One of my favorite cooking and food websites is Food52, where the emphasis is on unfussy food made with inexpensive ingredients that most home cooks have in their kitchens. There are also many vegan and vegetarian dishes, and this goes in the direction in which Clif and I are heading with food. We are both very much concerned with overpopulation, limited resources on our finite planet, and living lightly. (I plan to explore the living lightly concept in future posts, and I am currently reading a book with the apt title Living Lightly.)
Lately, I have become enamoured with red lentils, which are not as, ahem, earthy as the brown lentils. (I have uncharitably referred to the flavor of brown lentils as “muddy,” and Clif is not a fan of them, either.) For our Labor Day get together, I made curried red lentils in my slow cooker—thanks, Susan Poulin, for the terrific recipe!—and they were a big hit. It was the first time I had used red lentils, rather than brown, and I was hooked by their smooth, subtle flavor. Red lentils, I knew, would become a staple at the little house in the big woods as we turn to a plant-based diet.
Therefore when Joe Beef’s Lentils Like Baked Beans recipe was featured on Food52, and I saw the primary ingredient was red lentils, I decided to try it. I did make some changes. I did not use bacon. No explanation needed, I think. Rather than cooking the lentils on the stove, I cooked them in a slow cooker, which thanks to Shari Burke’s encouragement has become my favorite little appliance. I just tossed everything into the slow cooker, let it come to boil on high, and then turned it down to low so that it could simmer until supper time. I also added more cider vinegar, maple syrup, and ketchup.
Finally, I served it over rice, which is the way I prefer most bean and lentil dishes. While I like lentils and beans, they can set heavy, especially at night, and I find rice lightens the dish. I also sprinkled ground peanuts on top, because, well, nuts and lentils go together like apple and pie.
The results? The lentils did taste a little baked beans, although nobody would ever confuse the two. “Pretty good,” Clif said, going back for seconds. Perhaps not company good—somehow the dish lacked the pizazz I look for when cooking for a gathering—but certainly good enough for a Tuesday night supper. And good enough to make again.
Then there is the price. I figured I used about $2.50 worth of lentils, which were organic. The other ingredients—maple syrup, cider vinegar, dried mustard, oil, onion, garlic, and ketchup—I had on hand, and the small amounts I used certainly didn’t come to more than a dollar or two. There were rice and ground peanuts—again, no more than a dollar or two, and I expect I am estimating on the high side. Even erring on the high side, say, $6 or $7 dollars for the whole meal, which would easily feed six, makes this an extremely economical dish that would fit in with most people’s budgets, even when they are tiny, like ours.
Among foodies, nutritionists, and activists, there has been much talk about the cost of healthy eating in the U.S. , and rightly so. According to the American Institute for Economic Research, food prices have risen 44 percent over the past fourteen years. And salaries? Well, not so much. Nevertheless, in comparison with beef and pork, lentils and other legumes are a great bargain.
For confirmed carnivores, making the transition from meat to legumes is probably not an easy one. However, for those of us with more flexible palates, eating more beans and lentils is a tasty way to eat lower on the food chain. Right now, I have a good supply of black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, and lentils. I will be adding other beans to my stockpile, and I’ll be experimenting with various meatless recipes so that our diet is varied and satisfying.