Veggie Loaf by Erin Brady

It’s viewers’ choice this week and I have a good one for you! One of my most frequent requests is the “freezer-friendly meal”, so here is one of my favorite frozen dinner recipes – Veggie Loaf. From now on, I will try to mention when any recipe freezes well and how to prepare it for freezing.

I originally got the inspiration for a veggie loaf from Giada De Laurentis on her show Everyday Italian. Although her ideas and concepts were brilliant, she called it vegetarian when clearly it wasn’t STRICTLY vegetarian. Although I am not the carnivore I once was, I also have never eliminated meat or animal products from my diet. But many people I know have done so to varying degrees. There are vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy, or just fish and eggs but not dairy, or dairy products but no fish…Then there’s everything in between, all the way to vegan. Knowing this, I am going to give options and substitutes for a couple of things so that this can work for any audience. That is the cool thing about cooking your own food: you can make it exactly the way you want it.

You may notice that this entry is a long one. There are more ingredients than my usual weekly recipes, and definitely more steps. Stay calm and read on, my friends. Yes, there are a lot of steps, but every one is simple and doesn’t take long. One thing that helps me with a recipe like this is to lay out all my ingredients and cooking tools before I start so I don’t have to scramble when I need something. This is a great recipe to make at a time when you have some time. Double the recipe and cook one loaf for dinner and the second for the freezer. Doubling it will take very little extra effort on your part.

I love the heartiness of this veggie loaf. It’s a comfort food for sure! The rice and barley give it heft and starchiness. The veggies add so much flavor and texture. The mushrooms add meatiness without meat. And the Checca sauce – oh man! It’s basically salsa, except it has basil in it instead of cilantro. It’s a great fake-out to make a frozen dish seem freshly-made. I love to have a frozen dish baking (that was prepared weeks before) and then add this sauce (or fresh herbs or lemon.) Not only does it amplify the flavor, but it gives the whole meal that “this was just made” feeling. Plus I can use any leftover Checca sauce for pasta or just to dip bread in!

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Veggie Loaf Ingredients:
• ¾ cup lentils (about 5 oz.)
I bought a pound of dried lentils (you can choose any color) for less than $1.50. Since they can cook with the rice I went with dried. If you want to save about five minutes cooking time, you can find pre-cooked lentils at most grocery stores, usually in the produce section. They cost around five bucks and are about one family-size dish worth. I use them often. Sometimes I just need to pay the extra money for the convenience.
• 3 ½ cups reduced sodium vegetable broth
I always buy low-sodium broth. I want to control the flavor and salt content in my recipes. You can also use chicken stock or even water If you like. Beef stock would add fantastic richness.
• 1 cup short-grain rice
You can pick brown or white. I picked brown today because I like the nutty flavor. I prefer short grain rice for this dish as it usually cooks up a bit stickier, but long grain is just fine.
• ¼ cup pearl barley
Barley adds a nice creamy texture when mixed in with the rice. You can omit this if you don’t have it on hand.
• 1 white onion
Really any color onion will do.
• ¾ cup shredded carrots
I was lazy and just bought a bag of shredded carrots. But you can use whole carrots – just grate them by hand or with a food processor.
• 3 celery ribs*
If you have large stalks, just two would be fine. But I usually add more veg (sometimes 3 times more!) than a recipe calls for. I love to get as much vegetable into my family as I can. I remember when I was pregnant and Jessica Seinfeld came out with that book about hiding vegetables in foods so kids will eat them, I thought, “Why don’t you just teach your kids to love vegetables? If they don’t know they are eating them, how do they know they are important or delicious?” I still 100% believe that. I don’t hide the vegetables. But I also rarely serve them just as a side, or plain steamed. I like them to be part of the entrée as well as the side dishes. Healthy should never equal boring!
• 1 (10 oz.) bag frozen spinach*
If you feel like wilting fresh spinach, go right ahead and more power to you. Frozen spinach (with no additives or preservatives) is one thing I try to always have in my freezer. It’s a great thing to add into things like casseroles, dips or spreads. I buy fresh constantly, but frozen spinach definitely has a place. First of all, to get the 10 oz. of fresh you’d have to cook about 10 cups. Second, since we aren’t serving the wilted spinach on its own, we don’t NEED it to be fresh. We can let the spinach guys do it for us. We are going to be defrosting it and then mixing it into a whole bunch of other fresh flavors and either baking or re-freezing.
• 1 lb. whole mushrooms, wiped clean with a damp rag
Use any kind of mushroom you prefer. I am using porcinis today (which, by the way, are baby portabellas). Shitake would be fantastic. You could also sub soy sauce for the balsamic and add ginger, sesame oil and scallions to the cooking rice and make a veggie loaf with Asian flavors. OMG – I know what is going on my next shopping list!
• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
It doesn’t have to be a fancy one. It’s going to get reduced, so we will intensify the flavor there. Trader Joe’s has several varieties of balsamic vinegars that are inexpensive and they’ve never let me down.
• 2 sprigs fresh thyme
Thyme is slightly lemony and very earthy. It’s a wonderful herb to add meatiness to a dish.
• Kosher salt & black pepper
• 2 eggs
The eggs are a pure binding agent. They will keep the loaf together. If you don’t want to use eggs for whatever reason, I would use cooked plain oatmeal. Basically 1/3 cup of oatmeal equals 1 egg. You could also just add it in dry and it will still work well.
• ¾ cup parmesan cheese
Again, if you’re going vegan then just omit this ingredient.
• 2 large tomatoes
Any tomatoes will do just fine.

