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lentils with mushrooms and spinach

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Lentil and mushroom bake
When I was a kid my grandmother sometimes cooked lentil soup – I used to think it looked like mud, tasted like mud and smelled worse. I wasn’t a fan.

Then a few years ago I was travelling through north of Spain, late autumn, out of season, and ended up late on a Sunday night in the city of Huesca. Lovely place but clearly everyone there dead set on eating in on Sundays – there was nowhere open to grab some food. We were knackered and famished, and close to despair when after a couple of hours’ trekking the place up and down we finally found an open eatery. Relieved, we asked for a menu. The lady who came to take our order frowned ferociously and responded with a barrage of machine gun-fast Spanish, out of which we could only pick up ‘estofado!’ and ‘lentejas!’ Ah well - a 'menu' was a silly North European whimsy. So said estofado (a Catalan beef stew) and lentejas were brought to us with lashings of very decent house Rioja and they were the best damn lentejas I’ve ever eaten in my life. Close to the best THING I’ve ever eaten. Well, I was that hungry.

The lentils I had that night in Spain were in tomato sauce I seem to remember but I’ve since tried cooking them in different ways – my favourite being more crispy, less saucy, with mushrooms to match their earthy flavour. Or muddy flavour, as my ten year old self would describe it.

I insist – use porcini in this recipe. Since it is next to impossible to get hold of the fresh porcini or ceps in England the dried ones will do, even better as they will impart the flavour to the water while soaking and it can be then passed on to the lentils for cooking.

  • INGREDIENTS
  • 25g or a good handful of dried mushrooms – porcini if possible
  • 1 ½ cup dried puy lentils
  • a few sprigs of thyme
  • a couple of bay leaves
  • a good knob of butter
  • 1 large red pepper, thinly sliced
  • a couple of spring onions
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 100g spinach leaves, washed and roughly chopped
  • salt, pepper, smoked paprika, dried marjoram, grated nutmeg
  • 50g diced mozzarella (optional)
  • a few tablespoons of coarsely grated hard cheese – gruyere, gouda or old amsterdam

Lentils, pepper, mushrooms

METHOD
First soak the mushrooms in at least three cups of boiling water and leave them until cool. Drain the mushrooms and chop roughly, reserve the soaking liquid.

Rinse the lentils well and place them in a pan with the liquid mushrooms were soaking in – measure it out if necessary, there must be at least twice as much liquid as lentils in volume. Bring the lentils to the boil with the bay leaves and thyme and cook for 20 minutes. Take them off the heat and leave to cool and absorb more liquid.

In another large pan melt the butter and add the mushrooms, then the spring onions, garlic and peppers. Cook over medium heat until softened. Season well.

Preparing lentil bake

Drain the lentils, pick out the bay leaves and the thyme stems and add them to the mushroom and pepper mix. Stir through with the spinach – it will wilt from the residual heat of the mix. Check for seasoning – it will need especially quite a bit of salt as none was added to the cooking lentils.

Pour into a baking dish, stirring in the mozzarella, if using. Sprinkle with half the grated hard cheese. Bake in an oven preheated to 190C/375F/gas 5 for about 40 minutes, stirring well halfway through and adding the rest of the cheese on top of the dish. Serve with green salad.


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