Into the pantry: Lentil Sloppy Joes

Vegetarian sloppy joes

Nick and I grew soggier in 2012, rounder and softer than ever before and at the end of it, we felt so tired. I can’t recall a vegetable in December that I didn’t eat coated in sauce, and every time I had a feeling I covered it in cheese and chased it with a handful of chocolate. So while we finished 2012 in a food coma, we’re starting 2o13 a little lighter.

I made a critical error in weighing myself the morning after an epic New Year’s Eve feast. (Never do that.) The sum of every bad choice I made this year is much higher than I’d anticipated, but that’s okay – it sets the bar for success this year lower. I have been fretting over what I am going to do with my life – 30 is fast approaching and good lord, what have I done? – but the weight-loss excuse buys time. “I had to lose 20 pounds!” I’ll say, and then maybe no one will notice that I still haven’t lived up to that potential people used to threaten me with.

If you are wondering what to do with your life, I suggest starting with a simple, hearty meal. Sloppy Joes remind (reminds?) me of meals on weeknights in a time when bad choices weren’t measured by weight, that I would always eat without fussing, and that would more often than not finish with a bowl of Neapolitan ice cream from a bucket (heavy on the strawberry for me, please) and maybe a drizzle of chocolate sauce. This grown-up version eschews meat and ketchup, but is no less satisfying … perhaps more so, because it’s delicious but not to the point of discomfort. 2013. We can do this.

Spices.

Lentil Sloppy Joes

  • 1 cup green, brown or French lentils
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped
  • 1 small onion
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 lb. mushrooms, finely minced (or whizzed until almost puréed in a food processor or blender)
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp. chili powder, such as ancho chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp. mustard powder
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1 x 5.5 oz. can tomato paste
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. honey
  • Salt to taste

Simmer lentils and bay leaf in 2 cups of lightly salted water until tender, 20 to 30 minutes. Drain and rinse, then set aside. Discard bay leaf.

Meanwhile, cook celery, carrot, and onion in olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over high heat until glistening, cover, reduce heat to medium, and cook for 10 minutes. Remove lid, add garlic, and cook until the mixture is caramelized and reduced by two thirds, an additional 15 to 20 minutes. The longer you cook this, the sweeter it will get.

Mirepoix.

Caramelized.

Add mushrooms, and cook until moisture has mostly dissipated and the bottom of the pan is dry. Add spices, thyme and tomato paste, stir until combined, then add lentils. Add the cup of water and the apple cider vinegar and honey. Stir to combine, and cook until the mix begins to bubble. Serve over lightly toasted sourdough or buns.

Lentil sloppy joes.

Stewed short ribs.

I’ve been singing this song, dazedly, replacing the lusty words with worky ones, for the past couple of weeks. I’m … tired. Work is exhausting and unrelenting, the baby is crawling and into everything, and I haven’t watched a new episode of Adventure Time or read anything interesting in far too long. In the interest of adapting as best I can to a new normal, I am throwing myself into Crock Pot cookery – we WILL have a meal at the end of the day that doesn’t start off with a package of instant ramen and an egg. We WON’T just eat take-out sushi every day until our toes web and our backs sprout fins.

It is a wonderful thing to come home to a meal already made, and to an apartment that smells of herbs and garlic instead of stale cat food and yesterday’s dishes. It’s nice to hear from a friend on the weekend and invite him to dinner on Monday night because there will be short ribs, which is a pretty good excuse to blow off work for the night. And if he offers to bring a selection of interesting craft beers to try, all the better.

Did I tell you we’re going to move across town at the end of the month? Good lord, it never ends. But I’m fed, and ultimately that’s what matters the most. You may get quite a few Crock Pot recipes out of me yet – I’m doing a lot of big-batch feelings-eating.

