Tuesday, May 5, 2009

City Kitchen Chronicles: Lentils with Burnt Onions

City Kitchen Chronicles is a bi-weekly column about living frugally in Manhattan. It's penned by the lovely Jaime.

I never thought of myself as liking lentils particularly much. Sure, lentil soup can be great, but lentils themselves? Meh. And then a couple of weeks ago I made a big batch for some in-the-end underwhelming lentil burgers, and had about a cup of lentils leftover. I took a bite. I added a little salt. A bit of ketchup. And I was in heaven.

Lentils, like beans and kale, are a food I’m happy to discover a love of. They’re super-cheap, going for $1.65/lb or so by me, and super-healthy, an excellent source of fiber, iron, B-vitamins, and good vegetably protein.

So when I was catching up on some blog reading (right now my bloglines subscriptions have 1068 unread items – whoops?) and came across a recipe for burnt onions over lentils and rice, my attention was piqued.

Let me get this straight – as tasty as carmelized onions, but twice as fast and way less precise to make? And goes great over cheap healthy superstars lentils and rice? All with ingredients I have?

Mark Bittman says, “Burn those onions,” and I say, “Okay!”

The Bitten post opens with an exchange that makes me feel like all this time there’s been a division in the world I didn’t even know existed – between those who know about burnt onions, and those who don’t:

A friend came over the other day.

“What did you have for lunch?”
he asked.

“Lentils and rice.”

“I hope you made crispy
burnt onions.”

As a matter of fact I had, and we had a communing
food moment about how this was one of the greatest pairings ever.
I had no idea! But, well, now I do (or did), and I set to work pretty quickly. I had lentils and rice, I had a nice big yellow onion. I can’t really bear to make a meal without some good vegetable representation (and can’t bear to let onions be the only ones), so I added some diced carrots (Why does no one ever talk about how dirt cheap carrots are? $0.79/lb. It’s amazing.) and a few handfuls of baby spinach, a bit of a splurge, for that I’m-eating-green-vegetables feeling.

While the vegetables were cooking I kept worrying over my lentils and rice. Cooked plain and mixed together they were so bland, and even salt wasn’t bringing out any flavor. My thoughts turned to my beloved lentil soup recipe, and I reached for balsamic vinegar. Turns out I’m a total freaking genius – the sweet/sour vinegar with the sweet/bitter onions is magical.

Not that the moral here is “I’m a genius.” It’s more “this is a delicious, easy meal” and “Thank you Mark Bittman.” I’m very glad to be in the burnt-onion club, and invite you to join in as well.

(Note that if you’re going to be reheating this for lunches, you may want to omit the spinach. It can get weird and oddly overpowering after the microwave. This also cuts each serving’s cost by about $0.30.)

Lentils with Burnt Onions (And Some Other Things)
(adapted from Mark Bittman)
serves 2, but easily increasable

1 cup cooked brown rice
1 cup cooked lentils (use black or green – red lentils will turn to mush)
2 medium onions, halved and sliced
3 medium carrots, diced
a few handfuls of baby spinach (about 1 cup)
1 T canola or mild olive oil
3 T balsamic vinegar, or to taste
salt to taste

1) Heat oil in a pan over medium-high. When it’s good and hot, add the onions (they should sizzle). Add a little salt.

2) Cook onions until they start to brown, stirring occasionally. Lower the heat a little, and keep cooking, stirring more frequently.

3) In the meantime, combine lentils and rice in a big bowl. Salt to taste. Add balsamic vinegar, set aside.

4) When the onions are pretty shriveled, about 15 minutes or so, add the carrots, and cook until onions are blackened and blistered in spots. (Add your carrots earlier if you like them more cooked.)

5) Stir in spinach; cook just until it’s wilted.

6) Add veggies to rice and lentil mixture. Salt to taste. Enjoy!

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price Per Serving
384.5 calories, 9 g fat, $1.08

1 cup cooked brown rice: 215 calories, 2 g fat, $0.11
1 cup cooked lentils: 220 calories, 1 g fat, $0.37
2 medium onions: 88 calories, 0.5 g fat, $0.40
3 medium carrots: 75 calories, 0.5 g fat, $0.25
1 cup baby spinach: 7 calories, 0 g fat, $0.63
1 T canola oil: 124 calories, 14 g fat, $0.07
3 T balsamic vinegar: 40 calories, 0 g fat, $0.30
salt to taste: negligible calories and fat, $0.02
TOTAL: 769 calories, 18 g fat, $2.15
PER SERVING (TOTAL/2): 384.5 calories, 9 g fat, $1.08

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