I’ve made several lentil soups whose results I’ve documented (also here and here) on this blog. I hadn’t much success with urad dals (Buford Highway Farmer’s Market sells them as urid dals), a kind of black lentil, because they needed a substantially longer cooking time. Most recipes that use urad dals speak of soaking overnight and then cooking for 3 hours.  So, I decided to try again, and the results are worth reporting. As I’m inclined to improvise, we’ll talk about ingredients as we use them.

We started with a cup of urid dals purchased from Buford Highway Farmer’s Market. Those were soaked overnight and set to simmer in the morning with 6 cups of water. I usually start another pot simmering with nothing but water, so that I can add hot water if the dish requires it.

ud_simmer_1

After 2 hours I tasted the dals, which seemed soft and probably edible at that point. I added 1/2 cup of bulgur (I would have preferred pearled barley but couldn’t find any) and 2 bay leaves, some hot water and started prepping vegetables. I cut up a yellow bell pepper, 3 stalks of celery, some carrot, equivalent to 1-2 full sized carrots, 3/4 of a large yellow onion, and 1 jalapeno pepper, with seeds. These we sauteed in olive oil for 7 minutes (until the onions begin to turn transparent) and added to the pot (after 2 hours, 15 minutes). We let it simmer for 40 more minutes.

ud_veggies

ud_simmer_2

One characteristic of the Indian recipes is that they wait until the very end and then sautee aromatic spices, garlic, etc in ghee (clarified butter) and add that to the soup. In the same spirit we prepped 2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and deveined, 2 large cloves of garlic, thin sliced, 3 decent sized shallots, and a handful of destalked fresh spinach. These we sauteed in olive oil until the spinach was limp and dark green and the shallots were turning transparent (ca 3 minutes), and we added that to the soup, and let it cook 5 more minutes.

ud_sautee

ud_final

The soup that resulted is vegan, creamy, rich, and full of flavor. All I added was some salt substitute before I served it. Others may choose to add spices of their choice.

ud_in_bowl

I’m not 100% sure whether the soup grew so rich because of the dals themselves, or because the bulgur acted as a thickening agent. In many of these soups, (great examples are here, here, and here) potatoes can be added to give it a vegetable component, and that will thicken the stock over time.

Cafe Sunflower is a pretty vegetarian restaurant in the strip mall on the southwest corner of Hammond and Roswell Road, near one of the last intersections on Roswell before reaching the 285 loop from the north. We went there recently for lunch, a coworker and I, in part because I’m eating a lot of vegetarian foods for lunch, and in part as a change of pace.

It’s pretty inside. I wish I could say more, but all I remember are the nice tables and solid wooden chairs, the kind that just seem to fit. The staff seemed largely Asian and was quite efficient.  Service overall was good.

We had soft drinks. I had their stir fried vegetables with tofu, my partner had their special, a stuffed pepper, full of quinoa. Of the two dishes, the stuffed pepper was quite spectacular looking, a mountain of quinoa with a slight brown cast to it. I asked him what he thought of his dish, on a scale of 1 to 5, and he rated his a “5”. He had never had quinoa before, and he liked it a lot. I liked my dish, full of vegetables and lego sized chunks of tofu. I was confused by the rice, both short grain in size but chewy as brown rice is. Looking at the menu after the fact, it must have been a short grain brown rice. I’m more used to long grain brown rice.

Verdict: All in all, I liked it. I almost had their three bean chili, and someday I’m coming back to try that one. It looks good, and I assume any vegetarian or vegan, or just someone like me, can find what they want at Cafe Sunflower.

Cafe Sunflower
5975 Roswell Rd NE
Atlanta, GA 30328
(404) 256-1675

Cafe Sunflower/Sandy Springs on Urbanspoon

On Father’s Day we went out twice. The first time was to Benny’s Bar and Grill for their brunch. I had never had their brunch before. We had their mussel appetizer (really good), a bowl of their gumbo (fantastic), and I had a tilapia wrap. My wife had a chicken sandwich, with marinated grilled chicken, and my daughter had a omelet.  It was all good, and too much food for lunch really. We all took leftovers. And I found out how much my daughter liked my wrap when I took it for lunch on the Tuesday after, and she had already taken a large slice of it. For dinner we went to Destas Ethiopian. I’ll review that restaurant later.

