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The Leftover Project: Lentil Soup in the New Kitchen

The kitchen 1

The kitchen is finished! Welcome, new temple of culinary rites. Welcome, new heart of our home. Farewell to camping in the living room.

The kitchen 2

For the past six weeks, we’ve been subsisting on what could be grilled in the back yard or quickly prepared in the “camp kitchen” a mini-microwave, an electric skillet and a slow cooker. The trouble with cooking in the living room as that pervasive odors, like garlic, cling to the furniture. There’s a reason we don’t put sofas in the kitchen.

Thank goodness for take-out. I’ve eaten more sushi in the past month than in the previous year. But take-out food is expensive, and I’ve really missed cooking. The first dish I made in the new kitchen was pasta, something I just couldn’t prepare on the grill. And last night the weather turned from warm May splendor back to our usual gray drizzle. Time for lentil soup!

Lentil soup is a worthy addition to my leftover project, a collection of basic recipes to help me (and perhaps you?) use up leftovers before they go to waste. According to the United Nations Environmental Program, “about one-third of all food produced worldwide, worth around US$1 trillion, gets lost or wasted in food production and consumption systems. When this figure is converted to calories, this means that about 1 in 4 calories intended for consumption is never actually eaten. In a world full of hunger, volatile food prices, and social unrest, these statistics are more than just shocking:  they are environmentally, morally and economically outrageous.”

Knowing this, I feel like a complete cretin when, because I haven’t paid attention to what’s in my fridge, I end up discarding food that’s become too old to eat. It feels like throwing money directly into the garbage can, not to mention the natural resources involved, and the work of all the people who produced, transported and packaged that food. Thus, the Leftover Project.

Lentil soup is a delicious way to use up leftover bits of this and that. I often throw in greens that are starting to wilt, sad tomatoes, and bits of cooked meat. Today’s version was pretty much the basic recipe, and gave a home to some slightly soggy celery and a lone potato that would otherwise have melted into gooey oblivion.

Here’s the basic recipe to serve six. We’re only two, but I freeze the rest for I-don’t-wanna-cook days.

  • First, I chop up 2-4 peeled carrots, 2-4 stalks celery, including the leaves, and a big ol’ onion, chopped, or all the bits of various onions, green onions, shallots, and/or leeks I have lying around, to equal the volume of one large onion. I sauté all this in a few tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot. (Doesn’t that sound like a term of affection? Come on over here, my heavy-bottomed soup pot.) Put the lid on and sweat the veggies for about five minutes over medium heat.

The veggies

  • Now, I throw in 2-4 cloves of garlic, minced (more would be fine). If you’re adding greens, like spinach, kale, etc., now would be the time to shred or chop them up and throw them in. If your greens are already cooked, throw them in later, toward the end. Anyway, I also add a few bay leaves and stir this for a few minutes, then pour in about eight cups of water and the lentils—any type. This time I used the green ones which hold their shape in the finished soup. The brown ones soften up and dissolve more, making a more velvety soup. Nothing’s stopping you from using your stick blender (AKA immersion blender) to partially puree the finished soup, if you prefer a creamier consistency. You could use red lentils too, but they seem to call for Middle Eastern or Indian seasonings, whereas the green ones feel more French, Spanish or Italian. Last night we were heading toward Italy, so I added several grinds of black pepper and a good shake of Penzi’s Tuscan Sunset herb blend (so good!) and let the lentils simmer for about forty minutes.
  • While the lentils cooked, I squish the guts out of six raw chicken Italian sausage from Trader Joe’s. I brown that up and set aside half the pan for future dishes—I love this crumbled sausage in my stuffed peppers, zucchini or eggplant—also great vehicles for leftovers.
  • When the lentils are starting to soften, I add about a tablespoon of beef bouillon concentrate, the stuff in a jar. You could use the chicken concentrate or the veggie. I dump in a can (14 oz.) of diced tomatoes, two medium potatoes, peeled and diced, and the sausage, which could just as easily have been replaced with diced ham, roast beef or chicken, or even vegetarian sausage.
  • And here it is! It turns out I’d grabbed the spicy sausage, which gave the soup just a bit of a kick. Delicious!

Lentil soup

After dinner, we went to Tacoma’s B Sharp Coffee House to hear the T-Town Blues Review. Vocalist Paul Green roared on harmonica, and the excellent band raised the roof. What a great evening.

T-Town Blues Review 2

What’s your favorite way to use up leftovers?

The Leftover Project: Southwestern-ish Stuffed Peppers

My ongoing goal is to stop food waste by transforming leftover ingredients into new dishes. Of course, my dishes must be made of actual food—no food-like-eating-substances allowed. (I’m looking at you, canned biscuits!) Stuffed vegetables are a great way to use up bits of leftover grains or bread, vegetables, and protein. You can go in a Middle Eastern direction with your spices, or Italian, or even Asian. Yesterday I was feeling like some Mexican food, but I had a fridge full of leftovers that needed using up.

