Recession Meal #3: Pasta with Lentils and Arugula

It’s been a crazy week here in our household, due mostly to the fact that my husband is in Salt Lake City for a conference, and (in general) his absence throws the (relative) delicate balance of our home into a tailspin. I mean, I have to actually give my children a bath. BY MYSELF.

All that to say, I’ve been cooking easy, boring meals all week. But I promised in my last post to elaborate on a new recession meal, and that I can do before we take off tomorrow for our once-in-three-years beach vacation. When we return, I might have some juicy tidbits of beachy food, prepared through the teamwork of myself, my friend Megan, and our portable-grill-master husbands. Not to mention some photos of our recently-planted herb garden and heirloom tomatoes (oh, please, please grow! and produce ye fruit!).

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that two of my three recession meals are built around lentils. They are so cheap (even the organic ones), and so full of good protein, it’s hard to resist their charms. I found this dish on the Everyday Food website (disclaimer: I find some of the recipes on the website, and magazine, to be a bit boring — but for cooking during the week, they have a knack for putting together recipes that are relatively healthy and quick to prepare, making them a good source for weekly menus), and we think it’s a keeper. First, it uses arugula, which I’ve now established as one of my favorite greens. And plum tomatoes, which are becoming more flavorful and juicy this time of year. If you or your significant other is a die-hard meat-eater, and won’t do with a vegetarian dinner, I think this dish would work very nicely with Italian sausage replacing the lentils (of course that would make it more expensive, and take it out of the recession meal category).

The most expensive element is the arugula — but please try not to replace it. You should be able to get a 5-oz box or bag of washed, trimmed baby arugula for around $4 — and that provides more than enough for the dish, leaving you some extra salad greens for the rest of the week. The leftovers on this were still tasty; since the pasta isn’t sitting in a liquid sauce, it doesn’t swell or get mushy in the refrigerator. We had lunch the next day, and then some.

Pasta with Lentils and Arugula (slightly-different, printable version at this link from Everyday Food)

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, halved and thinly sliced (about 4 cups)
  • coarse salt and ground pepper
  • 12 ounces plum tomatoes, cored and diced (about 2 cups)
  • ¾ cup lentils, picked over and rinsed
  • 12 ounces orecchiette or farfalle pasta
  • 1 bunch (8 ounces) arugula, stemmed and coarsely chopped (or about half a 5-oz box of washed, trimmed baby arugula)
  • ½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add onions and ½ teaspoon salt; cover, and cook until onions wilt, about 20 minutes. Uncover; raise heat to medium. Cook, stirring often, until onions are dark brown, 20 to 25 minutes more.

Add ¼ cup water; stir to loosen any browned bits from pan. Stir in tomatoes; remove from heat.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, cover lentils with water by 1 inch. Bring to a simmer. Cover; cook until lentils are tender but still holding their shape, 15 to 20 minutes. Drain; stir into onion mixture. Season with salt and pepper.

Cook pasta in a pot of salted water until al dente. Reserve 1 cup pasta water; drain pasta, and return to pot.

Add lentil mixture, arugula, cheese, and reserved pasta water; toss. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with more cheese, if desired.


Pick of the Month, May ‘08

I’ve been trying to remember the first time I ate arugula, and am coming up short. I wonder if, the first time I did consume it, I didn’t really discern the unique flavor of this exquisite leafy green, crediting it to another component, or to the dish as a whole. I do remember inquiring once about the “rocket” listed as an ingredient in a salad — and since that is an alternate name for the lettuce, that meal could be the event of meeting.

But the details are not important (then why the rambling?) — because, in the few years since, arugula has become one of my all-time favorite greens. It has enough power over me to force a menu choice, just by its presence. I have made dishes that include it, simply because it is part of the name (even as a secondary prepositional element). In fact, a meal last week was selected for that reason, and it was good enough to be the subject of an upcoming Recession Meals post (the arugula was the most expensive ingredient in the recipe, and since we didn’t use the whole box, I’ve been eating it in salads all week).

Often times referred to as “peppery,” arugula is quite strong in flavor, and while also classified at times as a “bitter green,” the bitterness is not pronounced. To be honest, I don’t really think it’s all that peppery either, but can’t quite put my finger on a better-suiting adjective. It just tastes like arugula. Native to the Mediterranean region, it’s a spring-weather green, preferring cool temperatures. It has a unique ability to support the flavors of a dish, regardless of whether the contrasting ingredients are strong or subtle. For instance, it can just as easily top a gorgonzola pizza as provide the base of a roasted beet salad (like the scrumptulescent one we consumed last week at 5&10). In both scenarios, the arugula sends the dish over-the-top.

About a year ago I made arugula pesto, and served it with grilled sausages. After a quick flip through my recipe book left me empty-handed, a google search revealed my source for the recipe: Martha. If you like grilled sausages (and really, who doesn’t, except for my vegetarian friends?), and are interested in a new flavor to give them a unique punch, try this pesto.

But if you’ve never had it (or, like me prior to my obsession, can’t really remember whether you’ve had it or not), and are reticent to put forth the effort to make a pesto, look for the next Recession Meals post, hopefully coming out within a few days, and try the pasta. You’ll still need to purchase a few ounces of it (cheaper if you can buy it buy the bunch at a local farmer’s market), but it’ll play a more background role than in the pesto. Or, if even that is too much of a gamble (and I can completely relate to a week that it might be), then experiment at your next visit to a good Italian restaurant — they are quite likely to have it in a pasta dish, salad, or topping a brick-oven pizza. Make sure you chomp on a solo piece to isolate the flavor, and see if it’s not wholly unique, intriguing, and delightful.

On the subject of fast food

I am thoroughly enjoying Michael Pollan’s book, and a few nights ago read one of the best descriptions of fast food I’ve encountered:

Perhaps the reason you eat this food quickly is because it doesn’t bear savoring. The more you concentrate on how it tastes, the less like anything it tastes. I said before that McDonald’s serves a kind of comfort food, but after a few bites I’m more inclined to think they’re selling something more schematic than that — something more like a signifier of comfort food. So you eat more and eat more quickly, hoping somehow to catch up to the original idea of a cheeseburger or French fry as it retreats over the horizon. And so it goes, bite after bite, until you feel not satisfied exactly, but simply, regrettably, full.*

This quote is exemplary of why I like his writing. He is dealing with a topic that people would rather avoid — why we should think about what we eat (just so you know, the book is not all about fast food; that’s one small part). But he is not preachy, and admits enjoying (to an extent) the very thing he exposes as dysfunctional. I’m almost halfway through the book, and already I’m surprised by who the “good guys” aren’t. I wish I could convince everyone I know to pick it up — it seems to me to be that important a book.

*Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2006. p. 119.

Decisions, decisions.

We’re going for my birthday meal tonight (my birthday was almost two months ago, but I was in the throes of morning sickness at the time, so we postponed the celebratory meal). Here’s the prixe fixe menu at Five and Ten. Which would you choose?

menu A


roasted beets with arugula, toasted almonds, orange zest, and goat cheese ranch dressing


Braised mahi mahi with olives, tomatoes, chickpeas and harissa


Berries with cream

menu B


Roasted BBQ oysters finished with lemon and cucumber


bavette steak over creamed corn with roasted shallot and english peas


Rice pudding with maple cardamom steamed milk