Eating out is a grand seduction. From the moment I step into a restaurant, I am totally open and utterly surrendered to the experience. The first thing I notice when I enter is the smell – I actually like it to hit me with an assertive thwack – like someone proudly shouting a rainbow of aromas to my face that something amazing is happening in the kitchen. I love sitting down at the table, gently touching the cutlery, unfolding the napkin and placing it in my lap, the first exchange with the server, opening the menu. It’s all very weighty, very important, very ritualistic for me.
While I was on my cookbook tour, you can imagine that I ate out a lot. Mostly out of the necessity of not having a kitchen, but also because going to restaurants is a rare privilege for me and I’ll take any excuse. During my few harried days in New York City I went to dine at a new, hip joint in the west village that came highly recommended (although I’ll refrain from naming names). The place was packed with an intimidating blend of gorgeous locals and well-dressed, in-the-know tourists. The menu looked incredibly promising with Sarah B. favourites and buzz ingredients like chia seeds, cashew cheese, baby kale, and turmeric oil. I was explosive with anticipation. I immediately committed myself to the ivory lentil risotto with peas. I’d seen ivory lentils at the market before but never bought them, and had never had the revelation to try making “risotto” with them. I could feel my expectations soar and the desire pulsing between us. Hold me back!
The dish arrived, its scent wafting up from the pristine white bowl and pools of amber oil intermingling with green globes of seasonal spring perfection. I looked at my friends with great eagerness, dipped my spoon in and took the first bite.
The lentils were raw.
No, not al dente. Raw. Crunchy. Hard. Uncooked.
I rarely, rarely send something back to the kitchen, but because I was so seduced by the idea of this dish and it completely fell flat, I just had to. The lentils had obviously been cooked, but so far from properly cooked that it baffled me – what kind of chef would send a dish out like this unless by mistake? It must have been a mistake. I could feel myself losing trust in this impeccably designed, obviously happening restaurant, but how could all of these hipsters be wrong?
The waiter returned and said that there was nothing wrong with the dish. The chef meant it to be that way. He placed the plate of cold food back on the table in front of me, smiled, turned, and left. I was crushed. After all we’d been through.
Although it has been months since this experience, I can’t shake it – the lunch bag letdown of a genius concept failing to meet its true potential, the fact that I was served undercooked legumes, and that I paid $30 for them. In order to right all of these wrongs, I headed to my local Indian grocer, bought some white lentils and made a date with my stove. What manifested was not just a better meal, but a new favourite one.
It’s pretty clear that I’m into making “risotto” out of anything besides rice, such as the Miraculous Riceless Risotto and the Inspirational Sunflower Seed Risotto, but I’m digging this new recipe for a lot of reasons. First, it’s grain-free and in my rice-loving life it’s nice to have an alternative. It’s very high in protein, something that I’m always mindful of as it is so important to balanced health. It cooks quickly so it’s perfect for a weeknight, and it’s endlessly customizable to the season simply by changing up the veggies on top. It’s divinely creamy, rich and velvety and so much like risotto (by far the closest I’ve come so far!). If you are looking for me this fall, you can find me tucked into a big bowl of this stuff. It’s like eating hugs.
Yum, Yum, Molybdenum
Chances are you haven’t heard of molybdenum, but I will wager that you had to sound it out a couple times (let me help you: “muh-LIB-duh-num”). Moylbdenum is an essential trace mineral and happens to be wildly abundant in our pal, the lentil. It is found first in the soil where we grow our food and water, so healthy soil and groundwater is essential for healthy plants that contain good amounts of this stuff. In our bodies it is stored in the liver, kidneys, adrenal glands bones, and skin, but it is present in some amount in all of our tissues.
Molybdenum is important because it is part of several enzyme systems, the most notable being that of xanthine oxidase. Xanthine oxidase (XO) helps the liver mobilize iron for use in the body and aid uric acid metabolism. Molybdenum also helps us digest and assimilate carbohydrates and detoxify the body from exposure to sulfites.
Besides lentils, other sources of molybdenum include dried peas and beans, oats, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, cucumber, celery and eggs.
A few notes on the recipe.
