Cheap, Easy, Delicious: African Lentil Casserole

This is not a new recipe to our blog, but it was posted way back at the beginning and it has played such a constant role in both our menu and Little Sis’ family menu that I can’t help but share a slight variation in hopes that it will catch some people who missed the original,.  Maybe the new spice profile will appeal to those who passed up on the original as well!

As boring as the name is, ‘Lentil Casserole’ packs a lot of bang for the buck…… or maybe a buck and a half.  Literally.  Dried lentils and dried brown rice lay the inexpensive groundwork for this hearty meal that gains great flavor with spices and in this case spinach.  My picky son really likes this and finds it ‘thermos worthy’ (to take to school for lunch).  Both my husband and I like it as well and when I heated some leftovers at work the other day, I was asked 3 times what smelled so good.  Just my little ‘ol cheap-o lentil casserole, no cause for excitement ;-)!

The ‘African’ part of the title comes from Tabil spice mix but this dish can be made with Italian spices, as in the original, or Mexican spices, or whatever you think will get your people’s attention!  Tabil is not necessarily easy to come by, but you can buy it or you can make your own.  Admittedly, using this spice mix can increase the cost of this dish a bit, as if you buy prepared it is expensive, and if you have to invest in the spices, it is expensive at first….. but very worth it in the long run and less expensive than buying.

This can be cooked in a crockpot over about 4 hours or on the stovetop in 45 – 60 minutes.  The beauty of the stovetop method is that once the onions are sauteed and the water is boiling, there is not much more to do, so it’s not a labor intensive hour and therefore gets cooked when we have forgotten to plan but are not yet starving!

African Lentil Casserole

1 – 2 tsp oil
1 & 1/2 c chopped fresh onion
2 clove garlic, mashed
6c veggie or chicken broth (I use ‘Better Than Bouillon – Vegetable‘ or this cheaper make your own version -FYI I don’t use sundried tomatoes when I follow that recipe as they gummed up my food processor)
1 & 1/2 c lentils
1 c brown rice
1 Tbsp Tabil spice mix
2 – 3 large handfuls of spinach

Saute chopped onion and garlic in the oil in a large pot if you are cooking on the stove, in a small saucepan if transferring to crock pot.
Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot of crock pot except for the spinach
CROCKPOT:
Cook on low for 2 hours, high for 2 hours.
About 15 minutes before eating or being done, add the spinach and stir, let cook until spinach is wilted.

STOVETOP:
After sauteeing onion and garlic add the rest of the ingredients except for spinach.  Bring to a boil, turn down heat and simmer, stirring occasionally for 45 – 60 minutes.  Just before serving, add spinach and cook until wilted.

It looks like a lot of spinach but it cooks down into MUCH less.

Pot of steaming lentils, rice and spices

Pot of steaming lentils, rice and spices

 

 

Put those handfuls in there….

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Then stir the spinach in…..

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Not so spinach-y that the finicky will be repelled 😉

And there you have it.  Cheap. Easy. Tasty.

Enjoy!

Go Back Jack – Baby Steps Check In

You go back Jack, do it again.

So says Steely Dan.  And so says the Baby Steps approach to healthy eating.

How are you coming along?  Successes?  Failures?

Build on the successes & Learn from the failures, and most importantly, do it again.

Make that choice again.

Making changes can be much easier with a buddy.  Do you have a friend or relative (or maybe you’re lucky and have both in one like my Little Sis) who would like to eat healthier and look and feel better?  Why not share the Baby Steps with him or her.  Tell your Buddy what you are doing and invite them to come along.  You can even post our Baby Steps button on your blog and invite friends that way.  (The link is on the sidebar).  The more the merrier and the more people eating healthier, the cheaper and more plentiful healthy food will become… in restaurants & schools, at events & practices and in the grocery store.  But it has to start with us, in our homes, in our pantries and in our refrigerators.

And now is a great time to re-check Baby Steps #1 & #2

Baby Step #1 –The ol’ Switcheroo.  What did you switch?  I switched apple butter for maple syrup on breakfast foods.  I’ve had some successes and a couple of failures… but the apple butter is in the fridge and I’ll have more chances to make the switcheroo.  Time for another switcheroo?  Did you find something in your pantry that you know you should live without?  We found too many chips.  We get the ‘healthier’ versions when they’re on sale (by this I mean natural ingredients, good oils, low calorie doesn’t mean healthy, i.e. read the labels), but we’ve begun mixing in more triscuits when making a snack of chips and also substituting popcorn.

Baby Step #2 – Be Fearless, Be Honest

Be conscious of what you are eating and why you are eating it.  Is it for comfort?  Is it for convenience?  Is it for cost?  What can you switch or eat less often on the list of things you know you’d be better off without.  And again, it’s often time to go back to Baby Step #1.  Switching, not losing.  Replacing, by type of food and by function (comfort, convenience, cost).

If you haven’t checked on your pantry yet… give it a go.  Here’s a refresher for Baby Step #3.  Below I’ll give you some links to recipes Little Sis and I use with our standard pantry items.

Brown rice: Sweet potatoes and brown rice for breakfast?  Yes!

Brown rice and lentil casserole dirt cheap and kid friendly
Stir fry using rice
Lentil and oat ‘neatloaves’
quinoa main dish called kichadi – lots of room for variety!
another quinoa main dish with whatever veggies you’ve got : When time runs out on dinner
My personal favorite sweet substitute – Brownie Bites and
an awesome sauce Little Sis came up with that will dress up whatever you’ve got!  Pasta, grains, meat, veggies.  Fabu Asian Peanut sauce

Please feel free to search our site, send us questions, ask us for encouragement.  We’d love to keep your toes pointed in the right direction while you take those Baby Steps towards healthier eating.  You might be behind us, or you might be in front of us but we’re all on the road together so make sure to wave and smile.

