Plenty, by Yotam Ottolenghi, is my current new favorite cookbook. And it's fitting, because right now, I'm feeling plenty. Plenty good, plenty bad, plenty scared, plenty perplexed, and plenty grateful in the midst of all of it.
Tonight, rock star husband had a recording session, so for me it was a bachelor dinner night, but I wasn't in the mood for my usual old mac & cheese or pizza, and since I'd just gotten my hands on this inspiring collection of recipes thanks to my pals Jamie & Eve, I decided to dig right in and treat myself to a solo summer dinner as fine as anything I'd make for company.
The food was sweet comfort in the midst of difficult family times. My heart is pretty broken at how badly my Dad is struggling again even though he was here only a month ago and looking and feeling strong and healthy. And in the meantime there has been news that several of our other family members are struggling too, despite everyone's best efforts to be healthy and do all the right things. Sometimes I feel myself going down that dark road where I think, what does it even matter if you try to eat healthy, exercise, and do all those other things that are supposed to be good for you? As my friend Kathleen says, you still have to breathe the air. You still have to live in this world and come to the realization that cancer doesn't discriminate. Cancer doesn't care what you do. There's no eloquent way to phrase it. It just sucks.
So tonight, I cooked my worries away, at least temporarily, and enjoyed the fruits of my labors all by my lonesome. I practically jumped for joy at the goodness, the vibrance, the sheer freshness and delight of this perfect marriage of flavors and textures: lentils and watercress in a watercress vinaigrette with asparagus and manchego, a squeeze of lemon and toasted walnuts.
I adapted this recipe a bit - it called for walnut oil but I used toasted walnuts instead, and I used french lentils instead of green, because that's what I had in the house. I can't take too much raw garlic so instead of a raw clove, I used the piece of garlic that I'd cooked with the lentils, which was nicely mellowed but added just the right bit of subtle garlic flavor.
It was my first time using watercress at home. I've enjoyed that intensely peppery green in salads at restaurants, but never ventured to use it myself. And never would have considered pureeing it as part of the dressing while at the same time serving it as part of the salad - it's a winner, to be sure!
So without too much more adieu, I will post my adapted version of this recipe from this fabulous, inspiring book, which I can't wait to dive into further. I will urge you to make this for lunch or dinner while you can still get good asparagus, and to enjoy it, if you can, with someone you love. I will continue to give thanks for food, for family, for friends, and for every moment spent being healthy and strong in my body, and I will wish the same for you.
Lentils, Asparagus and Watercress
Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi's recipe in Plenty
Serves 4 generously
1 cup french lentils
4 cups watercress, thick stocks removed
1/4 - 2/3 c. parsley (original recipe called for 2/3 cup but I only had about 1/4 cup on hand, so that's what I used)
1/2 cup olive oil (original recipe called for 2/3 cup, but to me, 1/2 cup seemed the right amount)
1 T. red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic
salt & pepper
1 large bunch asparagus (about 1 pound), cut into roughly 2 inch segments
shaved manchego cheese to taste
toasted walnuts to taste
Rinse the lentils and place in a saucepan with plenty of fresh water and 1 plump clove of garlic, peeled and smashed, and 1 bay leaf. Bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer, add a generous sprinkling of salt, and cook until just tender. This could take about 20 to 30 minutes.
While the lentils are cooking, put half the watercress, the parsley, olive oil, vinegar, salt & pepper into your food processor. After the lentils have been cooking for about 10-15 minutes, fish out that clove of garlic and add it to the food processor. Blitz until smooth & creamy, and pour into a big salad bowl.
Once the lentils are tender, drain them well and dump them into the bowl with the dressing, and toss it all together while the lentils are still warm. Taste & adjust seasonings - you may well need more salt.
Steam or boil the asparagus for about 2 to 3 minutes, until just crisp-tender. Original recipe suggests boiling but I steamed them. I also think it would add another whole dimension of flavor if you grilled the asparagus!
Now it's time to serve the salad, warm or at room temperature. Add the drained asparagus to the lentils, and toss it all with the remaining watercress. Pile onto a plate or into a bowl and shave a little manchego over it, sprinkle a few toasted walnuts, and don't forget to squeeze a bit of lemon over it, which really serves to bring all the flavors together. Enjoy every bite, welcome summer, and then enjoy some more bites! You'll be so, so glad that you did.