Red Lentil Soup

Red lentil soup

Lately I’m obsessed with lentils.  Our pantry shelves are lined with them—bags and boxes filled with miniature rounds of black, green and brown.  To those who rifle around looking for more readily edible snacks, my compulsion is slightly puzzling.  A collection of shoes in the closet or books on the shelf is easier to understand.  But mothers have other odd obsessions as well, best ignored, as teens well know; simply shove the legumes aside and move on to the chips.

Loving lentils makes sense to me, if to no one else.  I cook dinner every day for a vegetarian family, and legumes and beans offer us a rich source of vegetable protein that’s essential to our diet.  And beyond the nutrition, they’re a treasure trove of inspiration as well.  I’ve no doubt I could add lentils to the pot day after day, week after week, and never repeat the same concoction twice (unless I wanted to).  One day it’s soup, another a main-dish salad.  Then on to a stew or dal.

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Scrambled Eggs with Greens and Mushrooms

Scrambled eggs with greens and mushrooms

When it comes to eggs, it’s tough to know what story the labels really tell.  Cage-free, free-roaming, natural, free-range:  In our minds we picture open, grass-flecked barnyards with  black dirt below and blue sky above, and plenty of room to run, extend feathered wings and peck at grubs.  In the simplest sense, a chicken’s life as it should naturally be.  It turns out that labels don’t always mean what they imply and in the case of free-range and free-roaming (the only ones regulated by the USDA), far less.  In order to apply the free-range and free-roaming label the USDA expects that producers allow hens access to the outside.  The labels don’t speak to whether birds have room to move, or actually make it out the door.  Or whether they are treated humanely and allowed to engage in natural behaviors, like pecking in the dirt.  In a free-range barnyard all of these may be true—or may not.

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Almost-Guatemalan Stuffed Squash

Stuffed Summer Squash

One of the fortuitous by-products of writing about food is that friends and acquaintances share tidbits of all sorts.  Emails arrive with bold promises:  Best Brownies Ever!  Incredulity:  Beet Cake?  And practical advice:  Dinner Tonight.  I pour over old family recipes, tips for massaging kale and recipes for tasty green smoothies even kids will love—treasured food secrets, every one.  The more I read, the more I’m struck by what I don’t know about food—and the wealth of what my fellow cooks are willing to share.

The correspondence keeps me plugging away some weeks—like a letter from home invariably will on a lonely stretch at over-night camp—and offers nuggets to ponder just when I’d thought the bottom of the barrel had been scraped.  Earlier this summer I received just such a note from my friend, Liana.  For the past two summers she and her three daughters have ventured to the colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, to spend a month immersing in the language and local culture.  And of course, the food.

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Caldo Verde

Caldo Verde Soup

Leaf lovers are grateful to kale and its current rock star status—it’s the darling of restaurant chefs and home cooks, food blogs and magazine spreads.  This jaw-exercising leaf has single handedly dragged greens into the culinary mainstream, when for generations many of us have done our best to avoid them.  The surprisingly revelation that kale is not only nutritious but tasty as well, has opened the door to a whole new ruffly green world populated by the likes of spinach and bok choy, collards, beet greens and more.

Take collards for instance:  they’ve been regulars in kitchens across the globe for eons, from Africa to India, Spain, Portugal and even the American South.  Collards are loaded with good stuff including Vitamins K, A and C, folate, manganese, calcium, iron and even protein.

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Summer Tomato Vinaigrette

Avocado with Tomato Vinaigrette

I’ve said before that summer is the season when I love to corral my kids in the kitchen to tackle a meaningful project together:  fresh lemonade, bread or a fruit pie, homemade jam, even plain old dinner.  What I haven’t confessed is that one of the often surprising by-products of these adventures is how much I learn from them.  Perhaps as much as anyone, especially considering I enter the room with a slightly overinflated feeling of mastery and general air of food know-it-all-ness.  The person with the ideas and answers.  (What?  There are others?)  Yet I can’t help but take pleasure in the topsy-turvy feeling of being hit head-on by the beautifully simple possibilities that flow through younger mouths.  Mouths that know what THEY like to eat, and with taste buds unencumbered by creativity-stifling notions of what-goes-with-what and why.  And, I must admit, why not?

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