No More Number 4 Combos…

Fabulous Friday!!  What better time to continue our thrifty examination of nutritious lunch options?  To get us ready for next week, I’d like to outline some basic strategies that I’ve used to prevent fast food infractions.  Take a look and, if you are a lunch eater outer (my daughter’s nomenclature), maybe it’s time to take a baby step and choose one strategy to try next week.  If you already bring lunch, but find that your mid-day meal is a little yawnsville, maybe one of these strategies can add a little skip to your step.

Option 1: Big Sis made some awesome suggestions for Straight-Up and Mix It Up Leftovers  Remember… the remains of last night’s dinner will not stay edible; they will begin the inevitable transformation that occurs in the back corner of your refrigerator that ends with a mysterious noxious odor.  (Ever thrown a food storage container away JUST TO AVOID OPENING IT?  Yes, you have.  I have too.)  To add to the grocery list?  Slightly more for each dinner you prepare and a container to put it in if you don’t have a plastic yogurt tub you can use.  Done.

Here’s one of our favorite (super cheap) family dinners that makes plenty of leftovers, freezes beautifully, and is very flexible, so you can add other elements to it as you see fit.  We always make a double batch and lately I’ve been adding sauteed mushrooms and celery.  This recipe came from a fun old book on my shelf, The Tightwad Gazette.  If you come across a copy at a yard sale or second hand book store, grab it.  There are a lot of thrifty treasures in there.

Leftoverlicious Lentil Casserole – I always double this.

  • 3c veggie or chicken broth
  • 3/4c lentils
  • 1/2c brown rice
  • 3/4c chopped fresh onion
  • 1/2t sweet Basil
  • 1/4t oregano
  • 1/4t thyme
  • 1 clove garlic, mashed
  • 1/2c shredded cheese (Completely Optional)

I have found the Crock Pot to be the best method for this casserole.  Place all ingredients in crock.  Cook on low for 2 hours, high for 2 hours.  If you are using cheese, spread it on the top of the casserole for the last 25 minutes of cooking.  I assume you could simply leave it on low for longer, but I usually need it to be done sooner rather than later.  So there you are, a hands-off Sunday dinner that will make lunch too!

Option 2: Burritos/Wraps/Sandwiches  Big Sis mentioned using your leftovers in many clever ways and one of the smartest disguises is plopping that stuff in a tortilla and adding whatever salsa or veggie dip floats your boat.  Or throw a bunch of veggies you don’t usually eat on a sandwich into a wrap with some kind of sauce or spread.  That takes about 30 seconds.  Wrap it up and put it in bag with a piece of fruit and a carrot, another 30.  1 minute express lunch.  To add to your grocery list?  A package of whole grain tortillas or flatbread, salsa, and wax paper to wrap.  Done.

Option 3: Weekend Prep.  Weekend prep may mean making a casserole or whipping up a large batch of beans and rice or something else that is sort of flexible – remember that riffing on a theme idea?  Beans and rice with cheese and salsa; beans and rice with tomatoes and lemon juice; beans and rice with soy sauce, peas and spring onions;  beans and rice with mango and cilantro; beans and rice with sour cream, chili powder and lime juice.  You get the idea.  Not a bean fan?  Quinoa is another heavy hitter in this department as it has protein built right in.  Just make a ginormous pot of quinoa and then riff on it all week, using various bits or adding small portions of leftovers that you would normally throw away because they’re “too small to keep.”  To add to your grocery list?  Beans and rice or quinoa, some bits to go with if you don’t have any of those listed above.  Container if you don’t have one.  Done.

Option 4: The Random Grab One of my all-time favorite bagged lunches included whole grain bread, an avocado, and an apple.  Grab all three, throw in bag (with knife carefully wrapped) – 40 seconds.  At work spread avocado on bread (and sprinkle with a little salt if you’re me).  Eat until almost satisfied.  Eat the apple.  Done.  Delish.  I’ve also been know to random grab handfuls of things and snack throughout the day rather than having a specific lunch.  This would look more like grabbing the bag of almonds, a piece of fruit, a cucumber (or some other hand holdable vegetable), some cheese.  Done.  Munch.  To buy at the store?  The beauty of the random grab, is that you don’t technically have to buy anything extra at the store.  I must confess that the random grab approach assumes some level of pantry proficiency.  If you are not at least scoring an average in pantry proficiency, I would suggest one of the other options. 😉

Option 5: The Backup Plan If you are fortunate enough to have a refrigerator where you work, it may be in your best interest to keep a backup plan there.  For me this was good bread and peanut butter.  While I love both, it is not something I would choose to eat on a daily basis; however, if I was unable to get lunch together or needed a snack, or when I was pregnant with twins and it was time for third breakfast, there was my friend the bread with peanut butter.  Add a few raisins and you’ve got yourself a party.  How about trying some hummus instead?  Prepare it on Sunday and take it in to work in a container on Monday with your nice bread or whole grain crackers.  To buy at the store?  Whole grain bread, peanut butter, hummus ingredients if that’s the way you want to roll.  Container if you need one.  Done.

You never need order from the Dollar Menu again, or refer to your lunch as a Number 4 Combo.  Now start researching vacation possibilities and thinking about how nice it will be to not feel completely tired and little sicky-full for an hour and a half after lunch every day.