Home-Cooked Sundays: Lentil Mushroom Chili

If you thought lentils were boring hippie fare, think again.
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These days, it seems everyone's going "flexitarian." We're dabbling in meatless on Mondays, gluten-free on Tuesdays, and some other dietary decree the rest of the week. Then, come the weekend, we let loose. Balance reigns inside our kitchens; outside, bring on the decadence.

It's all quite sensible, actually. But on a particularly cold weeknight, after a stressful day, I wasn't in the mood for moderation. Salad was not going to cut it, and neither was tofu. What I really wanted was a warm, tasty bowl of reassurance, crammed with flavor and conviction, served up in half an hour.

This chili recipe answered all my cravings. A hearty lentil stew full of spicy gusto, it's got both comfort and convenience covered. It comes together effortlessly, with ingredients you probably already have on hand. And if you thought lentils were boring hippie fare, think again.

Nutrient-packed and amenable to endless preparations, lentils can dress a meal up or down. Cook them ahead of time -- like grains and quinoa -- in a rice steamer, with a pinch of salt and a glug of olive oil. Then keep them in the freezer in resealable bags, ready to toss into soups, tacos, veggie burgers or vegan meatballs. With thirty minutes of cooking time banked for later, you'll have a cozy one-pot dinner ready in a snap.

Serve the chili with tortilla chips or over brown rice, quinoa, or couscous. Mound it into a roasted sweet potato, acorn squash or eggplant. Or serve it inside a toasted bun, Sloppy Joe-style. I like to ladle it into warmed bowls and top it with a swirl of sour cream, grated cheese, diced avocado and sliced scallions.

It's a delicious combination of restraint and indulgence. And if this is what sensible tastes like, I'll have another bowl, please.

Serves 6-8

2 tablespoons unrefined coconut oil, unsalted organic butter or vegan butter
2 large carrots, diced (about 1 cup)
1 medium onion, diced (about 1 ½ cups)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 large Portobello mushroom caps (about 6 ounces), diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 ½ cups precooked lentils (from 1 cup dried), or 1 ½ cups dried, any color
1 teaspoon fresh thyme or oregano leaves or ½ teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon chile powder
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 ounces tomato paste
½ can (6 ounces) beer or ½ cup leftover red wine
1 cup homemade vegetable stock
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard (I like Maille brand)

Garnish (as you wish): sliced scallions, grated cheese, sour cream or plain yogurt, diced avocado, tortilla chips

1. In a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, heat the oil over a medium flame. Sauté the carrots and onions until soft (about 3 minutes), seasoning with salt and pepper. Add the mushrooms and garlic; continue to sauté until soft and beginning to brown, stirring frequently to prevent burning (about 5 minutes).

2. Add the herbs, spices, and tomato paste. Stir and continue cooking until fragrant (2 minutes or so). Now add the cooked lentils and beer or wine (if using dried lentils, double the amount of liquid). Stir to combine, allowing the alcohol to cook off. Finally, stir in the stock and mustard. Bring to a simmer; then lower the flame and cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, to a thick stew-like consistency, 7 to 10 minutes (if using dried lentils, cover and cook over a low flame until the lentils are soft, about 30 minutes). Add more broth if the chili gets too dry.

3. Taste and adjust the seasonings as desired. Then ladle the chili into serving bowls. Serve piping hot, with garnishes on top or on the side.