Here's how it began, all in one whirlwind day. I stopped at Whole Foods during lunch to fill up on free samples (the key is to make several laps - disguises your gluttony while burning calories) and on my way out picked up their newsletter. Despite Whole Foods' reputation for catering to the country club set, the recipes in the newsletter are usually cheap to make, surprisingly inventive, and far from fancy. I came across one called "Linguine with Spinach, [Canned!] Artichokes, and Red Lentil Sauce." After reading about the lentils -- "when simmered until they're velvety soft, lentils make a surprisingly creamy sauce for pasta" -- I nearly slapped myself on the forehead. Lentils! Of course they would be a delicious and nutritious pasta sauce. Dal is da bomb, yo - let's Italicize it and throw that joint on some noodles! I just had to try it, that very night.
Other than the lentils and linguine, I was not at all faithful to Whole Foods' recipe. I didn't have spinach or artichokes at home, but I did have sweet potatoes, ground turkey, and broccoli and threw those in the mix instead. Sorry, Whole Foods - I realize the whole point of these recipes is to inspire people to buy your stuff, but I just raided your free samples and your free newsletter. Thanks for the inspiration, though.
I also made my lentil sauce a bit differently, with the addition of tomato paste and subtraction of lemon juice. I had some leftover tomato paste that needed to be used up immediately (learn from my mistakes and always buy yours in the tube), but no lemons. When life hands you no lemons, use tomato paste! I realize tomato paste and lemon juice could not be more different (eh...I guess they are both acidic to varying degrees and fruit-based, though that's about it), but tomato paste seemed like a nice little Italianate touch and it never hurts on pasta. Without the tomato paste, and with the addition of lemons, this would've been a whole 'nother sauce.
The lentil sauce melded deliciously with the sweet potatoes, turkey meatballs, and broccoli, but it’s so good that it doesn’t really matter what you add it to. I think it would be excellent plain over pasta, rice, or a baked potato. The vegetables, meat, or whatever else you want to throw in there are just a bonus. I’m sure the artichokes and spinach called for in Whole Foods’ original are also scrumptious. Again, sorry Whole Foods – I failed you, but it was a big win for me.
Recipe: Pasta with Lentil Sauce, Vegetables, and Turkey Meatballs
Makes 4 servings.
It looks like a lot of ingredients, but doesn’t need to be – other than the lentil sauce, everything is variable, and even the lentil sauce could be easily modified. The turkey meatballs here are incidental – I had made turkey burgers the other night and had some leftover meat. But they were really good in this dish, so if you have some ground turkey I recommend using it here. Sweet potatoes are merely a seasonal addition and a good source of nutrients. They absorbed the sauce well, but you could use another root vegetable or none at all. Same goes for the broccoli. I can’t wait to try other veggie combinations. Next up, collards and cauliflower (for the alliteration, of course), red peppers and olives, and butternut squash and green beans. And in case you want to be extra rebellious, you could even use split peas in place of the lentils if you don’t mind the homely colors. Oh! And gnocchi. The sauce would be incredible atop some gnocchi if you are so inclined. Or fish! Seriously, it would be delicious over fish, or chicken cutlets, or maybe even pork. Heck, heat some up and drizzle it over your ice cream like it’s a sunset-colored hot fudge! Okay, I think I found the limit.
For the lentil sauce:
2 t mustard seeds
2 t olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 C chicken broth (Whole Foods calls for 1 C vegetable broth and 1 C water, which is more economical. Use whatever you have.)
3/4 C red lentils
2 t turmeric (I thought this would brighten the color. Not necessary though.)
2 T tomato paste
Salt and pepper to taste
For the rest, if you want to follow what I did beyond the lentil sauce:
2 T olive oil for sauteing, more as needed
2 sweet potatoes (the smaller kind, or one yam), cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 t ground nutmeg
2 t ground cumin, divided
1/2 lb ground turkey, room temperature
1 t Adobo seasoning
1/4 t salt
2 t Worcestershire sauce
2 T chopped flat leaf parsley (only if you have it)
1/2 lb whole wheat linguine (or any pasta you half)
1 stalk broccoli, cut into bite-size pieces
The lentil sauce and sweet potatoes take roughly the same amount of time to cook, so get these started in tandem. For the lentil sauce, put a small-to-medium-sized pot on the burner and turn to medium heat. Add the mustard seeds and cook a few minutes – they are supposed to pop after a few minutes but might not. It doesn’t matter. Add the olive oil, garlic, and onion and cook for a minute. Add the lentils, broth, turmeric, and tomato paste, stir everything around, turn heat to high, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover the pot – these should simmer for about 20 minutes or until lentils are very soft.
Meanwhile, for the sweet potatoes and the rest, heat a large skillet to medium heat and add the olive oil. When the pan is hot, add the sweet potatoes and saute for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking. While sweet potatoes are cooking, form the meatballs: in a medium size bowl, gently mix the ground turkey, 1 teaspoon of the cumin, the Adobo seasoning, salt, and Worcestershire sauce (do not overmix or the meat will get gooey and gross!) and roll into balls about 1 inch in diameter. (If you have extra onion, use it up in the meatballs.) Move the sweet potatoes to one side of the pan and sprinkle them with the nutmeg and 1 teaspoon of cumin. Add extra olive oil to the pan if it has dried up, and add the meatballs to the other side. Use tongs to turn them, making sure they get browned everywhere, about 10 minutes. Cut into one to make sure it is done (i.e., not pink, or only a teeny bit pink on the inside) - if not, keep sautein'. Check the sweet potatoes - if they are soft enough that you want to eat them, they're done! Add a little salt and pepper if you like.
In another pot (yes, I know we're up to three pots now - this is not such an economical dish for your stove or dishwasher), cook whatever pasta you are using according to package instructions. Drain and stir in the lentil sauce, which should be done by now. It will seem like a lot of sauce, but remember, you will also be adding the meatballs and vegetables.
Add the sweet potatoes and meatballs to the pasta and lentils, stir around, and cover the pot to keep it warm. In the pan you used to cook the sweet potatoes and meatballs, add a bit more olive oil and turn the heat to medium-high. Add the broccoli and stir-fry it until bright green and slightly softened. (Feel free to cook broccoli any other way - steamed, roasted, microwaved, etc. - this is just how I like mine.) Salt it a bit and throw it into the pasta. Voila! Enjoy.