My doctor has laid down a gauntlet in terms of my eating, and it’s going to be hard to meet. The deal is, no red meat, no soft drinks that aren’t diet drinks, control portion size, and start an exercise program and stick to it. I start exercise programs all the time. Sticking to them is the hard part. The point is to lower my weight, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and if possible, prevent the onset of adult diabetes. There were some ugly sides to my last blood test, and though I didn’t starve the way I should before that kind of test, it is better take precautions now.

Simply put, I’m not going to be able to give up red meat. But what I think would work better actually, is giving up almost all meat for lunch. While the difference in cholesterol between fish and red meat is something like a 20-30% difference, the difference between animal and plant products is a 100% difference. Plants have no cholesterol at all.

The best diet I was ever on was later popularized as the Subway diet. You don’t need to eat Subway sandwiches to do this. Just limit calories at lunch to 400 or less, don’t snack, eat normally at dinner, and exercise moderately. My last successful diet, about 10 years ago, was exactly this. I lost 20 pounds doing this and relatively painlessly.

An easy way to accomplish a vegan/vegetarian lunch at my work is to make heavy use of Kashi’s frozen entrees, such as their Black Bean Mango and their Ranchero Bean offerings. Both are vegetarian, if not vegan (Sara from Innocent Primate suggests that many Kashi entrees may have honey as a sweetener. Please check). Both are under 400 calories.

Popular Atlanta sandwich shops often have a vegetarian option. Alon’s has a Tuscan sandwich and Wright’s Gourmet in Dunwoody has a vegetarian sandwich they call Glenda’s Garden. Finally, I’ve cooked both a quinoa and Kashi stir-fry before. If worst comes to worst, then I can do it myself (though I need some way to figure out calories per serving).

In terms of boonie peppers, I couldn’t be happier. The outside plant simply shed all its bad, nasty looking leaves and it now looks extremely healthy:

Potted boonie pepper growing outside in Georgia. It looks fantastic!

Potted boonie pepper growing outside in Georgia. It looks fantastic!

The inside plants, in 2 liter soda bottle greenhouses, are doing extremely well. To reiterate, take your plant once sprouted, get a peat pot, add about 1 inch of soil. Put the sprout in the peat pellet into the pot, cover with soil. Place in a greenhouse made of an empty soda bottle cut in two, with a few two inch vertical slits (can be done on either half, really. I split the top half). Water immediately with an indoor strength fertilizer; assemble greenhouse and place on handy sunny window sill; repeat watering as needed (every 1-2 weeks). Don’t worry about excess; it will drip into the bottom of the greenhouse and help keep the plants moist. To keep them warm through the cool Georgia spring on the window sill I had them on, I was using a heating strip. Heat + fertilizer + greenhouse = steady reliable growth.

Many of those will be moved outside sometime during July. They are looking that good, growing that well. My tomatoes, on the other hand, aren’t growing well. I believe I’m going to have to find a new plot for them, some place with more sun. The only tomato to fruit there so far have been Sweet 100s a few years ago.

Because of the kinds of jobs I do, I’m always looking for something that is cheap, filling, good, low sodium, low glycemic index, requires little refrigeration, and microwaves easily, to serve as a “good lunch”. And although I’m very happily omnivorous, I’m conscious of the kinds of themes that Michael Pollan touches on in the books, “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food“. I’m equally aware of the kinds of issues that Mark Bittman touches on in “Food Matters“,  in the article “Vegan Before Dinnertime“,  and in what I regard as his best article, “Putting Meat Back in Its Place.” And I believe this “more plants, less meat” trend is attracting attention not because it’s outrageous, but because it makes both sense and dollars and cents. In the case of the “good lunch”, interestingly, these disparate themes merge. Vegan dishes tend to have all the traits I’m looking for, and I can control the salt content if I cook it myself.

Kashi makes a number of prepared products, some of them good, others really good, but they also make a 7 grain cereal mix:

Kashi 7 grain pilaf.

Kashi 7 grain pilaf.

With 2 cups of water and a cereal packet from the box, you can make a nice hot cereal in about 25 minutes.

Uncooked kashi, with 2 cups of water

Uncooked kashi, with 2 cups of water

I was thinking I didn’t want just cereal, and it would be a shame to waste those nice grains. So I decided on a stir fry. To note, there are very few Kashi based stir fries in the blogosphere, and this one from the Plain Cook site is more complicated than I wanted.

Total time required: ca 40 minutes.

