looking bloated, pudgy and so unlike the me I used to be that I wondered “Who is that?”

I wanted to lose weight without feeling restricted by a diet. Giving up whole categories of food just wouldn’t work for me — I like eating a little bit of everything. I also believe that diets work in the long run because they force you to pay closer attention to what you put into your mouth — something that our eat-and-run culture seems to have forgotten how to do.

I started getting on the treadmill every day, slowly working my way from 30 minutes of walking to 45 minutes of running. And although I didn’t conform to any strict plan, I became aware of what foods I was eating and made what at first seemed like inconsequential changes in my habits; changes that added up to a whole lot of extra calories.

For instance, giving up coffee (since for me it doesn’t seem to go down without 4 ounces of half and half) and exchanging my morning glass of orange juice for water. No second helpings at dinner time, and sometimes a bowl of low-fat frozen yogurt ( I like Haagen-Dazs) for dessert if I was still feeling hungry. For snacking, I’d grab a handful of almonds or plain, stove-topped popcorn instead of cookies and chips. And I became a whole-grain fiend — T and the kids would erupt in a chorus of groans whenever I pulled out the whole-wheat burger buns.

The positive result was that a little more than 6 months later, I found myself free of those pesky 35 pounds of “baby weight”.

So that was a few years ago, and the changes became habits that stuck with me; slowly my kids have come around to eat that icky brown wheat bread without complaint and (usually) won’t break down in tears if I make lentils for dinner. My daughter A completely surprised me the other night by helping herself to seconds of this recipe, which I served with brown rice and some leftover roasted chicken.

Now L, my sister-in-law, who lost more than 60 pounds last year, has developed a craving for lots more grains in her cooking. So what could be bad about that? I plan to do more exploring in the name of “good for you” eating, as long as it stays real and delicious.


Provencal Lentils with Spinach

Makes 4 servings
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely diced
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup small dark green Le Puy lentils (I buy them in bulk at Whole Foods and Dierberg’s)
1 bay leaf
2 3/4 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 box frozen spinach, thawed as directed on package
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and salt; cook until softened, stirring occasionally Add the lentils and bay leaf to the pan, stirring until lentils are coated with oil.

Pour in the broth and bring to a boil; lower heat to a simmer and cook, covered, until liquid is nearly absorbed, about 30 minutes. Stir in the garlic and spinach, breaking the spinach up with a spoon; cover and continue cooking 5 – 10 more minutes.

Remove from the heat; add thyme, mustard, vinegar and pepper to taste. Taste and add more salt if needed; sprinkle with pine nuts. Find the bay leaf and remove it before serving.
Serve with brown basmati or jasmine rice.

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Figs stuffed with goat cheese

Figs and goat cheese are perfect partners


Mark Bittman, the New York Times Minimalist, lured me in once again with this story about grilled figs. I’m never one to turn down the promise of a simple ripe fig, especially when stuffed with cheese, so I snatched up a precious six-pack of organic California Missions at Whole Foods yesterday to try it out.

If you watch the accompanying video on the NYT website, you’ll see Mr. Bittman standing in the middle of a vineyard in Sonoma while chef Gary Danko prepares his stuffed figs with nothing more than his fingers and a hot grill, conveniently using a freshly plucked grape leaf as a wrapper.

As it happened, there weren’t any fresh grape leaves to be found in my backyard, so I improvised with hydrangea leaves. Did you know they are totally edible? And no, I am not the heir to Euell Gibbons; I picked up that tidbit from Ina Garten – she once decorated a platter of fruit and cheese with her hefty Hampton-sized hydrangea leaves on her TV show. *UPDATE: I feel I should add that even if you feel goofy enough to start seasoning your figs with hydrangea buds or flowers, don’t. They are both poisonous!

Also, since I didn’t want to fire up the grill for a few little figs, I put them under the broiler instead. That worked out just fine and I loved the result: warm fig and slightly oozing, tangy goat cheese balanced with a few drops of salty-sweet soy sauce and balsamic vinegar.

Ivonne, the creator of a very delicious blog, Cream Puffs in Venice, is hosting the Sugar High Friday event for food bloggers this month, featuring figs. This is my contribution, and although it’s not really a “sweet” thing, I couldn’t resist making and sharing this.

Warm Figs Stuffed with Goat Cheese
adapted from Mark Bittman
makes 6 servings

6 fresh figs
2 tablespoons fresh soft goat cheese
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme, rosemary or other fresh herb
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 large hydrangea leaves or 6 6-inch square pieces of foil
6 toothpicks
Soy sauce and balsamic vinegar, for drizzling

With a paring knife, gently slice through the stem of each fig and make 3 1/4-inch slits. Pull the cut sides apart, forming a small pocket.

Sprinkle a tiny amount of herbs, salt and pepper into each pocket, followed by a pinch of goat cheese. Wrap figs in leaves, securing with toothpicks, or enclose loosely with foil.

Arrange fig parcels on a small cookie sheet and place under a hot broiler for about 2 minutes, or until leaves start to brown and cheese softens.

Unwrap figs and drizzle very sparingly with a one or two drops soy sauce and vinegar. Serve warm.

More FamilyStyle Figgy Business

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Mediterranean Barley Salad with Roasted Eggplant

A hearty salad full of Mediterranean flavor

This salad recipe is one of those that gets passed around from friends to potlucks and back again – a keeper. I first made it to bring to a picnic dinner at my neighbor B’s house last Labor Day. I think it went over well; she’s made it multiple times since then and is doing her best to spread the love around the neighborhood. She’s good at that.

The basic recipe came out of this one from Gourmet.

I omitted the zucchini and olives from the original (I’m not a fan of either) and substituted cherry tomatoes, which lend their own sweet roasty, juices to the tender eggplant and toothsome barley. This is easily made vegetarian-friendly by using vegetable broth or water instead of chicken broth.

Make it once and pass it around…

Mediterranean Barley Salad with Roasted Eggplant
makes 8 side-dish servings

1 1/2 pounds eggplant, diced
4 cups cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup chopped green onion
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 1/4 cups pearl barley
2 1/2 – 3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion, soaked in cold water 10 minutes; drained
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint
6 ounces crumbled feta cheese

Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 425°F.

Toss eggplant with 2 tablespoons oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper on a large shallow (1-inch-deep) baking pan. Repeat with tomatoes on a second pan. Roast vegetables in oven, stirring occasionally and switching position of pans halfway through baking, until eggplant is golden brown and tender and tomatoes are brown and wrinkled, 20 to 25 minutes total.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a 3- to 4-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then cook scallion, cumin, coriander, and cayenne, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add barley and cook, stirring until well coated with oil, 2 minutes more. Add broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until all of liquid is absorbed and barley is tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Transfer barley to baking pan with roasted tomatoes and spread to quickly cool, uncovered, about 20 minutes.

Whisk together lemon juice, garlic, sugar, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and 3 tablespoons oil in a large bowl. Add barley and tomatoes, eggplant, onion and mint to bowl with dressing and toss until combined well.

Sprinkle cheese over the salad and serve.

Make ahead note: Salad can be made 1 day ahead and chilled, covered. Return to room temperature before serving.

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