We don’t often eat beef steak, or any other kind of beef, for that matter, but last night, after a hard day of substitute teaching—middle school band—I needed a stiff drink and a sturdy dinner. Hubs bought three lovely filet mignon steaks; why do they always come in packages of three? In the end, we weren’t as hungry as we’d thought, so there was a leftover steak. Now, it just won’t do to waste such beautiful meat.

Here’s what I had that needed using up:

The ingredients

  • Two bell peppers, one red, one yellow
  • Half a cucumber
  • Half an avocado
  • Half a bunch of cilantro
  • The steak
  • A pot of rice
  • A zucchini going soft
  • A few sad-looking mushrooms
  • Half a big onion
  • Some strips of green bell pepper left over from Superbowl crudités
  • Half a lemon
  • One canned chipotle chile in adobo sauce—I’d divided them up into little containers and froze them, because when would you ever use a whole can, unless you’re making chili?
  • Half a head of romaine lettuce
  • Some mini carrots
  • A few green onions
  • A handful of cherry tomatoes

For the stuffed peppers (serves two):

I diced up the onion, green pepper strips, half the zucchini and mushrooms, and sautéed them in a pan with a bit of olive oil. Next, I threw in two cloves of minced garlic, and seasoned it all with ground cumin, dried oregano, salt and black pepper. Next I added a big handful of chopped cilantro and the steak, which I’d diced, plus about two cups of cooked rice. (Any grain would be good here: quinoa, barley, farro, brown rice—go wild!) I moistened that with a bit of my favorite sauce for stuffed veggies: V-8 juice. Really, it works very well to moisten the stuffing without drowning it in a thick tomato sauce.

Vegetables for filling the stuffed peppers

Vegetables for filling the stuffed peppers

While those ingredients were getting acquainted, I nuked the halved bell peppers in a covered dish for three minutes to soften them, then put them in an oiled (olive, of course) glass baking dish. I filled the peppers with the mixture—there’s always a bit of extra filling that slops into the pan, but so what?

I minced up the chipotle pepper, and stirred it and its adobo sauce into the rest of the V-8 juice, about a cup. I dumped this over the now-stuffed peppers and sprinkled them with some grated cheddar cheese. Of course, it would be cool to use a more authentic Mexican cheese if you have one—I didn’t. Oh, I found about two tablespoons of sliced green olives, the pimento-stuffed kind, so I sprinkled that on top of the filled peppers too. That provided a nice contrast to the mild filling; next time I’ll add more olives.

The cooked peppers.

The cooked peppers.

While the peppers were baking at 375 degrees F for about half an hour, I made a salad with a romaine, carrots, sliced green onions, some diced zucchini (from the non-soggy end), and the cherry tomatoes.

I used this salad dressing recipe, more or less, adding a pinch of cayenne pepper. This used up the cucumber and avocado. It’s really good—light and refreshing. You should try this!

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/164771/cucumber-avocado-salad-dressing/

And here you go! A veggie-rich dinner that salvaged lots of leftovers and transformed them into something new and tasty.

peppers on the plates

The Leftover Project: Greenie Fettuccine

In my quest to reduce food waste, I continue to look for ways to use up the odds and ends that lurk in the back of my fridge or pantry. We’ve been eating lighter since the holidays, and I’ve been making more vegetarian meals. Last night, as I pondered what to fix for dinner, I noticed that my veggie drawer was full of bits and pieces of green veggies. Here’s what I had:

The ingredients

  • a partial bag of baby spinach
  • a zucchini
  • some green onions
  • a partial head of broccoli
  • a partial jar of basil pesto

And, of course, I had a few staples on hand:

  • a box of fettuccine
  • a hunk of Parmesan cheese
  • fresh garlic
  • walnuts

Well, this reminded me of my childhood favorite, “green spaghetti.” Back then, the sauce came from a packet of dehydrated pesto mix, but it was so delicious—green and garlicky and cheesy. This dish was a great improvement, even if I didn’t make my own fresh pesto this time.

First, I toasted a handful of walnuts in the oven at 375 degrees for about ten minutes, until fragrant. Next, I chopped up the veggies rather small and sautéed them in my wok in a bit of olive oil. The broccoli went in first, since it takes the longest to cook, and then the diced zucchini and green onions, with a minced clove of garlic. The spinach went in last; I chopped it up a bit so as to avoid long strings of spinach stuck in our teeth. I seasoned all that with kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper—does anyone use pre-ground pepper now that you can buy your pepper preloaded in those inexpensive grinders? There’s something so sharp, so pure about the fragrance of fresh veggies with just salt and pepper.