Slow-stewed short ribs

  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 5-6 lbs. beef or veal short ribs
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 1 whole head of garlic, cloves smashed and peeled
  • 4 large carrots, peeled and chopped into inch-long pieces
  • 4 stalks celery, chopped into inch-long pieces
  • 2 cups dry, lightly oaked white wine, such as Chardonnay
  • 1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup low-sodium or homemade beef stock
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp. grainy Dijon mustard
  • 1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tbsp. coarse salt
  • 1 tsp. dried rosemary
  • 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. dried marjoram
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Fresh parsley, chopped

In a large pan, over medium-high heat, cook short ribs in olive oil until deeply browned. Place into Crock Pot or slow cooker. To the same pan, add onion, garlic, carrots, and celery. Stir to cover with the oil that remains in the pan.

Add  wine, tomatoes, beef stock, bay leaves, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, salt, rosemary, red pepper flakes, black pepper, basil, oregano, and marjoram, and bring just to a boil. Taste, adjusting seasonings as needed. When you are satisfied that it is delicious, pour the whole mix over the short ribs in the slow cooker. Stir to ensure even distribution of liquid. Set to low, 9 to 10 hours, and go about your day.

About 30 minutes before serving (if you are so inclined – this step is not mandatory), skim as much fat off the top as you feel you need to, then carefully spoon ribs, veggies and sauce back into your large pan and simmer for another 20 to 30 minutes, until sauce has reduced and thickened slightly. Add lemon juice, taste again, and adjust seasonings as needed. Sprinkle with fresh parsley. Serve over fresh noodles, rice, potatoes, or whatever starchy, filling thing most pleases you. Make sure you have crusty bread to sop up the juices.

If you don’t have a slow cooker but you do have 2 1/2 to 3 hours, you can make this in the oven. Braise the ribs, uncovered, at 325°F until meat is falling-off-the-bone tender. This way will produce a thicker sauce, but you will have to spend more time in the kitchen.

Turkey chili.

This weekend we finally had a moment to spare, a few minutes to sit down and breathe and look at the baby, who’s now pulling himself up on things to peer over them, and who suddenly switched from picky to pleased when it comes to the food set before him.

I don’t know where the time went. I have a job now, one I think I’m going to really like and not just because of the office’s close proximity to cheap bibimbap and fresh-baked cinnamon buns. Creditors are starting to get paid. I might even buy a pair of shoes.

We lost summer and fell into autumn, and, semi-concerned about potentially starving come winter should no job ever materialize for me, I spent most of the cusp of two seasons pickling and preserving, putting up jars of tomato sauce, pears, applesauce, jam, and jar after jar of hot peppers and pickly things. I made soups and stews for the freezer, bought cheap produce direct from the farm and inexpensive cuts of meat from the butcher, and ran out of places to store food. If I were an animal, I’d be the noble hamster.

Last weekend was Canadian Thanksgiving, so we also had leftover turkey to make the most of. Bored with the idea of turkey soup and having had too many turkey sandwiches, I decided a pot of chili would give new life to the leftovers and keep us in lunches for the next few days. It’s a white chili, because some of us have eaten our body weight in tomatoes lately. The best thing about this recipe is that it calls for green chilies, but because I was at work and we only had fresh peppers, I had to ask Nick to roast them and peel them for me. And he did it, perfectly. The baby is crawling and standing, I’m back to work, and Nick is roasting chilies, and everyone is a better version of himself than even just a few weeks ago.

Turkey chili with black-eyed peas

(Serves 6.)

  • 2 to 4 Anaheim chilies (or 2 poblano peppers)
  • 4 strips of bacon, chopped
  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 jalapeno peppers, minced (remove seeds and membranes if you prefer a milder chili)
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 tsp. coarse salt
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried marjoram
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp. cornmeal
  • 1 1/2 lbs. chopped cooked turkey
  • 2 cups chicken or turkey stock
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 19 oz. (398mL) cans of black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
  • 1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels

Turn your oven’s broiler to high, and place whole chilies directly onto the rack, under the heating element. You’ll need to stick close and watch them so they don’t burn. When skin is charred and blistered on one side, turn 90 degrees. Continue until all sides have blackened and blistered. Place in a glass container with a lid, and set aside for 10 to 15 minutes. Gently rub skin from peppers – it should slough right off.

