Home Ec 101’s Weekly Menu a few weeks ago called for a Lentil Casserole for Meatless Monday, which is something I haven’t made before but am going to try out soon. I recently discovered I love lentils, so I am on the hunt for great lentil menu ideas.

Something I sometimes run into when trying out a new recipe is buying an ingredient just for that recipe.  I make the recipe, but it doesn’t use all of that ingredient.  So, what do you do with the remaining lentils in the bag you buy to make Heather’s dish?  Try making today’s recipe as a side dish during the week, or add to next week’s Meatless Monday meal – leaving out the bacon, of course.

This dish was inspired by the dish Sautéed Bacon, Mushrooms, and Lentils, which I recently tested for Leite’s Culinaria, and it was a big hit with myself and my husband.  Of the kids, our 2yo, the lover of all things bean, was the most impressed.

Step One: Cook Your Lentils

If you have never had lentils before, I will warn you they are not anything like a pinto or a navy bean.  They are just a bit more firm when fully cooked.  They do not get to that consistency of being able to easily mash them up with a fork so you can feed them to the baby.

Veggies on a Cutting Board

Some variations I have made:  I cook my lentils for about 45 minutes (the recommended time is about 30 minutes on the bag, but I like my lentils a bit softer), I use two onions and five cloves of garlic.  If I am cooking for our friend who has dairy allergies, I use olive oil instead of butter.  I also chop the mushrooms into tiny pieces, to hide them from the 17 and 4 year olds who don’t like the look of mushrooms and will not eat the dish if they see them.  I also sometimes will add diced carrots to the dish, to give it some colour. Sometimes I fry chopped chicken pieces (you can also use leftover chicken) with the bacon and add to the dish to make a whole meal.

Mushrooms Sweat, So Don't Be Alarmed When Your Veggies Get Watery, Just Keep Cooking Until Liquid Is Reabsorbed

Bacon gives extra flavor AND colour - A two-fer!

You get the idea, though, right?  Take a recipe, make it the way it is written, and then add your own flare(s)!  Make the recipe your own.  This is what cooks do, adapt to suit your own tastes.  Try recipes with ingredients you have never tried before, or haven’t had in a really long time.  Stretch your palate.  If you don’t like the ingredient, find a substitute, or leave it out entirely!  Bob and weave, bob and weave! And not all of your variations are going to be home runs.  You will have some strikeouts (we do not mention peanut sauce and noodles in this house without shuddering) and you may end up ordering pizza out instead of what you cooked, but don’t let those speed bumps stop you from trying!

Cooking doesn’t have to be elaborate, it doesn’t have to take hours of prep followed by hours of cook time.  I love spending time in the kitchen cooking, it relaxes me, takes away a lot of my daily stress.  But I still don’t like to spend more than 45 minutes to an hour on dinner (unless I am making Peruvian Roasted Chicken, cause then the extra time is totally worth it!)  I like to take my iPad in the kitchen with me, put on Pandora Radio (Eagles and Carole King are my two favorite stations to cook along with) and dance and chop and stir away the time – sometimes I even stream a tv show through Netflix while I’m doing the prep.

So, as Heather recommends, plan your menus around what activities will hinder your schedule.  This will determine the amount of time you have to prepare meals.  Consider this, and the amount of time you want to spend preparing a meal.  If you all about twenty to thirty minute meals, this is totally not a problem.  Hamburger Helper?  Brown your own meat, add your own spices and cheese, boil your own pasta and you have a hamburger helper meal without the preservatives in the same amount of time.  Kraft Mac and Cheese?  While your macaroni is boiling, make a rue with 1/4 tsp butter and 3 Tbsp of flour, cook on medium high about 3 minutes, add 2 1/2 cups of milk and cook until the rue is incorporated and the mixture is bubbling) and add the cheese (about 3 cups) to make the sauce (this only takes a max of three to four minutes!) and you have something that actually tastes BETTER in just a minute or two longer than the boxed version (add tuna or chicken and some peas or other boiled or steamed veggies and you have a whole meal free of preservatives!).  Change it up a bit, put this mixture in a casserole dish sprinkle shredded cheese and bread crumbs on the top and bake for 20 minutes at 375F.

Dinner does not have to be a four course event.  Casseroles are truly amazing things to behold.  One pot dishes you can make on the stove, oven or crockpot are nothing to sneeze at because they are simple.  One of my secrets is chopping veggies and meat ahead of time, usually on a Saturday when we get back from Sam’s Club with our bulk purchases of stew meat, carrots, etc.  I divvy up the spoils into meal sized portions (I use Ziplock gallon sized bags, due to the space limits of our freezer).  Veggies stay in the crisper drawer of our fridge, though.  I try to thaw out the protein in the fridge for a day or two before I know I am going to cook with them (this is where a weekly menu plan comes in handy).  I also try to keep some marinara sauce (or the ingredients for it) on hand, for those days I don’t feel like doing much of anything, so we can have spaghetti – or else I let Rogan loose in my kitchen.  Rogan is a good cook, especially Asian meals, even though people don’t seem to want to believe it – he makes a mean Tandoori Chicken!

Now it’s your turn.  What meals would you like make simpler (more simple?), or what is your simple go to meal?