Spinach lentil ragout over pasta [Vegetarian]

Jaymi's Notes:
What stands out about this recipe is how much the cinnamon adds to it. The lentils are simmered with a cinnamon stick, and while subtle, the flavor they absorb makes all the difference in the dish as a whole. It brings a wonderful depth and complexity to the flavor, without anything actually tasting like cinnamon. This plus the spice from the cayenne pepper create an outstanding dish that would otherwise run the risk of being rather boring.

We aren't big pasta eaters around here and have been trying to go gluten-free, so I chose a pasta that has fun colors and texture, and is made of brown rice flour as our gluten-free option. I loved how the spiral shapes added bounce and airiness to the casserole, and the colors matched those of the lentils, spinach and carrots which made the whole dish quite cheerful looking. You can go with the shells as recommended, or really any pasta that you'd like.

Over all, this is one of my top favorite meals eaten in weeks, and that's saying something considering how many recipes I've cooked recently! More on The Cooking Project.

© Jaymi Heimbuch
Kelly's Recipe:

After the very rich butternut squash pasta dinner that we indulged in the other night, my husband and I were craving something a little lighter and healthier.

In fact I was rather surprised when he suggested I make something with lentils. I reached for The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook by Kim O'Donnel which I have been reading and using quite a bit lately.This is an excellent book for people who are trying to eat less meat in their diet, especially those who may be having a hard time achieving that goal. It's also a wonderful book for people who are already vegetarian, with lots of variety. Every time I open this book, I find something else I want to make. Not only that, everything I have made from it has been good, and are things I would make again. Like many cookbooks these days, it is organized by season, so right now I'm spending most of my time reading the second half of the book with the fall and winter recipes.

The writing is breezy and readable and the recipes are explained well. I like that O'Donnel admits to some food dislikes which is pretty rare in a cookbook. She also lets you know at a glance which recipes are gluten-free, kid friendly, vegan, dairy optional and those which produce leftovers, which is helpful.

My one quibble with the book is the page layout. The ingredients are laid out next to the instructions, rather than above them. That means if the recipe runs for more than one page the rest of the ingredients are listed on the next page. Imagine reading the recipe to see what you need, then halfway through cooking, turning the page to discover that there are a bunch more ingredients listed that you didn't know you needed. It makes for a bit of confusion initially, and after that it's just a bit of an annoyance. There aren't a lot of photographs, but that's okay with me. This cookbook is more about good tasting, hearty vegetarian meals than arty pictures.

I really wanted to make the Shepherd's Pie with Chard and Lentil Filling, but it took more time than I had, so I'll have to save that for another day. The lentils with spinach sounded just as good, so I went with that. I didn't actually stuff the shells with the lentil ragout, because I had smaller shells, so I just poured the sauce over the pasta. I used the last of the chard from my garden, rather than spinach, and all in all, it was a very tasty meal. We had the leftovers today for lunch and it was quite good the next day.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Stuffed Shells with Lentil Ragout and Spinach

1 small cinnamon stick
1/4 medium-size onion, peeled but left intact, plus 1/2 onion minced
1/2 cup dried brown or green lentils
3 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 package jumbo pasta shells (about 20 pieces)
3 tbsp olive oil
1 medium-size carrot, peeled and diced
1 celery stalk, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup red wine (make sure it is vegan)
1 sprig fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp dried
2 1/2 cups tomato puree
1/4 tsp cayenne
Ground black pepper
4 cups spinach, washed thoroughly, stems removed and finely chopped
Parmesan cheese for garnish (optional - omit for vegan version)

1. Bring 1 cup water to a boil with cinnamon stick and the intact 1/4 onion in a small saucepan. Add the lentils, cover and lower the heat to low. Cook for 25 minutes. Discard the cinnamon and onion. Add 1/2 tsp of the salt and stir.

2. In a large saucepan, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil. Add the shells and 2 teaspoons of the salt and cook for 12 minutes; the shells will still be a little tacky. Drain and transfer to a baking sheet to cool. Untangle the shells to prevent sticking.

3. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat and add the carrot, celery, the minced 1/2 onion, and garlic. Stir and cook until softened, about 8 minutes. Add the wine and thyme, allowing the wine to reduce for about 2 minutes. Add the tomato puree and cayenne, stir to combine, and cook over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes. Add the lentils and cook for an additional 5 to 10 minutes. Add the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt and the black pepper, and taste, adding more as you see fit. Discard the thyme sprig, if using fresh. Stir in the spinach, turn off the heat, and cover.

4. Heat the oven to 350F. Ladle a small amount of ragout into a square or rectangular baking dish. Line up the shells in dish, then with a small spoon, fill each shell with the ragout. Top off the shells with a ladleful of ragout, followed by cheese, if using. Bake for 30 minutes.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

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