The Lentils that Saved Thanksgiving

Town Hall in my hometown — I’ve seen more than one major disagreement go down here.  But people can still share a meal together afterwards.  This Thanksgiving I’ll be thinking a lot about what I remain grateful for in this country — and how to work to nurture and strengthen it — for ALL of us.

Well, my friends, it’s been quite a week to say the very least. I think I’m feeling a bit nostalgic for simpler days. It feels like a good time for some grounding ballast in the food department too.  Fortunately, one need look no further than the modest yet stalwart lentil.  Anyone remember good ole Lentil Loaf from back in the ’70’s??  Meatloaf’s austere and distant hippie cousin?  Pretty much every health food cookbook from that era boasts a version, all of which seem to be competing for top honors in the bland & dry category.  Think wheat germ and sunflower seeds.  Who thought those could possibly go well with ketchup??  My Aunt Jeanne, who — bless her — introduced me to the joys of carrot juice and carob chips, also made a mean lentil loaf.  At the time I found it less than inspiring.  Thankfully, my mom stuck to meatloaf made with A&P onion soup mix — although she regularly trekked deep into lentil & wheat germ territory, herself.

Time to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and make the society in which we want to live!  With my bro, here, in the back-to-the-land days of lentil loaf.

Fast forward a bunch of years to college …  The year I decided to stop eating meat was a rocky Thanksgiving to say the least.  Let’s just say my father was not pleased when I announced I was not eating the turkey Mom had worked all day on.  By the next Thanksgiving, when I hadn’t changed my mind, I knew I had to come up with something to stand in for the turkey that might actually be good enough that everyone else would want to eat it in addition to the turkey.  Lo and behold, I succeeded with some savory lentil croquettes that became a staple at Thanksgiving and other celebrations.  Years later, when Dad was fighting cancer and eating a very strict diet himself, these helped make Thanksgiving feel normal.

Use lentils that look like this for this recipe.  I’ve seen them labeled as either brown or green.  There are many varieties, but some will cook to the point of completely dissolving, and others hold their shape too firmly.  These are just right for making patties and stuffing.

In case you’re feeling nostalgic for 1972, the lentil mixture can also be baked in a loaf pan, and still tastes great.  It’s also especially lovely as a stuffing for portobello mushrooms, which I’m going to prepare today. These make a really beautiful, festive entree for a vegetarian holiday feast.  It’s been a long time now since I was vegetarian, but I still eat more veggies than anything else … and I sure still do love lentils in practically any form — and this recipe is high up on the list.

Choose mushrooms that are fairly large so you can pile a lot of filling on!

LENTIL-STUFFED PORTOBELLOS:  (Makes 6 — or 4 very full ones with some lentil filling left over to eat straight out of the pan!)

  • 6 portobello mushrooms
  • 1 cup brown lentils
  • 2 cups (approximately) vegetable broth
  • 1 onion
  • 8 cloves garlic
  • 10 oz. baby spinach
  • 1 small apple, diced, or a handful of raisins (optional)
  • olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 2 tablespoons dried thyme
  • 1 tablespoon dried rosemary
  • black pepper to taste
  • balsamic vinegar
  • tamari, soy sauce or Braggs Liquid Aminos
  • 1 cup finely chopped walnuts
  • 1 cup parsley or cilantro, minced
  • A few tablespoons sesame seeds or pine nuts (or grated Parmesan is nice if you like cheese)

First, gently remove the stems from your portobellos.  Save the stems for the lentil stuffing.  Use a pastry brush (or your hands) to liberally coat the mushroom caps in olive oil.  Place on a baking sheet (with a rim to catch the oil), and bake at 375 for about 20 to 30 minutes.  Mushrooms should be tender and juicy.  Meanwhile, put lentils in a pot with broth, cover and simmer til liquid is absorbed — the lentils should be quite soft, just before the mushy point.  If you need to add a bit more broth, just do so a little at a time.  (And if you overshoot the mark, and your lentils are mushy, it won’t matter at all!)

Take some deep breaths while your lentils are cooking …

While mushrooms and lentils are cooking, chop onion & garlic, and saute with cumin, rosemary and thyme til soft and browning.  Chop the portobello stems (and apple if using) finely, add to the onion mixture, and cook until they have released their liquid, and it’s evaporated.  Splash with a few tablespoons of vinegar near the end, at the same time as you add baby spinach, parsley and walnuts. Stir until the greens are wilted.

This is not the world’s greatest photo of this scrumptious dish, but I’ve got to get on to some homework!  Suffice to say, I’ve already eaten one delicious stuffed mushroom and packed another for lunch tomorrow … and the smell in the house is, well, not like turkey roasting, but pretty divine 🙂

Mix lentils into the veggie mixture, and taste for seasoning.  Add tamari, black pepper and anything else you like.  Pile lentil mixture into the roasted portobello caps and top with sesame seeds or Parmesan.  (I find my hands work better than a spoon for piling on the filling.)  Return to oven at 350 for about 20 min.  (You can also stuff and refrigerate, and just bake when ready to serve, but take them out of the fridge and let return to room temperature before baking.)  If you want to make lentil croquettes — nice as a party finger food with a chutney on the side — add 2 eggs to the lentil/veggie/walnut mixture, mix thoroughly, form into 2 inch patties, and fry in a bit of olive oil until browned and crispy.  Drain any excess oil off on a paper bag.  (Vegans can make these too — just cook your lentils til they are mush, and you won’t need the eggs for the patties to stick together!)

Friday afternoon I was rummaging in a thrift store and spied this plate.  It now lives in my kitchen, the perfect talisman and reminder for this week.  Take heart, All.



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