Between Thanksgiving and New Years I feel like I’m trapped on a vertigo-inducing, queasy, inspiring, whiplash-tastic roller coaster ride set against a mind-bending array of grim and delightful emotional and physical landscapes. Time and money burst through my grasping fingers like a Biblical flood busting through the banks of a forgotten little holler; I could no sooner stop their flight than Noah could stop the flood.
The only thing I can do is hang on for the ride, try to not let exhaustion and penury completely stampede over my croaking carcass and wait for 2011. In the meantime, I’m trying to throw together meals for the week quickly, prioritizing speed, efficiency and nutritional potency. Because of course in addition to working 25/8 and attempting to not completely alienate all of my friends by failing to show up at absolutely everything I’m invited to, I have contracted a rather nasty cold.
Food, instead of a pleasure to linger over and muse about, has become a fuel that (I hope) will power me through one rugged ordeal after another — and on bad days, a sugar-and-lard-studded crutch upon which I can lean, crash, burn and collapse.
Dining isn’t an option, but noshing is a necessity. This Sunday, I threw together protein-packed, nutrient dense meals that are easy and fast to make, as delicious as go-go food can be and a snap to transport. Behold, Drunk and Wild Mushroom Gratin; French Lentil Salad; Seriously Nutty Pasta.
Drunk and Wild Mushroom Gratin
Makes 9 servings
- 2 1/2 pounds peeled red potatoes, sliced to 1/8 of an inch thickness on a mandoline and kept in acidulated water to prevent browning (just squeeze in a bit of lemon or add a tablespoon or so of apple cider to a big pot of water)
- 1 3/4 oz dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated in 1 1/2 cup hot water and 1/4 cup fruity white wine, like a sauternes; after 20 minutes, remove mushrooms, roughly chop; strain mushroom liquor through cheesecloth or paper towel-lined fine sieve and set aside
- 4 TBSP butter, separated
- 1/4 cup wine (in addition to wine used to reconstitute mushrooms)
- 1/4 cup heavy cream, plus more for drizzling to taste
- 1 minced clove garlic
- 1 tsp truffle oil (optional)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees; spray glass baking dish (approximately 14 x 9 x 2 inches) with vegetable oil and set aside
- Sautee mushrooms in 2 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat until fragrant and golden in spots. Add salt and pepper, wine, cook until liquid has evaporated. Turn heat to medium, add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Turn heat to low and add cream, cooking until sauce thickens a bit, a few minutes. Turn heat off.
- Drain and dry potatoes, layer on bottom of baking dish, add salt, layer of mushrooms, plus a little extra cream if you like. Add plenty of salt and a bit of pepper. Add potatoes and keep layering mushrooms and potatoes, ending with potatoes. Drizzle with truffle oil, dot with 2 TBSP butter, sprinkle with salt and a few grinds of pepper and bake until potatoes are golden and crispy. Don’t be alarmed if top layer curls and crisps — the top layer tastes a bit like a scalloped potato & potato chip love child. Underneath, its a creamy, delicate cave of umami wonder waiting to be discovered.
French Lentil Salad
Makes 4 to 6 servings
- 2 cups French lentils
- 1 tsp salt
- 12 or so sprigs Italian parsley, separated
- 1 bay leaf
- 5 cloves garlic, separated
- 2 large carrots, diced very fine
- 1 medium red onion, diced very fine
- 2 large celery ribs, diced very fine
- 1 1/8 oz goat cheese, crumbled
- 2 TBSP olive oil, more to taste (I like extremely acidic vinaigrettes)
- 1 TBSP balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp apple vinegar
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard
- salt and pepper to taste
- Rinse lentils in a few changes of cold water. Cover with water in a large saucepan, add salt, 4 cloves of unpeeled garlic, 6 sprigs of parsley, one bay leaf and bring to boil. Reduce to simmer.
- Cook lentils for 10 minutes. Add vegetables and simmer for another 10 until tender. Add a bit of water as needed to prevent sticking (little water should be left at end).
- When cooked, discard herbs and garlic.
