>> Wednesday, February 4
“What’re THOSE?” Alessandro asked today, peering over my shoulder as I scanned eagerly through recipes on JustBento.com. He is probably the best friend I've ever had in a 5-year old, but none-the-less, a typically picky eater. We had just settled on a rice-cake with pesto for his snack, and his sauce-smeared finger swooped dangerously close to the screen as he motioned at a picture of Spicy Lentil snacks with Sesame Seeds. For once, his voice held no hint of skepticism, and I silently thanked his reading level, for being just right so that he couldn’t see that the main ingredient was lentils, something he’d never touch in native form.
I have been intrigued by bentos ever since finding them online yesterday, and I have been wanting to make some of these delicious-looking little lunch-box fillers. “Do you…” (could my luck be that good?) “do you want to try making them with me?” I ventured. He beamed an ecstatic “Yeah!” and we darted into the kitchen, digging out ingredients to see what we could come up with.
We had only about ¼ cup of dry red lentils left, so we needed to supplement, which is why the result is something much different than the original. That, and the fact that we were recreating Japanese-inspired vegan cuisine in an omnivorous Italian kitchen. First off, spicy had to go for the little guy to enjoy them, and I was on a mission to get some veggies into him, so they needed to be artfully disguised to avoid disgust. Pulling my tupperware of sliced purple cabbage out, I handed a piece to Alessandro for review. “Do you like this stuff?” He gingerly nibbled the corner and in a moment of total silence I was sure he would spit it out. Instead his eyes widened and he bounced noticeably as he said, “Wow, the purple thing is yummy!’
Bingo! It was so exciting to prepare something healthy for Alessandro that didn’t involve bread, cheese, or meat, his three favorite ingredients. He was relegated to carrot-peeling (under wary over-the-shoulder supervision…”don’t give 5-year-olds blades!” My mom’s voice seemed to echo…) and I cooked the rice. Then he retired for some Lego-building while I whipped up the other ingredients. We formed the balls together, discussing seriously techniques for making perfect ball-shapes and using good sesame-rolling technique.
“It’s all sticky. Is this enough?” he asked, the mixture smeared across his palms and one piddly lump in the middle that he focused intently on. “Well, maybe we could add a little more and then go like this (patting hands together) to make a ball.” Alessandro carefully placed one more pea on top of his mushy lump and smiled. “There, is that enough?” Sure, why not! Sure enough, we had a fantastic array of sizes and shapes when we finished. Though we ate from plates, the bento-spirit was certainly there: we each had just enough food, a healthy array of proteins, carbs, vegetables, and healthy fats, and we still managed to save some for mom and dad. Barely.
Baked Veggie-Lentil Bites with Sesame Seeds and Olives
- ½ cup dry brown rice
- ¼ cup dry red lentils
- 1 medium potato
- 2 medium-large carrots
- ¾ cup sliced purple cabbage
- ½ cup green peas (frozen, fresh, whatever)
- ½ cup sesame seeds
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary
- 2 tsp oregano
- 2 tsp mixed Italian herbs, or any combination of basil, thyme, and marjoram
- a few grates of nutmeg
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- ½ onion, diced
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tsp lemon juice
- salt and pepper to taste
- 10 kalamata olives, pitted and slices into rings
- Bring brown rice and 1 cup of water to a boil, cover, reduce heat to the lowest temperature, and cook until finished. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, put sesame seeds in a bowl with 1 cup of water to soak (activation!)
- Chop the cabbage into tiny pieces and grate the carrots as finely as possible
- Chop the potato and add to a pan with the lentils and ¾ cup water. Cover and cook until everything is soft. Leave them on the flame and mash them together with a fork, stirring to remove any excess moisture until you have a fairly uniform, sticky mixture. Set aside
- Preheat the oven to 180 C (360 F)
- In a frying pan, heat the oil and add the onions, garlic, and herbs. Sautee over low-medium heat until the onions are soft.
- Stir in the cabbage and cook, stirring, for a minute or two, until shiny.
- Add the rice and cook for another few minutes, stirring, until everything is coated with oil and herbs, but not dry.
- Mix everything together except for the sesame seeds and olives. Add salt and pepper to taste and mush everything together more, either with a fork or a hand mixer, until it is fairly pasty and most of the rice is crushed.
- Drain the water from the sesame seeds.
- When cool enough to handle, form golf-ball sized balls with the mush and roll each in the wet sesame seeds very lightly. Place on a baking sheet and stick an olive ring on top.
- Bake for about 30 minutes, checking with an occasional poke to test for solidity. They should be browned on the outside and still moist on the inside, with a strong enough outer layer to hold them firmly together. Enjoy!