The veggies, cooked

I boiled up enough fettuccine for two and, when it was done, tossed it into the wok along with the jarred pesto, the walnuts, which I’d chopped up roughly, and a few tablespoons of the pasta water. Was it Anthony Bourdain who taught me this trick? Not in person, of course—wouldn’t that be fun? I mean that he mentioned in one of his books how adding a bit of the pasta’s starchy cooking water helps to bind all the ingredients into a sauce that clings to the pasta.

I stirred in some freshly-shredded Parmesan cheese. I love how my Microplane grater transforms a small hunk of cheese into a mountain of fluffy, cheesy snow. I should have photographed the results before dumping more cheese on top, but there you go.

Fettuccini with rosesfettuccine, close up

It was delicious, light, and very fresh. The veggies were still crisp-tender, and the toasted walnuts added protein and crunch. I look forward to trying this again with other green veggies: peas, chard, asparagus, fennel…

What’s your favorite quick pasta sauce?

A Recipe to Celebrate the Return of the Rain: Tacoma Smoked-Salmon and Summer Corn Chowder

Not my most photogenic soup, but so delicious!

Not my most photogenic soup, but so delicious!

Here’s what you do:

Notice that it’s raining and a wee bit chilly. Hmm—some soup would taste good tonight. You’ve been down near the Puget Sound all day, so your thoughts turn to salmon.

Go to Northern Fish Old Town, 2201 Ruston Way, in Tacoma, and buy some of their superb house-smoked salmon. If you don’t live near this fine purveyor of fresh seafood, I’m sorry. In any case, get some good smoked salmon; you want the firm, hot-smoked variety for this soup, not the soft cold-smoked type you’d eat on bagels with a schmear.  A half a pound is more than plenty if you’re serving this chowder as a main dish to two or three, or a first course to four.

In your favorite large-ish soup pot, put two slices of bacon that you’ve cut up into smallish bits. When that’s rendered its fat (you want about 1 Tbs.), throw in about a cup of diced Walla Walla sweet onion and about a cup of diced celery. Include some celery leaves if you can. Stir that around in the bacon grease over medium heat, plop on the lid, and let the veggies soften. After five minutes or so, sprinkle the veggies with a tablespoon of flour, which will help thicken the soup later.

Now add the kernels of one ear of sweet corn—from Washington State, of course—and one large or two small red-skinned potatoes, diced. Pour in a liter of low-salt chicken broth. It’s important that the broth be low-salt because the salmon is salty. Throw in a bay leaf if you like, and add plenty of freshly-ground black pepper. Stir well, cover and let this simmer gently until the potatoes are as tender as you like them. Add some fresh dill if you have it, dried dill if you don’t.

When your potatoes are done, stir in a glug of heavy cream. I use about a half cup, but you might like more, or less. You can try some low-fat substitute for the cream, but don’t tell me about it. Now flake up the salmon and dump it into the soup. Stir gently. OK—go ahead and eat a few chucks of the salmon; you’ve earned it.

Let the soup simmer just a few minutes longer, and serve with crusty sourdough bread. Look out the window at the rain. Smile.

 

Un Experimento Culinario: Carnitas de Cerdo

So far, on this blog I’ve shared only recipes that offer creative ways to use up leftovers—but this culinary experiment turned out so well that I wanted to share it with you.

I was looking for a big beef chuck roast to make shredded beef burritos for our class Cinco de Mayo party, but wow! Who knew beef was so expensive? So I went to the Grocery Outlet and found a five-pound pork loin roast. Surely I could do something with this, right?

I perused several recipes for Mexican-style shredded pork and determined that I was heading in a carnitas direction. This recipe combines the suggestions of several online recipes.

The pork was pretty lean, so I coated the bottom of my lidded roasting pan with about 2 Tbs. olive oil. Then I rubbed the pork with:

  • 1 ½ Tbs. salt
  • 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbs. dried oregano
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • ½ tsp. chipotle chili powder

I placed the pork in the roasting pan, fat side up, and added

  • one white onion, pretty large, coarsely chopped,
  • 2 Anaheim chiles, cut into strips
  • 4 cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped

I poured around this

  • one cup of orange juice
  • one cup of water

and put it into a preheated 350 degree oven with the lid on.

Two hours later, I took off the lid, basted the meat with the juices, and continued cooking for another hour and a half, basting every 20 minutes or so—mostly because that makes me feel important. I kept poking it until I was sure it was soft enough to shred.

After the meat cooled, I shredded it with two forks and mixed in the juices from the pan. At first, it looked like there’d be too much liquid, but the meat soaked it right up.

For our Cinco de Mayo party in Spanish class, I served this with flour tortillas, fresh cilantro, purchased salsa verde, and Mexican queso fresco. ¡Estupendo! The shredded pork would also be great for tacos, enchiladas, over rice…or just random forkfuls snatched whenever passing the fridge. ¡Buen provecho!