Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Quick Hits: Lentil, Herb & Feta Stuffed Tomatoes

The months of drooling, rhapsodic fantasies about perfectly-ripened field tomatoes have finally given way to a flood of them. It's not an overabundance; that would imply too much. The simple joy of slicing a tomato, sprinkling it with salt and maybe drizzling a little olive oil over it hasn't gotten old yet, but there's so much more to do with tomatoes before you even get to cooking them. I tossed together this fresh-stuffed tomato using some left over odds and ends recently and was so excited about it that I had to recreate it and write it down to share.

The dish is built around a protein-rich lentil and grain stuffing, simply flavored with a healthy handful of fresh herbs, a little feta, and the guts of the scooped-out tomato. It may look like a salad, but it eats like a meal. I've been having a love affair this summer with bulgur, which cooks as quickly and simply as cous-cous but has more of its nutrition and hearty wheat flavor intact. However, this would be great with quinoa, millet or brown rice, too, if you're looking for a gluten-free option or have either cooked up and languishing in the fridge. White rice or cous-cous would also work, but don't have the hearty, nutty depth of flavor that the other grains have.

I've been using a goat's milk feta in this and many other dishes recently, which I recommend. In the EU, cheese labeled as feta must be made in Greece from sheep's milk, but can contain up to 30% goat's milk. Greece has a pretty compelling case for the origin of feta. It's even mentioned in the Odyssey. Feta isn't the only traditional, brine-cured white cheese, however, and as the US doesn't have the same labeling conventions, many of these are labeled as feta. Many of these are made from cow's milk. The goat feta I've been buying wouldn't qualify as feta by EU standards either, even if made in Greece, but it is really tasty. It has a less brittle quality than most feta available here; it's a little softer and, while it still has the characteristic sharp, briny tang, it has a slightly creamier profile with the warm, grassy, goaty notes familiar from chèvre. Use a different feta-style cheese, if that's what you have, but this is thoroughly worth looking up at some point.

    Lentil Herb Feta Stuffed Tomatoes

    vegetarian, optionally gluten-free
  • 2 med.-large slicing tomatoes
  • ½ c. cooked brown or green lentils
  • ½ c. cooked bulgur, quinoa or millet
  • ½ c. chopped fresh herbs (mint & parsley are key, lemon basil or oregano are nice)
  • 1-2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1-2 oz. goat feta or other feta-style cheese, crumbled
  • salt and pepper to taste
Cut the tops off of the tomatoes, cutting down at an angle around the stem. Make sure your hole is wide enough to get a spoon into. If you have good-sized plum tomatoes around that you want to use, cut into the side instead and plan on using two of those in the place of one slicer.

Using a sturdy spoon, scoop out the center flesh of the tomato onto a cutting board. You want to make a cavity as large as possible for the filling but not scoop out so much that the tomato can't stand on its own. You should be able to tell where the center meets the wall by feel. Roughly chop the tomato guts and put in a bowl 1 quart or larger.

To the chopped tomato guts, add the cooked lentil and grain. Strip the herbs off the stems and chop roughly. Stir to combine, add olive oil, crumbled cheese and salt and pepper to taste. Stuff tomatoes by spooning in filling, gently tamping it in as you go to make sure entire tomato cavity is filled. Heap filling gently on top. Don't worry about having extra filling. That is one of those problems that's not really a problem, as there's nothing in the filling to prevent you eating it as is.

This dish, like any fresh tomato, shouldn't be stored in the fridge, so if you are planning ahead, make the filling, sans tomato guts, which can be stored in the fridge for at least a week. When tomato time comes, simply scoop out the tomatoes, chop the insides, and add to the filling. Then fill the tomatoes and serve.

One last word about this dish: if you try to cut it with your fork, you're going to end up wearing it, and if you eat the filling and then the tomato, you're missing out on the whole point. This leaves you with only two ways to eat it: you can take a fork and knife to it or you can eat it with your bare hands.

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