Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Who Needs Meat? Not This Recipe...

Good evening everyone! Tonight, we’re continuing the vegetarian week theme that Maggie kick-started yesterday with her unique spaghetti squash dish. Tonight, my dish is just as unique – more on that in a minute. First, let’s talk about vegetarian cooking for a moment. Vegetarian cooking, for the most part, carries a negative stigma in regards to flavor and overall quality. It’s unfortunate that this stigma exists – as you saw last night and as you’ll (hopefully) see tonight, vegetarian cooking is only as boring or flavorless as you want to make it. When you add in the benefits (healthier, much lower cost per dish) you can’t go wrong with cooking up a veggie centered dish once or twice per week.

Tonight, I’m showing that vegetarian dishes don’t have to be boring by taking a typically non-vegetarian dish and making it meatless. Tonight’s dish is shepherd’s pie, an Irish dish that is known both for its great flavors and simplicity. It’s a classic dish in every form of the word. However, shepherd’s pie is defined in the culinary world as a meat pie with a potato crust. How exactly do you make a meat pie without the meat? (No, the answer isn’t tofu) Let’s dive in and find out!

The Recipe: Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie
Original Recipe Found On:

What You’ll Need:

1 Pound Yukon Gold Potatoes (Peeled, cut into 1 inch chunks)
½ Cup Buttermilk
1 Tablespoon Butter
¾ Teaspoon Salt
½ Teaspoon Fresh Ground Pepper
1 Tablespoon Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Large Onion (Finely diced)
½ Cup Carrot (Finely diced)
1 Tablespoon Water
¾ Cup Frozen Corn Kernels (Thawed)
½ Teaspoon Dried Thyme
3 Tablespoons All Purpose Flour
14 Ounces Vegetable Broth (1 Can)
1 ½ Cups Cooked Lentils **

** Tonight marks my first encounter with lentils. To my knowledge, I’ve never eaten them let alone cooked them. I figured they were common enough that we should be able to track down lentils in any grocery store – I figured wrong.

First, a little background on the lentil: Lentils are a member of the legume family. They originated in India and have been a part of the human diet since the Neolithic era (think – pottery producing era). They are believed to be one of the first crops ever domesticated in the Far East. Some archeological evidence says that lentils may have been consumed from 9,500 to 13,000 years ago. Needless to say, they’ve been around awhile!


The lentil now grows in about 13 major variations. The lentil themselves are actually the seed of the plant. From a culinary standpoint, cooking a lentil is very similar to cooking rice. Roughly 10 to 30 minutes of cooking time depending on the variety and overcooking will result in a mush / paste while undercooking results in a ‘crunchy’ finish. The lentil holds a great earthy flavor similar to many darker beans – but behaves like rice. It’s easy to see why this has been such a culinary staple for many generations.

This recipe calls for either canned or fresh lentils. Canned lentils are already cooked and are much easier to use for purposes of this recipe. If you are able to find canned lentils, by all means use them. Just rinse the lentils before using them as canned lentils have higher sodium content than fresh lentils.

Now, I figured a legume that’s been around since the Neolithic era would be easy to find (in any form). Nope. We tried Trader Joe’s and Hy-Vee. The only lentils we were able to stir up were fresh lentils in our local Hy-Vee health market. No canned lentils to be found around us. That’s not really a problem; it just means you have to cook the lentils. But…how exactly do you do that?

Cooking lentils, it turns out, is relatively easy. However, you need to do something that I’ve dubbed “lentil math”. Lentils double (and then some) while cooking. So, one cup of dried lentils turns into 2 ½ cups of cooked lentils. Apparently lentils are the answer to the world’s hunger problems…

Left: Cooked, Right: Uncooked

Since we’re shooting for 1 ½ cups of cooked lentils, we need to start with about ½ cup of dried lentils. Add the dried lentils to a small saucepan and cover with about 1 inch of water. Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook for about 15 to 30 minutes depending on the type of lentil (read the packaging for suggestions). Depending on the type of lentil, you can either begin this step immediately or wait until the potatoes have completed cooking. You’ll have to adjust based on the legume in your possession.

Speaking of potatoes – place the cubed potatoes in a large pot and cover with 2 inches of water. On high heat, bring the mixture to a simmer. Once simmering, reduce the heat to medium and allow the potatoes to cook until they are tender. This should take about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes and return them to the pot. Add the buttermilk, butter, ¼ teaspoon of salt and pepper each and mash the mixture until the potatoes are well blended.

While the potatoes are cooking, preheat your oven to 350 degrees or if you have a broiler safe dish handy (we don’t) prep a broiler safe dish with cooking spray and place it on an aluminum foil covered, broiler safe baking sheet. Heat the broiler element in your oven as well.

Once the lentils and potatoes have finished cooking, you can begin to work on the ‘meat’ of the dish. Heat the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion, carrot and water and cook until softened, roughly 3 to 5 minutes. Next, stir in the corn, thyme, the remaining ½ teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 minutes. Sprinkle this mixture with the all-purpose flour and stir until the mixture is equally covered.

Next, slowly stir in the broth. Allow this mixture to come to a simmer and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the cooked lentils and stir to incorporate them evenly within the dish. Allow the lentils to cook into the mixture for an additional two minutes.

Place the lentil mixture into an oven safe dish or a broiler safe dish (if you have one). Top this dish with your mashed potatoes. Place the dish either in the oven or under the broiler and cook until the potatoes get a light golden brown crust on top of them. If using the broiler, this should take about 6 minutes. In the oven, allot for 10 minutes of cooking time.

Serve and enjoy!

The Results:

Unexciting in a photo? Yes. Delicious to eat? Yes again.

If everyone knew that vegetarian dishes could taste this good – there would not be a negative stigma! Just like its meat packed brother, this shepherd’s pie is full of great, home style hearty flavor. This is the type of dish that simply warms you to your core and reminds your taste buds of just how good natural vegetables taste.

The lentils really shine in this dish. They add a great, earthy flavor that doesn’t necessarily duplicate the flavor of meat, but it fills in the void that the meat flavor normally would. It’s hard to describe what exactly the lentil does for this dish – just know that it’s a meat stand in…without tasting like meat. (You have to taste it to know for sure!)

Lentils also pack the third highest protein percentage of any plant based food, so you’re still getting the positive nutritional aspects of beef (I.E. protein) without the negatives – mainly fat. Lentils also contain dietary fiber, vitamin B and iron. When it comes to a beef stand in, you could do a lot worse than the humble lentil.

That’s all we have for you this week. We had a lot of fun with the vegetarian theme this week. We’re almost certain to return to this theme again in the future, it’s a topic we hadn’t touched on in the blog yet and we’ve found that there is a lot of new culinary adventure to have in this area. Hopefully you give a vegetarian dish a try yourself! We’re back on Monday with another trip Around The Culinary World. Until then,


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