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Leeks, lentils make versatile base for fried halloumi and more quick dinners

Leeks and lentils with fried halloumi is a quick weeknight meal.  (Rey Lopez)
Leeks and lentils with fried halloumi is a quick weeknight meal. (Rey Lopez)
By Ann Maloney Washington Post

When you build something, people always say that the key is a solid foundation. That’s what this dish, leeks and lentils with fried halloumi, provides – a hearty base for building a weeknight meal and more.

If you’ve got home-cooked lentils, use those, but reaching for canned lentils means you can pull this dish together quickly any night of the week. First, you lightly saute leeks and garlic, add stock and then flavor with a little tomato paste, mustard, thyme and lemon juice. After this combination simmers for a bit, stir in handfuls of fresh spinach for a savory mixture that can be the foundation for building vegetarian or meaty dishes.

For this recipe from “The Slimming Foodie” cookbook by Pip Payne, who writes about healthy cooking on a blog of the same name, the lentils are topped with sliced, fried halloumi – and it adds a tasty, salty, chewy balance to the mild lentils. This filling dish is made in 30 minutes.

But the reason I chose this dish is because, as Payne noted, the lentil base tastes great with so many things. She recommends roasted root vegetables, or, if you’re a meat eater, sliced fried chicken breast or pan-fried salmon fillets. Or, let each person in your household decide what to put on top. We tried it with leftover pork and even ate the lentils as-is as a quick lunch.

A home cook and mother who lives in the United Kingdom, Payne is an advocate of batch cooking, so she features recipes that can be adjusted. This recipe easily scales up, which is great because you could make a big batch and freeze it for future meals. If you want to freeze the lentils, consider leaving out the spinach and freezing the rest in an airtight container for as long as three months. Then, reheat and add fresh spinach when ready to eat.

Payne gathered 100 recipes that clock in at about 600 calories each, but our nutritional analysis came in slightly higher. That’s likely because we used olive oil in place of her suggestion of low-calorie cooking spray and about 1½ pounds of leeks – before trimming – which we thought tasted just right in testing.

Leeks and Lentils With Fried Halloumi

2 teaspoons neutral oil, such as canola or grapeseed

4 medium leeks (1½ to 2 pounds total), trimmed, cleaned and finely chopped

1 garlic clove, minced or finely grated

2 (14-ounce) cans green lentils, drained and rinsed

1 generous cup no-salt vegetable or chicken stock

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 teaspoon Dijon or stone-ground mustard

½ teaspoon dried thyme

Juice of 1 lemon

Fine sea or table salt

Finely ground black pepper

5 ounces halloumi cheese, sliced ¼-inch thick

2 large handfuls of baby spinach, coarsely chopped

Small handful of fresh parsley leaves, coarse stems removed, finely chopped, for serving

In a medium, deep-sided skillet over medium heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the leeks and saute, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring until aromatic, about 1 minute.

Add the lentils, stock, tomato paste, mustard, thyme and lemon juice. Lightly season with the salt and pepper, then stir well and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer until most of the liquid is absorbed, about 12 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, in a large, dry nonstick skillet, add the cheese slices in a single layer and sear until golden brown on each side, about 2 minutes per side; transfer to a flat plate or tray.

When the lentils are done, stir the spinach into it until wilted, then remove from the heat. Divide the mixture among serving bowls, top with the halloumi slices and scatter with the parsley. Serve warm.

Make ahead: The lentil mixture can be made as long as three days in advance.

Storage notes: Leftovers can be refrigerated for as long as five days.

Yield: 2 to 3 servings

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