In a large pot over medium heat, brown bacon until crispy. Remove from pot and drain on paper towels. Add olive oil. (Fat is delicious.)

Add jalapeno peppers, onion, celery, the white and light green parts of the scallions, and the garlic. Saute until colours have brightened, the add bay leaves, salt, cumin, oregano, smoked paprika, black pepper, and marjoram.

Chop your peeled chilies, and add these to the pot as well.

Add flour and cornmeal, and stir until the mixture coats your veggies. Add the turkey and the cooked bacon, then the stock and milk. Stirring frequently, bring to a boil.

Add beans. Reduce heat to medium, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for ten minutes. Taste, and adjust seasonings as needed.

Add corn, and simmer for an additional 5 to 10 minutes.

Serve topped with the green part of the scallions, chopped, and grated cheddar cheese.

Corn waffles.

Do you ever feel like someone just reached into your head and squished your brain like a giant stress ball, and that it’s taking forever to regain its shape? I’m all out of smarts. I barfed the last of them onto the table at today’s job interview and now I’m just sitting around, watching remixes of Gangnam Style on YouTube with my mouth hanging open.

The sorry sight of me in my pajamas looking lobotomized in the evening is becoming too common, and is the one drawback to the sudden increase in interviews I’ve had lately. I’m drained. The average hour-long job interview is preceded by at least eight hours of performance anxiety and trying to remember all the stuff I’ve ever done at work while wondering what compelled me to get this stupid haircut that I have no idea how to style.

The interview is then followed by five days of questioning, of wondering “WHY WOULD YOU SAY THAT, WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?!” and doubting all of my life choices. I’ve gone through this eighty-thousand times since April. Was my mother right? Should I have learned a trade? Would I have owned a home by now?

Awkward first Internet dates might be less fraught.

To remedy the constant feeling of mental stupor, I’ve been dragging people into my dining room and forcing them to entertain me in exchange for food. This provides me with opportunities to do something that isn’t worrying, while also allowing Nick and I to interact with people who have verbal skills and whose pants we are not responsible for changing. (On the upside, I’ve been able to relate to the baby on an intellectual level lately. We both watched a Baby Einstein DVD all the way through without blinking today.)

This past week, with corn season underway and my friend Missy’s desire for fried chicken and waffles at an all-time high, we invited both Missy and Greg over for a weeknight dinner party and ate fried meat served on carbs and drizzled with maple syrup and hot sauce until we felt no more feelings but fullness. They talked and we laughed and everyone felt okay about life as we slumped onto the couches afterward.

That sounds weird, doesn’t it? The chicken, waffles, hot sauce, and syrup combo? It does here in Canada, because until recently that combo was only available to us through our TV screens via Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. I promise you that it’s delicious. It works for reasons I am not even sure I can explain.

I mostly wanted to tell you about the waffles though. They have corn in them, and the kernels pop in your mouth as you bite down on them, and they’re sweet. Some people think corn is a vegetable, so a plate of waffles is practically a square meal (regardless of the shape of your waffle iron). Well, maybe not. But they’re quick and you can have them in the time it takes to complain about not knowing what to make for dinner. You’ll be back to watching PSY videos online in no time.

Corn waffles

(Serves three to four.)

  • 2 cobs corn (or 1 cup frozen corn kernels)
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 1 tbsp. maple syrup

Cut the corn from the cob. If you would prefer not to get it all over everywhere, cut the corn into a bowl. Once the kernels are off the cob, scrape the cobs with the knife to get any remaining kernel bits and corn juice into the bowl as well.

Sift the dry ingredients onto the corn kernels. In a separate bowl, whisk together the liquids. Stir the liquids into the dry/corn mixture and stir until no flour lumps remain.

