Reflecting on the Past and Looking Ahead to the New Year

The new year is almost upon us. I have so many things to be grateful for this past year. The health and happiness of my family first and foremost. I have been blessed with the most supportive husband, as many of you already know. At a moment’s notice, he’s carting things back and forth to the car, washing endless pots and pans, and test tasting the endless concoctions to come out of my test kitchen. I honestly don’t know what I would do without him! My cooking and catering business has been strong this year, and his new job brought a renewed excitement in his work. Even our daughter flew the coop to a new and exciting job.

I’ve tried very hard to stay on top of this blog and proudly think I have, for the most part. As busy as  can be I still try to bring my followers a new take on a classic ingredient. This week, as we say goodbye to 2015, I decided to go back to the drawing board and rework a dish for your New Year’s spread. It’s not hard, and almost everything you can find easily today at the market. The best part is this can all come together in about 45 minutes – start to finish – and taste even better tomorrow afternoon.

Before I get to that, lets talk New Year’s food:  Every culture has a way to celebrate new beginnings.  Consuming 12 grapes at the stoke of midnight represent the 12 months of the year; if one is sour, beware, it could be a rocky month. Cooked greens represent folded money; the more you eat, the more prosperous you will be.  Pork also represents prosperity, as pigs push forward when digging for food.  Cakes or sweet breads with a coin hidden in them bring good luck to the recipient. And not to be forgotten, lentils, who’s shape represents coins. It should be noted that two things not to eat are lobster and chicken. Lobsters walk backwards and chickens scratch backwards, representing the possibility of a setback. Ah, superstition!

Lentils with Chorizo and Sweet Potato

Last year for the new year I created a lentil dish using chorizo and sweet potato. This week I had a large butternut squash sitting on my counter staring at me. I just could not decide what to do with it. Then, after being invited to a Greek-themed dinner, I decided to rework that recipe. Along with my butternut, very much in season, I used kale and dandelion. Dandelions are not actually in season, but when I popped over to Whole Foods for the lentils I took a stroll through the produce section and saw the little bunches calling to me.

dandelion and kale

I remember my mother making them with my Υιαγια´ as a kid. I never much liked them as a child, given their slightly sour, bitter taste, but as an adult that has definitely changed. The small bunch was a little over $3.00, pricey as they are out of season, but you don’t really need more that that. The goal, as I always say, is to find your balance in a salad with sweet and bitter. The butternut will smooth this out and the lentils will provide a little density.

Lentils

Lets talk lentils now: They are a great source of protein, iron and fiber. Nutritionally, they can’t be beat. You don’t really need a lot to make a difference in your diet. Brown and red lentils are plentiful and found easily bagged at the supermarket in the rice and dry bean section. Generally around $1.00 for 16 ounces, so pound for pound a great value. Taking a step up to the French lentil or black beluga lentil you are only adding another dollar per pound. It’s important to note that the larger brown flat and red lentils are perfect for soups as they fall apart easily when cooked. The smaller hold their shape better and are much prettier in salads.

When purchasing lentils you want to have a good look at them. If they are not in open bins, make sure you see the lentils through clear plastic packaging. The colors should be bright and uniform. Dull looking lentils are a sure sign of old age. There is no need to pre-soak them, but it’s good to give them a little rinse under cool water to wash away any dust or sediment they may have attracted. The ones I used for this recipe I found in the bulk bins at Whole Foods.

butternut

As I said, this can all come together easily for you. The trick is to work on the various components simultaneously. Get your pot of water on to boil and preheat the oven, while you clean and cut the butternut.  Remember, do your best to keep the pieces fairly similar in size so they all cook at the same rate. The butternut is going to take about 20 minutes in the oven,

french lentils

close to the same cooking time as the lentils.

Dandelion and shallot.

While all that is going on, prep the kale, and sauté the shallot and dandelion.  A friend said to me over Christmas he felt like a chef cooking because he had all his mis en place ready before he started cooking. While I highly suggest that when you are tackling a big dinner, this recipe gives you a little leeway to multi-task a bit. Truth be told, you can even achieve this recipe in stages.

Butternut and winterbor kale.   Dandelion, shallot and garlic

I made the butternut-kale part and had to stop to fiddle around with my camera. When I got back to it, I finished the lentil and shallot part.

Topping it all off with feta gives it the Greek flare. You can easily use goat cheese with this, too. Either way, it’s nice to have a creamy finish to the salad. To go with a completely different approach you can also skip the cheese and top it off with pomegranate arils.

My wish for all as we head into 2016 is a year filled with happiness, peace and a lot of very good food. Thank you for following me this year. If you are so inclined, please share my blog with your friends too.

Buon Appetito!

Lentil, Butternut Squash and Kale Salad
Makes about 8 – 10 hearty servings

1 – 3 lb. butternut squash, look for one with a long neck
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
Ground black pepper
1 lb. French lentils, green or black
1 bunch red winterbor kale, rinsed well under cool water
1 small bunch dandelion greens, rinsed well under cool water
2 large shallots, about 3/4 cup chopped
2 fat garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
8 oz. feta

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees, and bring a small pot of water on to boil. While that is happening clean and cut the butternut squash. Cut it up in 1 1/2″ pieces, trying to keep them all fairly uniform. Place on a rimmed sheet and drizzle with the olive oil and season with salt and pepper. The pieces need to lay flat, so use 2 sheets if necessary. Place in the preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes.
2. When the water comes to a rolling boil add a tablespoon of salt and set the timer for 15 minutes. Once the lentils come back to a rolling boil, lower the heat a little. (Both can be cooked at the same time.)
3. While the lentils and squash are cooking strip the kale leaves from the hard stalk and roughly chop, and place in a bowl. You should have about 8 cups. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
4. Chop the shallot in 1/4″ pieces and sauté with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Once the shallot begins to take on a little color add the garlic. Roughly chop the dandelion greens and add when the shallots are nice and golden, along with a good drizzle of oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Toss and sauté them to just wilt. Turn off the heat and set aside.
5. Taste the lentils after 15 minutes, they will be al dente. If you prefer them a little softer then add 5 more minutes. The goal is to cook them, but still retain the shape. At the same time check your squash. It should be very close to fork tender. In the last 5 minutes of cooking the squash top the squash with your kale and place back in the oven. The last 5 minutes will cook and slightly crisp up the kale.
5. Place your vinegar, oil and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a glass jar. Shake vigorously to combine. Drain the lentils and place in a bowl with the shallot-dandelion mix. Drizzle 1/2 of the dressing over them and mix with a big spoon. Set aside. Take the slightly cooled butternut-kale and scrape together on one sheet tray. Drizzle the remaining dressing over it and gently combine with your hands. Take care to not be rough or the squash is fall apart. Add the lentil mix and toss gently again to combine. Let it sit for a few minutes and then taste it for salt and pepper seasoning. If you feel like it needs a bit more dressing mix up another batch.
Place on a large platter and top with the feta cheese. Serve at room temperature. It’s even better the next day once the flavors can come together.

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