Inspiration found in trip to Whole Foods

April 23, 2012

When the Easter Bunny left me a basket this year, he’d tucked a gift certificate under the frizzy grass - a shopping trip to the nearest Whole Foods. After moving to Lewes from the DC area, I went through similar withdrawal symptoms other urban transplants have described. How do you survive without Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods?

I was willing to forgo the unpredictable and often quirky inventory at Trader Joe’s, but I really missed Whole Foods. Although local produce and farmers markets are plentiful during the summer, and there are many specialty vendors, it’s been challenging to find a single, high-quality source for the all the items on my grocery list. The two-hour drive to Glen Mills, Pa., seemed like a good idea.

We picked a sunny Sunday, crossing the border from Delaware due north of Wilmington into the scenic Brandywine Valley. Our destination was impossible to miss. Every other shopping center and strip mall we’d passed was completely empty; this one had cars circling the enormous parking lot competing for prime spots near the entrance.

Just as we walked through the door, a man in an apron asked “Would you like a free cherry pie?” Too startled to think clearly, we both said “No thanks” and he wandered off with his stack of pies. What were we thinking? We must have blinded by the arrays of produce, fragrant fresh flowers, bins of bulk foods - and this was just the first aisle.

We’d come prepared with a shopping list and quickly abandoned it. Why buy the ordinary when there’s so much more variety to chose from? By the time we reached the checkout line, the cart was full of delectable groceries as well as my favorite soap. The only counter we didn’t shop was where fresh sheets of pasta were cut to order into strands of fettuccine, linguini or spaghetti and sold by the pound.

A few of my favorite purchases never made it home. The sushi vanished before we reached the Delaware line, and the artichoke salad was a perfect midafternoon snack. Unpacking the bags inspired Jack to capture an image of the colorful produce (see photo) and gave me lots of menu inspiration, starting with lentils.

A type of legume known as a pulse, these small disks resemble flattened peas and have been a nutritious food source for thousands of years. Lentils grow on a bushy shrub in a pod that usually holds two seeds. They’re named from the Latin for lens, which is also the origin of the name for the double convex optic lens.

You can find lentils in a variety of sizes and colors, most commonly yellow, red and brown. The smallest and tastiest of these are French green lentils. They have a mild, nutty flavor, with less starch than other types. Because they maintain their shape when cooked, they’re an ideal ingredient for a marinated salad. Other positive characteristics include high fiber and protein content and a short cooking time.

One important step before preparing lentils is to inspect them; it’s not unusual to find small stones or other debris mixed in. Arrange them in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and cull out anything that doesn’t belong, including any lentils that are shriveled or broken.

I’ve included three different recipes for cooking lentils from the Whole Foods website. The soup calls for red lentils, which will begin to disintegrate as they simmer - perfect for pureeing into a creamy texture. The salads call for the tiny French lentils; one dish adds fresh cherries tossed in a light vinaigrette, while the other combines couscous and arugula with pesto - two simple and satisfying side dishes, all thanks to the Easter Bunny.

Whole Foods Creamy Lentil Soup
1 1/3 C red lentils
7 C vegetable broth
1 diced onion
1 diced carrot
4 minced garlic cloves
2 T tomato paste
1 t cumin
1/8 t cayenne pepper
3/4 t sea salt or to taste
lemon wedges

Pick through and rinse the lentils. Place them in a soup pot with broth, onion, carrot, garlic, tomato paste, cumin and cayenne. Bring to a boil over high heat. Lower heat and simmer, uncovered, until vegetables are very tender and lentils begin to disintegrate, about 25 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and use an immersion blender to purée until creamy (alternatively, purée in the bowl of a food processor or blender). Add salt to taste, and ladle in bowls; garnish with lemon wedges. Yield: 8 servings.

Whole Foods Lentil Salad
1 1/2 C French green lentils
5 C water
2 T red wine vinegar
2 T olive oil
1 bunch sliced green onions
1 t sea salt
3/4 t black pepper
4 C fresh cherries
1 C chopped basil

Pick through and rinse the lentils. Place in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. Drain and set aside. Pit and halve the cherries; set aside. In a serving bowl, whisk together vinegar, oil, green onions, salt and pepper.

Stir in warm lentils and toss until coated. Cool to room temperature (refrigerate if not serving immediately). Toss with cherries and basil just before serving.

Whole Foods Lentil & Couscous Salad
3/4 C lentils
3 3/4 C water, divided
1/2 C couscous
2 t olive oil
2 C baby arugula leaves
1 C cherry tomatoes, halved
1/4 C prepared basil pesto
1 1/2 T red wine vinegar
salt & pepper, to taste

Combine lentils and 3 C water into a small saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, cover and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain, rinse in cold water and drain again. Meanwhile, bring remaining 3/4 C water to a boil in a small saucepan. Place couscous in a large serving bowl and pour in boiling water. Cover and set aside for 10 minutes. Add oil to couscous and fluff with a fork. Stir in cooked lentils, arugula and tomatoes; toss gently to combine. In a small bowl, whisk together pesto, vinegar, salt and pepper. Drizzle pesto mixture over salad and toss to coat.