Recently, I’ve been paying more attention to my diet and trying to eat healthier, specifically more vegetarian and (gasp!) vegan cuisine. A couple of months ago my brother became a flexitarian vegan and he’s gotten the whole family on this crazy health kick. Despite my father’s grumbles, he’s doing a great job at incorporating more veggies and fruits into his daily intake. We spent about three weeks trying to eat completely vegan food and it was really hard! It wasn’t meat that I missed so much as dairy: cheese and eggs are just so delicious.
One of the things I learned while cooking vegan cuisine is that textures and variety are essential. I never want a meal to be boring, so I’m constantly trying to cook ingredients in new ways. I’ve become very into selecting a specific vegetable, tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini, etc., and using it as the star of a dish. For example, I was putting together pasta pomodoro, and instead of just making a fresh tomato sauce, I incorporated four different kinds of tomatoes. First, I sautéed chopped heirlooms in a pan with olive oil and a little garlic and shallot. This was the base for the sauce. Then, I grilled a bunch of large beefsteak tomato pieces to add an element of smokiness to the dish. Since I wanted a true tomato flavor, I also included diced fresh heirloom tomatoes. Finally, for a little sweetness, I tossed in a handful of julienned sun-dried tomatoes. This pasta was spectacular; you could really taste the layers of flavors and it was far from boring.
When it comes to dinner salads, I’ve been focusing on variety. Each night I challenge myself to make a completely different salad. My recipe journal is filled with countless post-its that list salad ingredients. “Greens, roasted red pepper, corn, radishes, pickled red onion, chipotle/lime vinaigrette.” “Greens, sliced mushrooms, toasted walnuts, lentils, avocado, dried cranberry, balsamic vinaigrette.” “Spinach, green olives, celery, artichoke hearts, cherry tomatoes, feta cheese, Italian vinaigrette.” “Romanie, white beans, artichoke hearts, green pepper, black olives, pickled red onion, peppercini, Dijon vinaigrette.” As you can see, my obsession with varied salads is getting seriously out of control! The key is to incorporate components that add a specific flavor or texture to the salad: crunch, acid, creaminess, nuttiness, heft, sweetness, bitterness, etc.
This lentil salad is a hearty vegan dish that showcases a few of the things I just mentioned. Some of the vegetables are raw and others are grilled. It’s an excellent side dish. For a main course serve a large portion alongside mixed greens. When I made it, I wanted to add toasted pine nuts because they are the same size as the lentils and would provide a lovely crunch, but I didn’t realize we were all out. If you have nuts, feel free to toast them and toss them in with the other ingredients. Also note that any variety of vegetables would work in this dish.
Healthy Lentil Salad
1 cup lentils
2 1/2 cups vegetable broth or water
2 teaspoons minced parsley
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 large cremini or button mushrooms, rough edge of stems removed
1/2 large red onion, peeled and sliced into quarters
1 zucchini, sliced in half lengthwise
1 red pepper
Olive oil, for drizzling
1 cup packed fresh spinach, chopped
1 tomato, diced
1 half of a lemon
- In a medium saucepan, combine the lentils with the vegetable broth or water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the broth or water is absorbed and the lentils are cooked through, about 20-25 minutes. They should be soft when you bite into them, but still a little al dente. Drain the excess liquid and set the lentils aside in a large serving bowl to cool.
- While the lentils cook, make the vinaigrette. In a small jar, combine the parsley, vinegar, and 3 tablespoons olive oil. Season generously with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Tightly seal the lid on the jar and shake vigorously to emulsify the vinegar and oil.
- When the lentils are still warm, drizzle on half of the vinaigrette. Toss to coat the lentils. Reserve the remaining vinaigrette.
- Meanwhile, prepare a grill* to medium-high heat. Place the mushrooms, red onion, zucchini, and red pepper on a large baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
- Grill the mushrooms, onion, and zucchini, turning slowly, until soft, slightly charred, and cooked through, about 8-10 minutes. Char the red pepper on all sides, turning to ensure that each side is grilled, until it is blackened, about 12 minutes, depending on the heat of your grill.
- Remove all the vegetables. Set the mushrooms, onion, and zucchini aside to cool. Place the red pepper in a plastic baggie and set aside to steam for 15 minutes.
- When the grilled veggies are cool enough to handle, slice the mushrooms into quarters. Slice the onion into bite-sized pieces. Slice the zucchini halves into 1/2-inch half moons. Place the mushrooms, onions, zucchini, spinach, and tomatoes in the bowl with the lentils.
- When the red pepper is cool enough to handle, remove the stem and seeds. Slide the blacked skin off and discard. Dice the red pepper flesh and add to the vegetables and lentils.
- Drizzle the remaining vinaigrette over the top of the vegetables and lentils. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Juice the lemon half over the salad. Gently toss everything to combine. Taste the salad and adjust the seasonings to your liking. Enjoy immediately or refrigerate until ready to eat.
*If you do not have access to a grill, roast the mushrooms, zucchini, and onion. Broil the red pepper.