First, white lentils are available at Indian grocery stores, but I’ve also seen them at Middle Eastern markets and online. If you can’t find white lentils, it’s good to know that they are also called urad daal or urid daal. To confuse you a little, the unhulled lentils themselves are called black lentils or black gram since their skins are completely black. It should be obvious, but I’ll advise against buying the unhulled kind or you will have a very different result – a black one to be precise. Because someone will inevitably ask if they can make this with any other colour of lentil, I will say a half-hearted yes, but I wouldn’t recommend anything other than red lentils due to their properties.
Second, you can definitely make this a vegan recipe by leaving out the cheese rind, but good golly, it really makes for some delicious eating. I also like a grate a bunch of pecorino over the top right before serving, but I’m pretty wild like that. Oh baby.
Third, I got pretty fancy and bought (not foraged – the shame!) wild mushrooms for this because I just love them so, but when I originally tested the recipe I used good ol’ brown button mushrooms and portobellos. Whatever mushrooms you choose the biggest secret to cooking them is not moving them too much. Like pancakes, grilled cheese, and I would imagine, a steak, don’t stir them for crying out loud. Get the pan pretty screeching hot, melt some ghee (or coconut oil), throw in the mushrooms, toss to coat, then just back away. Sure, you can watch them sizzle, talk to them, Instagram them, but do not touch them. The secret to really great mushrooms is a caramelized crust and that only happens with high heat and no mucking about. You are allowed to check the bottom of one (one!) after 3-4 minutes, but if there is no colour yet, flip it back until you have some serious golden going on. Also, don’t crowd the pan too much – this causes the mushrooms to steam instead of fry – an important distinction.
White Lentil Risotto
1 ½ cups / 325g white lentils, soaked for 8-12 hours if possible
2 Tbsp. ghee or coconut oil
2 medium / 200g onions, finely diced
½ tsp. fine grain sea salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 rind Pecorino Romano, optional but delicious (a parmesan rind also works)
a generous grating of Pecorino Romano to garnish (optional but delicious)
4-5 cups / 1-1 ¼ liters vegetable broth
1 lb. / 500g mixed mushrooms, cleaned of all dirt and debris, and roughly chopped (I chose golden and trumpet chanterelles, and oyster mushrooms, but any type work)
a few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed, plus a few for garnish
2-3 Tbsp. ghee, butter, or coconut oil
a couple pinches sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic
2 tsp. balsamic vinegar, optional
1. Wash lentils well, drain and rinse until water runs clear. Set aside.
2. Melt ghee in a large stock pot. Add onions, salt and stir to coat. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes until the onions are softened and just starting to caramelize – don’t brown them too much or they will colour the dish! Add garlic, the lentils, 3 cups / 700ml vegetable broth and the cheese rind, if using. Stir well and make sure that the broth is covering the lentils by at least a few centimeters / half an inch. If not, add more. Bring to a simmer, stir and cover.
3. Over the next 30 minutes or so (cook time depends on whether or not you soaked the lentils), stir the pot every few minutes (this helps release the starch and add creaminess) and check the broth level, adding more as needed to just cover the lentils.
4. After about 20 minutes, start to prepare the mushrooms. Melt the ghee in a large skillet and add the mushrooms. Stir to coat and let them cook over high heat without touching them (!!!) for at least three or four minutes. Flip and repeat until golden on all sides. Add a touch more ghee, garlic, thyme leaves and to the pan. Cook for 1-2 minutes until fragrant, season with salt and pepper and a splash of balsamic vinegar, if desired.
5. The lentils are done when they are tender but not mushy. The consistency of the dish should be very much like a classic risotto: more solid than a soup, but thinner than a stew, so make sure that there is enough stock in the pot. Remove cheese rind. Divide between plates, garnish with cheese and black pepper, place mushrooms on top and garnish with a sprig of thyme and more black pepper.
Show me your risotto on Instagram! #MNRwhitelentilrisotto
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I’m doing three events this month and I would love to see you there.
First, I will be the guest chef at the organic and hyper-local food restaurant Mad Mad Mad Bodega cooking and serving a total pumpkin orgy, giving a talk and signing books as well. Click the flyer for a link to learn more.
Secondly, I am giving two lectures on Nutrition Fundamentals (way more rad than it sounds!) with a Q&A at Books & Company. You can come to one of the talks or both. Click the flyer for a link to learn more.