Heat the waffle iron according to your waffle iron’s instructions. Spray the thing down with canola oil, top and bottom.

Pour batter into waffle iron, drop the lid, and cook until waffles have stopped steaming, and are golden and fluffy. Don’t lift the lid during cooking, or else they flatten out and get floppy.

Serve hot from the iron, doused in syrup. Or topped with chicken. Whatever gets you where you need to go.

You CAN have too many giant turnips.

Every year I plant turnips because in late May and early June, I love (LOVE!) turnips. I think about sweet little baby turnips, steamed and tossed with fresh greens and maple vinaigrette, or cool fall evenings with turnips mashed with carrots and so much butter to accompany Bratwurst and grainy mustard. But I never remember to anticipate this.

I am a prolific grower of turnips. Maybe the picture doesn’t do her justice, but this pretty lady’s a D-cup. And she’s not the only one. There are probably 12 or 14 more of these, and I don’t know what to do. I love turnips. I don’t want to not love turnips. And I definitely don’t want to waste turnips, but I suspect very few of my neighbours want to walk out to find enormous turnips on their doorsteps – for some people, one turnip is too many turnips.

Do you have a creative use for turnips and (or) their greens? I’ve made them into gratins and mashes and gnocchi, but I’m running out of ideas. Help me. HELP ME.

Unrelated aside: if you have a minute, stop by and visit The Thirties Grind, where I’m featured as this week’s first REAL Real Housewife of Vancouver. Melissa’s blog is fantastic – her “Absurd Vancouver Property of the Week” feature regularly makes me laugh-sob and question my unhealthy relationship with this city.

But seriously. Tell me what you do with the turnips.

Picnics and bacon-wrapped garlic scapes.

All of a sudden, two layers of clothes are too many layers of clothes, and my toes are naked and touching the grass, and I’m drinking wine in parks and getting dirty looks from the other mothers for all my drinking wine in parks. Summer finally landed in Vancouver yesterday, so picnic season began in earnest this afternoon.

I have written about the joy of picnics here before but I am getting older and with age has come a tendency to repeat myself, and also to assume that what I say bears repeating. Take yourself on a picnic. Bring a friend, and a bottle of wine, and something to nibble on, and whittle away the afternoon, or just languorously pass your lunch hour (bottle of wine optional in that instance, unless you work from home). All you need is a patch of grass and a bit of bread and cheese.

And garlic scapes, if you can find them. Even better if you can grow them. Wrap them in bacon, and eat them outside.

Bacon-wrapped garlic scapes

  • 24 garlic scapes
  • 8 strips bacon
  • Coarse salt
  • Pepper

Preheat your oven to 425°F. Lightly grease a rimmed baking sheet.

Trim scapes at the bud, leaving eight to 10 inches of the stalk. (I left the buds on some of the shorter scapes, and the flowers inside were a little fluffy, but not unbearable if you’re used to finding cat hair in everything.) Bundle scapes in threes, wrapping each as tightly as possible with the bacon.

Sprinkle each bundle with a few flecks of coarse salt, then with freshly ground pepper.

Bake for 25 minutes, until the bacon is brown and looks crisp. Flip the bundles halfway through. Delicious served hot, but also pretty nice eaten cold, in the shade, on the grass.

 

 

Yellow curry braised beef.

I spent the last half of my teens and the first half of my twenties playing field hockey for the Vancouver Rowing Club, and every Victoria Day long weekend I would dig through the piles of laundry I always left unfolded to find my jersey, skirt, and Dutch-soccer orange knee socks and then head out to the pitch to play in the Vancouver Invitational Tournament. Except for one weekend when it was so hot I spent the afternoons in the beer garden in my sports bra, it rained. In nine of ten years I spent the weekend soaked, my toes wrinkling in my turf shoes, my skin slick with a layer of moisture that never seemed to dry.

