Slow Cooker Lentil Tomato Stew

This Lentil Tomato Stew doesn't photograph so pretty, but it's damn tasty!

This Lentil Tomato Stew doesn’t photograph so pretty, but it’s damn tasty!

It’s been WAY too long since I last wrote on this blog. But my impetus for this entry is, of course, food. This time is a ridiculously simple but hearty stew that’s naturally vegetarian/vegan (if you use veggie stock or broth), gluten and dairy free, high in protein and fiber, and low in fat . And if it tasted too healthy and bland I wouldn’t be writing about it, so trust me on this.

I’ve been making lentil soup for years and frankly, the idea of making another pot of the stuff bored me. But I remembered a pot of lentil stew that one of my former roommates during my college years made without the usual mirepoix of carrots and celery. Could I throw a bag of lentils, some diced tomatoes, and some spices into a slow cooker, have it be done by the time I get home from work, AND actually taste like something I’d look forward to eating?

YES! This stew is awesome! It goes great with rice or with a nice crusty piece of bread. Easy, delish, good for you = the trifecta. Voila!

Slow Cooker Lentil Tomato Stew
16 oz. green lentils, uncooked
One 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried thyme
1 bay leaf
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
3.5 cups of chicken or vegetable broth

*Place all the ingredients in a slow cooker and cook on low for 6-8 hours. This should make a good amount of stew (around 6-8 servings). Serve alone, with rice, or with some nice crusty bread. 

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Vegans, Vegetarians and Carnivores Dine Together at Gather

Can vegans, vegetarians and carnivores really share a foodie-worthy meal at the same table? They certainly can at Gather in Berkeley. And that’s just the way Esquire Magazine’s 2010 Chef of the Year, and Gather’s Executive Chef, Sean Baker, likes it.

“We want to show the same enthusiasm for every dietary preference, whether it’s lactose intolerance, gluten-free, or veganism. We want to make sure they all get to have the same experience.”

Chef Baker may be a classically trained chef who graduated from Le Cordon Bleu, but he’s always been personally interested in being meat-free, even becoming vegan for a time, before he went to culinary school. Now with his fiancee being vegan, he’s even more personally invested in making dishes everyone can enjoy.

“It’s frustrating,” he says. “We eat out a lot and sometimes she can’t have the same experience that I can. Veganism is not an eating style that is embraced by a lot of culinary folks.” Fortunately, Chef Baker says that thinking of a 50/50 vegan/meat menu comes to him quite naturally these days. Must be from his previous stints at Millennium Restaurant, San Francisco’s premier high-end vegan restaurant, and Gabriella Café in Santa Cruz, where he oversaw a meat-heavy menu that sometimes offered offal options.

Chef Baker says, “I read obsessively, eat out obsessively, and I cook obsessively. I love what I do. It’s never a struggle to come up with menus that appeal to everyone.”

But that doesn’t mean it requires less work.

He says, “Vegan food is much more labor intensive in the kitchen, but you can do a lot of great culinary techniques when preparing it. We spend hours and hours doing vegetable stocks. We smoke our tomatoes and caramelize our onions until they can’t be caramelized anymore. We blanch our cardoons and then sous vide them for six hours until they come out perfect. We’re always messing around with things to improve the flavor of food and improve our craft.”

Chef Baker believes in offering comfort food in unpretentious surroundings that are not only beautiful, but eco-friendly. For example, they filter all of the water in the restaurant themselves, used recycled pickle barrels to create the back bar and cabinetry in the open kitchen, and even re-used old leather belts to make the seat cushions in the banquettes.

But this is no tree-hugging, alfalfa-loving hippy eatery. The menu here is inventive, surprising, and worthy of a four-star chef.

On a recent visit for brunch with some friends, we had the Egg Sandwich with bacon and mushrooms; the Acme Walnut French Toast with blood orange confit, cranberries and walnut sauce; and the Burrata salad with chicories, walnuts, anchovy and bruschetta.

