Recently, my daughter’s preschool teacher admitted to me that she tasted the lentil soup I gave my daughter for lunch. A pescatarian, the teacher said she was struggling to find something easy, healthy, and preferably gluten-free to cook that would make her feel good her and appease her vegan daughter. I told her the basics of the recipe, which I had developed recently for a client. A few days later, she told me she started cooking lentils and lentil soup at home and it changed her life.

Her words came at a crucial moment, when I, along with a number of food and lifestyle-focused writers, started to wonder if our work really mattered. It was reassuring to hear it can.

Recipes on the Internet are often titled THE BEST or even, the best EVER. I can’t necessarily add those superlatives to the recipe here, although the soup is very, very good. I will tell you, learning to make lentil soup—whether you use my recipe or not—could, in fact, change your life. If you don’t believe me, just ask my friend Joy Manning how she started her journey as an avid home cook and successful food writer. You guessed it: A simple pot of lentil soup. And if you’re looking for other inspired versions, check out this fun new lentil soup Mad Lib from Food 52.

Spiced Lentil Soup with Spinach
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
The depth of flavor in this soup comes from the combination of tomato paste and smoked paprika, both of which get lightly toasted. I also think the vinegar added at the end for some brightness is non-negotiable, but you can try lemon juice instead. Otherwise, you can change the recipe how you like. Switch up the spices or use celery instead of fennel. For the greens, you can swap the spinach for stemmed kale or Swiss chard; just be sure to give them a few minutes to simmer to tenderness. For a thicker soup, use less water. To enrich the broth, add a Parmesan rind further. You can also top the soup with grated cheese.
Author:
Ingredients
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 small fennel bulb, stalks removed, bulb cut into bite-sized pieces
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 cup black lentils or French green lentils
  • 8 cups low-sodium broth or water
  • 5 ounces baby spinach leaves
  • 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
Instructions
  1. In a pot, heat the ¼ cup olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, and fennel, season with salt and pepper, and cook until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook until it glazes the bottom of the pot, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the coriander, cumin, and smoked paprika and cook until the spices are fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  2. Add the lentils and broth and bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes. Add the spinach, a handful at a time, stirring until wilted. Add the vinegar and heat for about 30 seconds. Season the soup with salt and pepper. Ladle the soup into bowls, drizzle with olive oil and serve.

 

Photo by Yossy Arefi

Photo by Yossy Arefi

Technically, we have about three weeks of the season left, but Labor Day always seems to put a nail in the summer coffin, doesn’t it? If you’re looking to make something for an upcoming party or picnic, might I suggest something from (ahem) Modern Potluck?  Some of my favorite writers and photographers have been sharing recipes from the book all around the Internets. Here, find links to many of the recipes below. Hope you find something tasty!

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A Middle Eastern-Inspired seven-layer salad.

From Modern Potluck. (Clarkson Potter 2016) Photo by Yossy Arefi.

I just folded last week’s laundry, and it was full of sweatshirts. Eight days ago, I wondered if I’d ever be able to put away my winter hat. Now, I’m sitting in shorts and a tank top and dreading the fact that I need to turn on the oven later. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, summer showed up overnight here in the mid-Atlantic, and it looks like these temperatures are here to stay.

In time for Memorial Day weekend (and all your summer picnics), I am thrilled to reveal a recipe from my forthcoming book, Modern PotluckIt’s a new take on a seven-layer salad, which I love in theory because it can be assembled in advance, and the vegetables stay crisp, sealed under a layer of creamy dressing. The problem, however, (for me!) is that the bacon bits, sharp cheese, and raw scallions in the traditional recipe tend to overpower the salad so much you can barely taste a vegetable. (I understand this is part of the appeal for some people!)

For my version, I take a cue from the Middle East, adding a layer of vibrant fresh herbs, a sprinkling of toasted spices and a yogurt dressing that’s based on the white sauce you find at New York City’s street meat carts. (You know the stuff, right? Like ranch dressing, it has that perfect balance between creaminess and tanginess and makes whatever it touches almost impossible to stop eating.)

For the other layers, feel free to play around. For example, later in the summer, you can add tomatoes in addition to or instead of the cucumbers and radishes. Instead of the iceberg, you can try salt-massaged kale or shredded cabbage. Instead of the gluten-free quinoa, you can substitute 6 cups of cooked bulgur or freekeh (a chewy smoked green wheat). Both grains are found throughout the Middle East and will make this inauthentic salad somehow more authentic.

