For as many years as I can remember, my Baba’s favorite Christmas gift was a ‘food box’ from my parents containing her favorite grocery and pantry items. Each year the same old sturdy tomato box was dug out of the garage with the top pre-wrapped for easy opening and re-use. This tradition initially started as my grandmother would claim that she didn’t need anything for Christmas. Year after year we would give her a nice scarf or a new sweater and she would always shrug or shake her head and exclaim- this is unnecessary, I don’t need this. Then, one year, my parents gave her a box of groceries and her eyes widened with joy. There, in front of her, were bags of dried beans, flour (King Arthur of course – the only flour she would touch), coffee, sugar, and each year a few varied treats such as molasses or hot chocolate. Opening the box would always prompt a range of stories of what she might make for various upcoming events. My favorite stories were when she talked about cooking for church feasts, when she would make 100 pounds of mashed potatoes, or 50 dozen pierogi to sell at the holiday bake sale.
This past Christmas my dad carried on this tradition by gifting my brother and me each our own food box! Adding a new layer, he filled the box with all of the contents necessary to make this dish – including the recipe photocopied from his files (from the Brain Power Cookbook). He has set a high bar, as this dish was straightforward to prepare and filled with flavor. Dad, if you are reading this, I think this is a tradition you should continue!
The original recipe called for eggplant and zucchini but I chose to substitute mushrooms and spinach instead. The process was fairly straightforward with the bulk of the prep happening on the stove. In one pot you boil potatoes and then mash them up to your liking. We kept the skins on, which is a family favorite. Then, on another burner, you saute vegetables on low, add and brown some meat, then mix in some tomato paste and seasoning. After each layer is added to a large baking dish it goes into the oven for 15 minutes. We had enough for dinner and lunches for a few days.
- 2/3 cup of dried lentils
- 2 cups of chicken broth (optional)
- 3 potatoes
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small onion – finely diced
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 pound lean ground beef
- 2 cups of mushrooms – chopped
- 4 cups of raw spinach
- 1/2 cup tomato paste
- 1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon of dried parsley
- 1/4 cup milk
- Crushed red pepper, salt and pepper to taste
Steps and Notes:
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Simmer the lentils in 2 cups of chicken broth for 20 minutes. Add a bay leaf for flavor.
- Note: Water would be fine here as well
- Wash the potatoes and cut into large chunks. Then, bring a medium pot of water to boil and add the potatoes. Boil for 20 minutes until soft. When done, drain, place in a clean bowl, and mash with the milk.
- Meanwhile, as the lentils and potatoes cook, heat the oil in a large pan. Add the onions as well as some salt and pepper. Cook on low for 5 minutes until soft. Then, add the garlic and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the chopped mushrooms last and cook – still on low – for 10 minutes. Add 2 Tablespoons of the potato water to the vegetables as they cook.
- Note: I have no idea if this does anything, but my grandmother always raved about potato water, so I went for it.
- After about 8 minutes, push the vegetables to the side of the pan and add the ground beef. Cook until well browned stirring occasionally making sure to leave it chunky.
- Once the meat is fully cooked add the spinach and fully combine the contents of the pan. Then, add the tomato paste, lentils and herbs. Season with salt, ground pepper, and some crushed red pepper.
- In a glass baking dish, layer the veggie/meat mixture first and then top with the mashed potatoes.
- Cook uncovered for 15 minutes until the potatoes are nicely browned.
- Let sit for 5 minutes and then serve!
Thoughts for Next Time:
- The original recipe suggested lean ground venison as a substitute for the beef
- Adjust the herbs to include fresh rosemary or a pinch of thyme
- The original recipe also suggested pureeing the vegetables as a way to hid them (brilliant!)
- Make the mashed potatoes even creamier by whipping them or adding butter (this, however, clearly reduces the heart healthy element)
- This vegan meatloaf with lentils and quinoa looks SO good!