- Make vinaigrette by whisking mustard, vinegars, minced clove of garlic, salt and pepper and slowly drizzling in olive oil. Toss with lentils and serve with remaining sprigs of parsley, minced and crumbled goat cheese. In an unhurried and idyllic world, you have time to let all of the flavors marry in fridge for a few hours before gobbling it down and charging ahead. Just saying.
Seriously Nutty Pasta
Makes 6 big servings
- 1 thick slice Challah bread
- 1 cup milk (I used 2%)
- 1 cup pecan halves, toasted in a 300 degree oven until fragrant and slightly darker (about 10 minutes)
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan and sharp white cheddar cheese
- 2 TBSP minced parsley
- 1/2 cup olive oil, give or take
- salt and pepper to taste
- 12 ounces pasta
- Cook pasta according to directions on label, salting water aggressively. Drain and set aside, reserving a cup or so of the cooking liquid.
- Put toasted nuts, minced garlic, cheese, parsley in food processor and pulse to combine. Add enough oil to make a thick paste. Add bread and milk, salt and pepper and pulse to mix.
- Toss pasta with sauce. If it’s gummy, loosen it up with a bit of pasta cooking water. Top with a bit of butter, a nice drizzle of oil or cheese to taste.
Nutritional breakdown for Drunk and Wild Mushroom and Potato Gratin: 145 calories and 9 grams of fat per serving. High in saturated fat, but also a great source of fiber. Interestingly, the process of drying certain mushrooms, including shiitake mushrooms, actually increases their nutritional profiles. Levels of Vitamin D, iron, Vitamin C, protein and fiber, Vitamin B, plus minerals like copper, selenium, zinc become significantly higher. Important biochemicals like eritadenine, L-ergothioneine and lentinan, which combat cholesterol, work as antioxidants and help the immune system are also more potent in dried shrooms.
Nutritional breakdown for French Lentil Salad: 290 calories and 6.5 grams of fat per serving. Lentils are one of the cheapest sources of protein on the planet; they’re also full of essential amino acids (all but two, methionine and cystine), plus fiber, folate and the letter Vitamins. This dish is also an excellent source of iron and antioxidants.
Nutritional breakdown for Seriously Nutty Pasta: 450 calories and 21 grams of fat per serving. High in unsaturated fats, protein, fiber, iron, calcium.
Cost breakdown of Drunk and Wild Mushroom and Potato Gratin: $7, or per $1.20 per serving. (I had wine, butter and spices on hand).
Cost breakdown of French Lentil Salad: $8 or $1.33 per serving. (I had olive oil, vinegars, mustard and spices on hand).
Cost breakdown of Seriously Nutty Pasta: $0. (I had everything on hand).
The Verdict / In the future: All of the dishes were perfect on-the-go packages that could be eaten standing on one foot while kicking an elf and blowing your nose. However, their ability to power us through several hours of hopping, elf abuse and nasal-drip management, in addition to their degree of deterioration in storage, varies considerably. Stephen and I were both surprised by how hearty and filling the gratin felt while we were eating it, in inverse proportion to the relatively light load of calories and fat that it carried. But two hours later, we were hungry. It was as delicious as scalloped potatoes, but felt as virtuous as baked; like most meals based on simple carbs though, we were hungry a few hours later. The gratin is great for a quick fix when you crave a bit of indulgence.
The French lentils packed quite a few calories in just a little handful — but a small bowl kept us going for hours (thank you complex carbs and unsaturated fats!) Also, they tasted better as the week went on and the lentils soaked up all of the flavors of the vinaigrette and got into a nice, palate-pleasing groove with the sweet and fibrous veggies. This dish will gird you for a physically exhausting day.
The pasta dish was totally random — I came up with the recipe because I wanted to use up some leftover pecans and Challah bread, and I grabbed a few other items and went with it. With a few tweaks (cream and not milk and less of it, more cheese, more parsley, maybe some bread crumbs sprinkled on top for extra texture, some minced sundried tomatoes soaked in olive oil would be gorgeous and tasty), it’s a keeper — but the texture gets gummy as the week wears on. I would definitely recommend thinning it out with a bit of hot water when you go for seconds and thirds later in the week. Like the lentils though, the nuts keep your energy up — especially if you use a whole wheat pasta as the base.