Middle Eastern Sever-Layer Salad
 
This recipe is from my book, Modern Potluck (Clarkson Potter 2016).
Author:
Serves: at least 10 servings
Ingredients
  • FOR THE SALAD
  • 2 cups quinoa (any color, but black is especially stunning), rinsed
  • 5 cups water
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 medium head iceberg lettuce, cored and cut into bite-size pieces
  • 4 cups fresh herb leaves, such as mint, parsley, cilantro, tarragon, and dill, roughly chopped (the more variety you use, the better)
  • 1 bunch red radishes (about 10), halved and thinly sliced (about 4 cups)
  • 1 pound seedless cucumbers, cut into ½-inch pieces (about 4 cups)
  • FOR THE DRESSING
  • ½ teaspoon each cumin seeds, coriander seeds, and yellow mustard seeds
  • 2 cups plain greek yogurt (preferably full-fat or 2%)
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
  • Kosher salt
Instructions
  1. ASSEMBLE THE SALAD: In a large, heavy pot, cover the quinoa with the water, add 1 teaspoon salt, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat until the quinoa is tender and the water is absorbed, 18 to 20 minutes. Uncover the pot, top with a clean kitchen towel or a layer of paper towels, and close the pot again; let stand 5 minutes. (This will help ensure the quinoa is dry and fluffy.) Spread the hot quinoa out on a platter or baking sheet and let cool to room temperature. (This sounds like a fussy step, but it helps the quinoa cool without overcooking.)
  2. In a very large glass or clear plastic serving bowl, spread the iceberg lettuce in a single layer and season lightly with salt and pepper. Arrange the herbs on top, followed by the quinoa. Spread the radishes on top, followed by the cucumbers, pushing them toward the edge of the bowl if you don’t have enough of each vegetable to form a complete layer.
  3. MAKE THE DRESSING: In a dry skillet, toast the spices over moderate heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to a mortar or a bowl and let cool. Use a pestle or the bottom of an ice cream scoop to lightly crush the spices.
  4. In a medium bowl, whisk the yogurt with the mayonnaise, lemon juice, and vinegar. Season with salt. Spread the dressing over the salad, sprinkle with the spices, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.
  5. POTLUCK PREP: The salad can be refrigerated for up to 8 hours before serving and can stand at room temperature for up to 2 hours or in hot outside temperatures for up to 1 hour. (Set the bowl in a tray of ice if you want to leave it out longer.)

 

Beet-Avocado Salad with Hard-Boiled Eggs and Pepitas

During the week, lunch can be a disastrous time. Without a plan, I find myself pushing off eating until my blood sugar is so low, I can barely see straight. Then I down a few spoonfuls of peanut butter and an apple, feeling slightly lightheaded until dinner. Or, worse, I go out and get some kind of over-the-top sandwich that leaves me feeling sluggish all afternoon. I’m sure this sounds familiar.

When I take the time at the beginning of the week to cook a batch of lentils or grains and prep some vegetables to use throughout the week, I eat lunch most days like a superhero.

I recently came across the recipe for chef Cathal Armstrong’s favorite salad in Food & Wine’s March issue and was immediately struck by how perfect it is for work-at-home lunches. It’s full of brain-boosting healthy fats and the main components—the beets and hard-boiled eggs—can be prepped ahead. Instead of the onion and scallions called for in the original, I add Lars’ Own crispy fried onions, which aren’t exactly healthy, but man, are they tasty. I also toss in some sliced radish and fennel for extra crunch.

The original F&W recipe wasn’t photographed, so it might have easily gotten lost. I hope this convinces you that this salad is definitely worth making!

Beet-Avocado Salad with Eggs and Pepitas
 
I wrote up this recipe to show how I approach it as a work-from-home lunch that I eat over several days. I prefer to slice fennel and radishes just before I'm about to eat them but if you want to prep them in advance or serve 4 portions of this salad at once, start with a whole fennel bulb and 8 radishes (or one large watermelon radishes). To keep them extra crisp, refrigerate them in a bowl of ice water.
Author:
Serves: 4
Ingredients
  • To prep early in the week:
  • 1 pound beets (I prefer golden beets)
  • 4 large eggs
  • ¼ cup sherry vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • For each salad:
  • ½ avocado, chopped
  • 2 radishes or 4 slices of watermelon radish, cut into matchsticks
  • ¼ bulb of fennel, thinly sliced
  • 4 cups mixed greens
  • 2 tablespoons toasted hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons fried onions
  • Flaky salt and freshly ground pepper
Instructions
  1. Cook the beets to your liking: I prefer to steam them in a small amount of liquid until tender, 20 to 40 minutes depending on the size of the beets. You can also wrap them in foil and roast at 450°; this usually takes at least 40 minutes. After the beets cool to warm, slip off the skin and cut the beets into bite-sized pieces. Refrigerate until ready to use.
  2. Boil the eggs: Bring a pot of water to a boil and carefully lower the eggs into the water. Cook for 8 minutes if you like a slightly sticky yolk or 10 minutes for truly hard-boiled. Drain and cover with cold water. When they're cooled, drain again and refrigerate until ready to use.
  3. Make the dressing: In a bowl, whisk the sherry vinegar with the mustard. Whisking constantly, drizzle in the olive oil until incorporated. Refrigerate until ready to use.
  4. To assemble the salad:
  5. In a bowl, toss one-quarter of the beets with the avocado, radishes, fennel, greens, pepitas and one-quarter of the dressing. Season with salt and pepper. Peel and half or quarter one of the eggs and arrange it on top. Sprinkle with the fried onions and enjoy.