We loved the Egg Sandwich with its fresh torpedo Acme roll, smoky salty bacon and those fabulous braised Portobello mushrooms! Apparently they’d been cooked with red onions, smoked chopped tomatoes, their own veggie stock and something they call “tomato condiment” which is like a housemade ketchup. It’s the basis for many dishes and the Chef was nice enough to offer up the recipe below.

We also ordered two pizzas for the table, including the vegan Spicy Tomato with capers, olives, cashew garlic puree and herbs; and the Farm Egg Pizza with bacon and caramelized onions.

The vegan Spicy Tomato pie was the highlight of our entire meal, and I say that surprisingly because we were a table of hearty meat-eaters. We were skeptical that any vegan dish could satisfy, let alone surprise us, the way this pizza did. The flavor combination of the salty capers and olives with the zesty sauce and creamy nut puree made for a winning combination. And texturally, the crust on both pizzas was stellar. It was thin and crispy on the bottom, and the dough around the edges was soft and tender, like the perfect breadstick.

Each and every plate was fresh, bright and alive with flavor, thanks to all the fresh produce from the folks at Lindencroft Farms. And it’s not just high quality ingredients we tasted, it’s the obvious care in preparation.

“I don’t want the vegetarians to know they’re eating vegetarian food. I want you to feel like you’re eating something that tastes like steak,” says Chef Baker. “My goal when cooking is for people to try a whole new array of flavors every time they come in and make it fun for everyone at the table.”

Tomato Condiment
(Yields 9 quarts so scale down!)

12 qts red onion (1/4 inch dice)
3 qt apple cider vinegar
6 cups tomato paste
5 cups Sucanat (or natural cane sugar)
2 Tbsp. dried thyme
3 Tbsp. ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. ground clove
2 Tbsp. ground allspice
1 Tbsp. cayenne
6 oz pure olive oil
1.5 cups Tamari/Dark Soy Sauce
3 qts Water

Caramelize the onions and then fry the tomato paste. Add all other ingredients and reduce to slightly looser than ketchup consistency.

You can use this as a basis for braising vegetables and meats or as a condiment.

Gather on Urbanspoon

*This piece is cross-posted on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

High-end Meatless Fare

Meat and potatoes: that’s the kind of girl I am.  I am NOT a granola-loving, nuts and twigs eating, prissy little salad ordering princess.  I want my savory rich meaty goodness with a side of cheese or earthy potatoes, though the older I get the more I’m paying for that indulgence.  But I can certainly respect one’s beliefs and causes.

Now, that said, I was still curious about vegan food.  Would I enjoy it just as much as a meat-filled meal?  I’d never had a vegan meal and I was excited about visiting Millennium in San Francisco with a group of co-workers.

This is high-end meatlessness.  We ordered a variety of appetizers to start for the entire table to share, including a Black Bean Torte, Green Beans with an amazing dill aioli, and others.  There were a lot of citrus, beans, and different textures but it was all brightly flavored and expertly prepared.

Then we got to our entrees.  I’d ordered the Portobello Mushroom with Smashed Potatoes.  It was a dish full of color and the mushroom was meaty and substantive.  It was topped with a wonderful balsamic and fresh apricot glaze that and gave it a nice sweet and zesty flavor that surprised me.  It was delightful.  And the accompanying shaved fennel salad and mix of beans, peas, corn and carrots were bright and wonderfully fresh.

We finished the meal with the Green Tea Cheesecake which was made with a variety of nuts (no real cheese of course) and an ice cream that was made from almond milk.  Again, a delightful alternative to the “original”, and again, substantive.

I loved realizing how different ingredients could be used to create alternate versions of some typical non-vegan dishes.  It was fascinating to see how you could use nuts, fruits, and other ingredients to season, accent, and flavor things in different ways.  And surprisingly, I didn’t miss the meat.

Service was a little spotty and the decor could definitely use a more modern touch, especially with the type of food they serve.  I would definitely return if given the chance.  It’s a nice change from your typical meat and potatoes. 🙂

Millennium on Urbanspoon