Saturday, December 14, 2013

How to Make a Lentil Salad (& an Infographic About Salads, Too)

The seed pod of the Showy Slipper on
Munger Trail, taken two weeks ago
Cold winter weekends are my favorite time for cooking.  Spring's a long way off, and I can hardly remember what it feels like to be on the Munger Trail early in the morning, hoping to take a few good shots before the strong midday light bleaches the color from the wildflowers... So, when the temperature dips below zero, one must find other sources of beauty and other occupations.  Cooking is a good one.  (See what I did there, children?  --I'm using my main topic as a transition into other topics I love... You can do that, too.)  

1 cup of French green lentils, simmering with Bay leaf,
cinnamon, turmeric, and cayenne
Today, I'm making a lentil salad that I'll be sharing with friends tomorrow.  If there's any left over, it will be my lunch next week.  Lentils are a tasty, quick-cooking, and fairly cheap source of protein, iron, and fiber; I cook with them quite a bit.  They're great in soups but also good in salads.  

I'm a good cook, but not a good baker.  Cooking and baking and two very different enterprises.  (It's not a coincidence that my famous chocolate pie is a no-bake pie.) Baking is a science, and it requires that one stick to a formula recipe; a spontaneous substitution might result in an imbalanced equation a flat cake.  Cooking, however, is an art, a bit like interpretive dance, and it usually rewards intuition and creativity.  In fact, I never follow any recipe exactly, down to the letter, and I rarely measure anything.  I think of recipes the way I think of literature--as an excuse for concocting an interesting interpretation...

1 cup of Wild Rice, soaked
and drained, ready to be
The kind of salad I'm making is meant to be a full meal all by itself.  Along with the lentils, I'm adding wild rice from the Co-op.  I'm pretty sure they get it from the Leech Lake Reservation, and it's harvested and processed in the traditional way.  It's beautiful, with its long grains and its smoky fragrance, and it's also very nutritious.  (It's also very expensive, so I don't buy it often, but I much prefer it over the cheaper, commercially-grown and industrially-processed tame "wild" rice that comes from California.)   
1 head of cauliflower, roasted at 400 degrees

The other main component of the salad is roasted cauliflower. Cauliflower is bland and boring, until you break it up into little florets, drizzle it with olive oil, sprinkle it with sea salt, and roast it in the oven until it's beautifully browned and crispy. Roasting intensifies and sweetens the flavor because the sugars in the vegetable carmelize.  Try it sometime!  

Now, for the interesting bits!  While the white cauliflower provides some contrast for the brown and gray colors of the lentils and rice, a good salad needs color!  
1 bunch of fresh mint
It also needs some zippy flavors.  For color and bright sweetness, I add chopped red bell pepper, shredded carrots, and chopped mint leaves.  If you've never used mint in a salad, you should try it--it's fantastic!  I could have added any number of other herbs (like dill or parsley) and vegetables (like radish or cucumber), or even fruits (like grapes or pineapple).  The possibilities are endless.  The key is to add different colors, flavors, and textures.  (I thought about adding some chopped pecans or sliced almonds, but if you add too many ingredients to a salad like this, the flavors get lost in the crowd.)  

I like to make my own dressings, and this one is just a bit more complicated than the typical oil-and-vinegar mix.  
Half a red onion and a handful of golden raisins
in Meyer lemon juice
First, I chop up half a red onion and soak the bits in the juice of three Meyer lemons.  Meyer lemons are a cross between ordinary lemons and Mandarin oranges, so they're a good bit sweeter than plain lemons.  I add the zest of the lemons and some golden raisins, and then let the mixture sit while I cook the lentils and rice.  As the onions soak in the lemon juice, they lose some of their bite, and of course the raisins soften and plump up as they absorb some of the juice.  Next, I melt some butter (yep, I'm a bad vegan these days--I've been using a little butter now and then), and add some freshly ground cardamom seeds, black mustard seeds, and cumin seeds to it.  I let the spices simmer in the butter for a while to release their flavors, and then I add the spice/butter mix to the onion/lemon mix.  Then, I pour that over the salad and mix it up well. 

Finished salad!

Tomorrow, I'll find out if my friends like it! If you know much about classic salad recipes, you might recognize this as a variation on tabbouleh, (pronounced ta-BOO-lee) a Middle Eastern salad that became a staple of American vegetarian cooking back in the 1960's.  The very first vegetarian dish I ever made was tabbouleh.  I've been making it, and variations of it, ever since.  It's simple, easy, nutritious, and if you don't include too much liquid, it keeps for a full week. 

I've put my thoughts about designing variations on tabbouleh into
I made this with
an infographic (which is just a new-fangled word for diagram, graph, or chart).  I used to make mine, but there are lots of free web-tools out there for making infographics.  Almost all the seniors will be making infographics in the coming weeks as the semester winds down.  Perhaps some of those infographics will show up on their blogs...

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