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Photo by Anne Braly

With area gardens burgeoning with vine-ripe tomatoes and wonderfully fresh zucchini, you may wonder what to do with all of Mother Nature's bounty. Both are equally delicious on their own, there's no doubt. But what about combining the two in a way you've never considered?

With lentils, cheese, seasonings, tomatoes and zucchini stuffed inside a large portabella mushroom, you have an incredible side dish or an entree, depending on the size of the mushroom. Serve it as a vegetarian dinner or pair it with chicken or steak from the grill.

The following recipe was created by mother-daughter team Tracy and Terry Paulding. They partnered up to open a full catering kitchen in the heart of San Francisco and created this dish in order to have a "vegetarian entree that had a depth of flavor, while providing a substantial amount of protein," Tracy Paulding says. "It's a dish that will satisfy and nourish."

She says one of the risks of omitting meat from your diet is the common substitution of carbs for protein. But there are foods such as beans that offer protein. And French lentils are great because they can be cooked from a dry state rather than having to soak overnight. So in almost no time they are cooked and hold their shape and texture very nicely.

"We recommend trying them if you haven't," she says. "And the smoked paprika gives the dish a unique flavor."

One of the things I really like about this dish is that you can use whatever cheese you want and also play with the seasonings. Add some fresh basil or oregano, maybe a little cayenne pepper for a little spice. Or really switch things around and add some cumin, a Mexican cheese blend and black beans rather than lentils.

"Adding fresh herbs from the garden is always a great idea," Paulding says.

While gardens are at their peak, there's no better time to give this recipe a try.

Baked and Stuffed Portabella Mushrooms

1 medium zucchini

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/3 cup French lentils

4 fresh portabella mushrooms, about 3 inches in diameter

1 small red onion

2 large garlic cloves

2 medium tomatoes

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon each, mild and picante smoked paprika

Kosher or sea salt and pepper, to taste

Juice of 1/2 small lemon (about 1 tablespoon; if you have extra, save to add if needed)

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1/2 cup grated Manchego cheese or any other interesting, not bland, cheese

Garlic-butter bread crumbs, optional

Grate the zucchini on the large holes of a grater, then place in a bowl with the kosher salt. Let stand while you do the rest of the vegetable prep (you can do all the prep the day before or in the morning, then refrigerate until ready to bake and eat). Drain zucchini and squeeze dry in a clean towel. Set aside.

Combine the picked over and rinsed lentils with 1 1/2 cups water in a small pot, bring to a boil, turn the flame down, and cook 15 minutes or until almost tender. Drain and set aside.

Remove the stem from each mushroom by snapping it carefully out of the cap, then chop the stems fine. Fine-chop the onion and add to the mushroom stems. Peel and mince the garlic.

Cut the stem from each tomato, make an "X" in the bottom with a knife, and either blanch for 10 seconds in boiling water or quickly grill over an open flame — the gas flame on your stove works well. You want the skin to loosen so you can pull it off without cooking the tomatoes. Chop the skinned tomatoes, removing seeds if there are a lot. Have these ingredients near the stove before you start to cook.

Sauté onions and mushrooms in olive oil, seasoning well with salt and pepper. Add the garlic and drained zucchini, then cook and stir briefly to combine the ingredients. Add chopped tomatoes and season well with both types of smoked paprika; taste the mixture; it should be smoky and a bit spicy and also a little salty.

Fold in the cooked lentils. Taste and season with more salt and pepper, as needed. Add the lemon juice. Cook for 2 minutes, or until the mixture is juicy but not runny; taste once more and adjust seasonings if needed, including more lemon juice, then remove from the heat and fold in half the cheese.

Stuff mushrooms with the mixture and top with remaining cheese and bread crumbs, if desired.

Heat oven to 350-375 degrees. You can put the mushrooms in with any other thing you're roasting since the temperature is a bit flexible. Place mushrooms on a parchment-covered, lightly oiled baking sheet. Bake for about 12-15 minutes, until the mushrooms are soft and juicing out a bit, and the filling is toasty with nicely browned cheese and crispy bread crumbs. If you've refrigerated the mushrooms, you may need a bit more cooking time. Serve hot.

Makes 4 side dish or 2 main courses, depending on size of mushrooms.

Note: Look for French lentils at stores such as Whole Foods and Earth Fare.

New cookware

I've always been a fan of All-Clad cookware. It has a sleek look with sturdy stainless-steel handles welded to three layers of tough, bonded nonstick coating that won't scratch your cooktop or warp over the years, the scourge of most cheap cookware.

Recently, All Clad came out with a new line, HA1 Hard Anodized, that can go from dishwasher to stovetop to oven. It's a remarkably versatile product that will have you cooking like a professional chef.

There are certain household items that are worth paying a little more for. Cookware is one of them. If you buy the best, you save money in the long run — good pots and pans will last for years.

The HA1 line retails for $500 for a 10-piece set or $600 for 13 pieces. Open-stock items are also available if you want to give it a test run before investing in an entire set. Check it out at www.macys.com.

New seasonings

McCormick came out with the first seasoning in a grinder container — salt —years ago, and now, the company has upped the ante with spices in grinders, including basil and an Italian seasoning blend. While they're not as flavorful as fresh, they're certainly a step up from spices that have been pre-ground and sitting on the store shelves for who knows how long. Check out this new line next time you're in your grocery store's spice aisle.

Contact Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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