Rent’s due. You’ve overspent on dining out, splurged on that amazing outfit you desperately needed, or maybe you’re just on a tight budget. I hear you. I spent my early 20s in the exact same cycle. But don’t let the fact that you’re not living like a Kardashian stop you from eating good food.
My favorite budget-friendly meal was cooking a big batch of affordable lentils and using them in different ways throughout the week. The key to making lentils actually taste good is adding a ton of aromatics ― onions, garlic, bay leaves, herbs and of course salt ― to the cooking liquid. It transforms normally dull, tasteless lentils into zesty, herbaceous legumes. You’ll never want to buy the canned stuff again.
After braising one pound of lentils, there’s enough to be turned into three completely different meals using the same base of ingredients. The first is a cold lentil salad that is great to bring for lunch for the week. With lots of vegetables, like spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots and celery, it’s a nutrition powerhouse sure to power you through those last few hours at work ― or at least until happy hour.
Next up is a vibrant vegetable lentil stew. I use the same vegetables I used in the cold salad to save on grocery costs and cut back on food waste, but change up the flavors by adding harissa paste. Harissa is a Northern African condiment that’s spicy, acidic and a little smoky. Trader Joe’s sells it for a mere $3, so it fits perfectly into budget-themed cooking.
Lastly, I use the lentils to make ricotta “meatballs.” They are divine, and you won’t even miss the meat. Ricotta prevents them from drying out while making them taste like soft, pillowy clouds of cheese. Serve them with a generous amount of store-bought pesto and a hefty garnish of Parmesan and you won’t even realize you’re living paycheck to paycheck.
Here’s to cheap eats that don’t taste cheap.
1 pound dried green lentils, rinsed
2 bay leaves
6 garlic cloves
4 parsley stems
1 onion, ends trimmed, peeled and cut in half lengthwise
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1. Add all of the ingredients to large pot.
2. Cover with at least 3 inches of water.
3. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to simmer.
4. Cook, uncovered, for about 20 to 25 minutes, until lentils are soft, but not mushy. They should still hold their shape and have a little bite to them.
5. Drain and discard aromatics.
Roasted Vegetable Lentil Salad with Feta
2 medium carrots, peeled and diced into 1-inch pieces
1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
1/2 red onion, sliced into 1/2-inch half-moons
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
3 cups cooked lentils
2 stalks celery, minced
1/4 cup celery leaves, chopped
1 cup fresh spinach, chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons sunflower seeds (or your favorite nut)
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
Kosher salt and pepper
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Place carrots, sweet potato and red onion on large baking sheet. Toss with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Season with salt. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown and tender, tossing halfway through.
3. In a large bowl, combine roasted vegetables with cooked lentils. Add celery, celery leaves, spinach, parsley and sunflower seeds.
4. Drizzle remaining olive oil and lemon juice over top. Toss to combine, and season with salt and pepper. Gently fold in feta and toss one more time.
Harissa Lentil Stew
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 red onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 stalks celery, diced
1 small sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/3-inch pieces
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon harissa paste
3 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf
1 cup cooked lentils
2 cups fresh spinach
Kosher salt and pepper
Shaved Parmesan, optional
Fresh parsley, chopped
1. Heat olive oil in pot over medium heat.
2. Add onion, carrots, celery and sweet potatoes. Sauté for about 5 minutes.
3. Add garlic and cook another minute.
4. Add tomatoes, harissa paste, stock, bay leaf and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Bring to boil, then reduce to simmer and cook for 25 minutes, until sweet potatoes are cooked.
5. Add lentils and spinach and cook until spinach is wilted. Check for seasoning and add salt if needed.
6. Garnish with Parmesan and parsley before serving.
Ricotta Lentil Meatballs
3 cups cooked lentils
1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup ricotta
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup Italian breadcrumbs
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Add lentils to bowl of food processor. Pulse a few times to slightly mash it up.
3. Add egg, ricotta, Parmesan, garlic powder, salt and breadcrumbs. Pulse a few more times, mixing until just combined. Scrape down sides of bowl as needed to fully incorporate all of the ingredients.
4. Use a large cookie dough scoop to portion out into 1 1/2-inch balls.
5. Place on parchment-lined baking tray and bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until tops are golden brown.
6. Serve with pesto drizzled on top.