I was awful at field hockey. I am too competitive and would get aggressive at all the wrong times, but I never had the skill to back it up. And I don’t run very fast. In the wild, I could be taken down by the oldest, most arthritic bear or mountain lion. Nevertheless, in all the years since I played, I miss it most in the weeks before the May long weekend. And then the weekend arrives, and it rains, and I remember peeling my polyester jersey off my damp, sticky body, and I still miss it. There were always cute Australians to look at, and the beer was cheap and plentiful.

For half the time I played, I was dating one of the goalies on the premier men’s team. When that ended badly (oh so badly!) I had already been subtly trying to trick Nick into spending time with me, and when he finally relented, I found other things to do on the long weekend. I couldn’t go back to hockey, but at that point, I didn’t want to. The possibility of an awkward run-in was enough to keep me from trying to dig up those socks again.

But, you know … Facebook. I am still friends on Facebook with a few of the women I played with, and I see that they’re playing this weekend and I miss it all. I liked playing field hockey, and the interesting characters that comprised the teams I liked to play on. I am starting to wonder if I can have all that, and still avoid the awkward run-ins, and somehow convince Nick to come watch and cheer me on. Maybe not on the May long weekend, of course. It’s always so rainy.

This May long weekend has been fairly quiet, and it has been raining steadily since yesterday. So today has been a day for laundry and long hours spent braising meat in fragrant coconut milk and warm spices, and for remembering fondly how it feels to be so damp from the vantage point of my warm apartment, in my pajama pants fresh out of the dryer.

Yellow curry braised beef

  • 2 tbsp. coconut oil (or vegetable oil)
  • 3 to 4 lbs. cubed beef brisket or boneless chuck (sometimes sold as stew meat) – short ribs would also work well here
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 tbsp. minced ginger
  • 2 tbsp. minced fresh lemongrass
  • 2 tbsp. minced fresh cilantro stems (leaves reserved)
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 jalapeño peppers, minced (to minimize the spice, you can remove the seeds and the membranes before chopping)
  • 2 tsp. ground turmeric
  • 2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 1/2 tsp. ground coriander
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 3 tbsp. fish sauce
  • 3 tbsp. brown sugar
  • 2 14 oz./398 ml cans coconut milk
  • Zest and juice of one lime
  • 3 to 4 kaffir lime leaves (optional)*
  • 2 red Thai bird chilies (optional)
  • 1 lb. cubed sweet potato
  • 1 medium red bell pepper, chopped

Preheat your oven to 325°F.

In a pot you can use on the stove and in the oven, melt coconut oil over medium-high heat. Add beef pieces, and season with salt. Brown beef deeply on all sides, about three minutes. You want to get good colour on the beef, but you don’t want to burn it. When beef is browned, remove it and set it aside.

To the same pot, add onion, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro stems, garlic, and jalapeño peppers. Sauté until fragrant, two to three minutes. Add turmeric, cumin, coriander, black pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon, and cook another two to three minutes, until the bottom of the pan looks dry.

Add sugar, fish sauce, coconut milk, and lime. If you have kaffir lime leaves and Thai chilies, add these to the pot as well – I leave my chilies whole. Add beef back to the pot, with any meat juices that have collected in the meantime – there’s good stuff in there. Cover, and put on the middle rack of your preheated oven. Braise for 3 to 3 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.

In the last 45 minutes of cooking, add your sweet potatoes to the pot, and re-cover.

Remove the pot from the oven, uncover it, and return it to the stove over medium heat. Add bell peppers, cooking an additional 10 minutes until peppers are tender and the sauce has reduced slightly. Serve over rice, with a sprinkling of fresh cilantro.

*You can buy kaffir lime leaves at most Asian markets. They are very inexpensive, so if you end up with a lot of them, stick them in a baggie and store them in the freezer – they’ll keep a few months if well sealed, and you can use them to liven up curries of all kinds.