Ingredients:

1 package Kashi 7 grain pilaf.
2 cups water
1/2 yellow onion, diced
2 carrots, sliced finely
2 stalks of celery, sliced thin
1 poblano pepper, sliced thin
1 red bell pepper, diced
some green onions
2 cloves of garlic, sliced thin.
ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons of olive oil.

So, we put the kashi in a pan once the water is boiling and simmer 25 minutes. In my case, it wasn’t quite done at 25, there was still some water, but I had started and ended the first 25 minutes with the pot covered. I’m much more likely to leave it uncovered after 10 minutes or so, if I do this again.

Prepare the vegetables as the kashi simmers and just before the kashi is ready, add olive oil to a pan and heat the pan on high. Once the pan is hot enough, add vegetables, and reduce the heat to medium.

Vegetables, ready to stir-fry.

Vegetables, ready to stir-fry.

Let the vegetables cook for 5-7 minutes, stirring, waiting for the onions to begin to turn translucent. At this point add the kashi and let it cook for about 3 minutes more. Afterwards, put the stir-fry into serving bowls and season to taste.

A kashi stir-fry. Season to taste.

A kashi stir-fry. Season to taste.

The recipe above serves about 3-4. In practice, kashi is a bit stickier in the pan than quinoa, so my suggestion is transfer it into microwave bowls (that portion you’re preserving for lunch) as soon as you can.

The vegetables I chose were simply those I had around. You can substitute as you wish (cubes of zucchini would be good here, and I’m personally fond of baby bok choy).

I ran into lentils in college, when one day I was starving and found this can of Progresso Lentil Soup. I really liked it, and when I got the bug to start cooking again, I spent a few moments on the internet and uncovered this recipe for lentil soup of Alton Brown’s.

The recipe really looks good, but it requires a bit more work than I’d like. I really don’t want to be toasting cumin seeds when I’ve never owned a cumin seed before, and the spice grains of paradise was also a bit confusing. I also wasn’t too keen on blending the soup, as I like my lentils intact.

The eye opener came a bit later, when I ran into Mark Bittman’s recipe for Improvised Vegetable Soup. He called it a soupy dal, and it was fairly easy to see in comparison to Alton’s recipe that this was an archetype of a way to make a wide variety of soups, as opposed to a single soup. The scaffolding of this kind of food preparation is straightforward. You let the onions, carrots, and celery (plus whatever else you add) make the stock for you and then use the “main contents” to add food value, mouth feel, and then spice to taste.

I’ve tried a number of variants of this dish, but before I proceed with what I did I want to show a few more examples of this class of soups, prepared in interesting ways. The first is this mung bean soup recipe, in which the base vegetables and mung beans are cooked separately and then added together later. The second is a Luccan farro soup, both in the original incarnation and in Cooking 4 the Week’s variation. Finally, there is a fine Indian dish called a dal makhani, or “buttery lentils”, which is much richer than these soups, but can tell anyone something about Indian style spicing.

The latest version of a Bittman-esque soup ended up like this:

1 cup (8 oz) lentils, soaked while cutting veggies.
1/2 cup (4 oz) pearled barley, in 2 cups water, heated almost to simmer while cutting vegetables.
2/3 cup quinoa (eyeballed measure), washed 5x, then soaked while cutting..

1.5 carrots, chopped.
3 celery stalks chopped.
1 onion chopped.
4 mini pimentos (red, yellow, orange) chopped, seeded and deveined.
2 serrano peppers, chopped, seeded and deveined.
3 cloves of garlic, pressed.

chopped vegetables and garlic were sauteed in oil (2 tbsp, olive +something), 7 minutes. Added barley and then lentils, added an inch of water above, and allowed the soup to simmer. Heated an additional  quart of water while cooking food, added water when necessary (2-3x). I added the quinoa when judged about 15 minutes left to cook. Total cooking time was roughly 40-45 minutes.

The soup was spiced just before turning off heat.

spicing was..

50-50 salt and salt substitute to taste.
1 teaspoon garam masala (found at Publix).
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon coriander
~ 1/2 teaspoon jamaican curry powder (more for the yellow of the
turmeric than anything else)..
paprika, red pepper, parsley flakes, marjoram, freshly ground black
pepper, eyeballed.
habanero/mango sauce, maybe 1/4 cap full.

A serving of lentil soup with barley and quinoa.

A serving of lentil soup with barley and quinoa.