One of the things I love about spring is the ever changing weather. The variance makes things so interesting. Yesterday, we spent some time out in open fields, admiring the rolling landscape, studded with spots of towering conifers and creaky old barns. The brisk breeze at this time of year pushes the clouds through the sky at a fast pace, causing the sun to peer in and out like a fickle friend. One moment, it floods the landscape with a spotlight, turning the subtle greens to emerald and making the flowers pop out in brilliant hues. Then, just when you’re about to grab your sunglasses (except that you don’t have them with you because you live in Oregon, and although you remember to bring your umbrella everywhere you go, the idea of sunglasses never registers when you leave the house), the sky suddenly turns slate and the colors take on a muted tone. In wide-open spaces, you can see patches of sunlight chasing across the fields or reflecting off ponds in one place, while shadows cover others.
I like the changeableness of spring because it keeps me in anticipation and makes every day different, including in my kitchen. At this time of year, I try to take advantage of the remaining stormy days to make those comforting dishes that require too much oven time for the hot, summer days just around the corner.
The other day, I made this lovely dish; a sort-of shepherd’s pie, but healthier. It’s not the prettiest dinner, but it’s delicious. The thick gravy seeps up through the soft mashed potato crust, which sinks in a bit and mixes with the savory lentils and vegetables. It’s filling and hearty and is a nice option if you’re serving meat eaters and vegetarians at the same time. It’s also fairly quick to throw together if you have leftover mashed potatoes and lentils, which is the only time I make this. Anything with more than a few steps is too complicated for my life right now. I served with with crusty bread and a green salad.
If you want this to be vegan or dairy free, see the headnotes for making the mashed potatoes.
Special Diets & Allergies: Vegan and dairy free, vegetarian, soy free, nut free. I think you could easily make this gluten free if you used cornstarch to thicken the gravy instead of flour. I would mix the cornstarch with about 1/2 C of the milk until smooth, then whisk it into the rest of the gravy once it was hot.
Vegetarian Meal with Meat Option: Ryan actually loved this with without any meat, and I think most meat-lovers would. However, I threw some chopped ham in his when we had leftovers, and he liked that as well. You could easily stir pre-cooked and cubed chicken or ham or even sausage into half of the dish, or make two small pies if desired.
Speed It Up: Make the mashed potatoes and lentils a day or two ahead.
Lentil Shepherd’s Pie
This hearty main dish is comfort food at its healthiest. It’s filling and warm, savory and creamy. The lentils should be cooked until fairly dried out; this will give them a firmer texture when mixed into the gravy. If you want this dish to be dairy-free or vegan, simply mash your potatoes with olive oil and unsweetened non-dairy milk instead of milk and butter. You can use a wide variety of vegetables here; these are just suggestions. I think using chopped kale for all or some of the cabbage would be particularly nice. Note that this recipe makes more lentils than you will need for the pie (although you could throw them all in if you want it heavy on the lentils). If you ‘re using leftover or canned lentils, you’ll only need 1 1/2 C. I like using a loaf pan here as it means a higher ratio of lentils and vegetables to mashed potatoes, but you could double the amount of mashed potatoes and make this in a pie dish instead, although all of the filling this recipe yields may not fit in the dish. Lastly, if your mashed potatoes are warm, it will be easier to spread them; if they’re not, simply crumble them over the vegetables and then spread with a warm spoon. A significant amount of gravy always seeps on to the top of my potato crust as it bakes. If you want to avoid this, use more potatoes.
1 C lentils
2 1/2 C vegetable broth (or combination of broth and water)
1 T olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
1 C milk of choice (if using non-dairy, make sure it’s unsweetened
1/4 C unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 1/2 C vegetable broth
1 t ground thyme
1 t salt
2 C green cabbage, chopped
1 C frozen green beans
1 C mixed frozen vegetables (peas, corn, carrots, and lima beans
2 C mashed potatoes
Rinse the lentils. Place in a saucepan with the broth, cover, and bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 to 35 minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed. Remove the lid of the pan and allow the lentils to dry out, stirring occasionally to dry them further, as you prepare the other ingredients.
- Preheat the oven to 425 F and grease a 9×5 loaf pan.
- Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and carrot and sautee until tender.
- Meanwhile, whisk the milk and flour together until smooth.
- Stir the milk, 1 1/2 C vegetable broth, thyme, and salt into the pan. Add the cabbage. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, cover partially, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the frozen vegetables and simmer another 5 to 10 minutes, until the vegetables are soft and the gravy is thick.
- Stir in about 1 1/2 C of the lentils.
- Pour the vegetable mixture into the prepared pan. Top with the mashed potatoes, smoothing them to the edges of the pan.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the gravy is bubbling and the potato crust has browned slightly.
- Serve hot.
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