Checca Sauce Ingredients:
• 1 pint grape tomatoes
Cherry tomatoes* will work too. Also canned tomatoes would work in a pinch.
• 2 scallions (just the white and pale green parts)
• 1-3 cloves garlic, peeled
• 8-10 fresh basil leaves
• 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
I like to use extra virgin for raw sauces.
• Kosher salt & black pepper

*These are part of the dirty dozen high pesticide veggies, so aim for organic!

Veggie Loaf Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place lentils in sauce pan and cover with cold water. Bring water just to a boil and then drain, rinse and set aside. (Skip this step if you are using the pre-cooked lentils.)

Meanwhile, bring vegetable stock to a boil in a large sauce pan. Add rice and pearl barley & return to a boil. Decrease heat to low, cover and allow to simmer for about 10 minutes without stirring.

Peel & finely chop the onion and celery. Stir them in along with the lentils and carrot. Add a heavy pinch of kosher salt. Cover and continue cooking without stirring until the rice, lentil and barley are tender and the liquid is absorbed – about 30 – 35 minutes. By putting some of the veggies in now, we are further infusing the broth while cooking everything.

Meanwhile, remove the stems from your mushrooms and set aside. Chop mushroom caps into a little larger than bite-size pieces. Finely chop the stems and add them into the rice mixture. Adding the stems to the broth will add meatiness to the overall dish.

Drizzle the 3 tablespoons olive oil into a large skillet and warm over medium heat. Toss in the mushroom caps and give them a heavy pinch of kosher salt. Sauté for about 10 minutes until mushrooms start to brown. The scene in “Julie and Julia” is true – if you crowd the mushrooms, they won’t brown as much. The mushrooms will also reduce quite a bit; that’s why we chopped big pieces. Once they are browned, add the thyme leaves and balsamic vinegar. Stir frequently for the first few minutes, then occasionally for another five. Remove from heat and set aside. The thyme is going to help bring out the mushroom’s meaty flavor and the balsamic helps give it almost a steak-like taste. I also sometimes add a pinch of Worcestershire sauce!

Empty bag of frozen spinach into strainer and run under warm water until defrosted (about 3 minutes). Squeeze the excess water out of the spinach and set aside. There is a ton of water in fresh or defrosted spinach. You’ve just got to drain it by hand. I take a small palmful at a time and press between both hands. It’s a great job to give the kids. Just let them do it over the sink and all the mess goes down the drain.

When rice mixture is fully cooked, uncover and turn off the heat. Let it sit another 5 minutes and then fluff with a fork. In a large bowl, combine spinach, mushrooms, and rice mixture. Add eggs. Using your hands, gently mix until all is fully incorporated.

Gently press into loaf pan leaving about ½ inch room at the top. Top with slices of tomato and cheese (if desired) and bake for 30 minutes. When freezing, leave off tomato and cheese, let mixture come to room temperature, and then cover with plastic wrap (sealing it completely) first. If baking when frozen, remove plastic, cover with foil, and bake at preheated 375 degrees for 1 hour. Remove the foil the last 15 minutes of baking. Make the Checca sauce fresh when you plan to serve it. If you don’t have a loaf pan, don’t worry about it. Just use any casserole dish. Sometimes I even grease-up a muffin tin and make individuals. People love getting their very own!

Checca Sauce Directions:

Combine all ingredients in blender or food processor, add a good pinch of kosher salt and pepper to taste and blend until combined but still chunky. Actually, you can make it as smooth or chunky as you like!

Top veggie loaf with the sauce and serve.

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Thank so much for visiting me this week! I hope you try this and/or any of my recipes. And if mine don’t work for you, then find some that do. Just try to do what you can. It’s pretty hard to completely change overnight. If you are just starting out, take baby steps – eventually you will get there. Try just cooking one time a week and increase as you go. And I am always here, happy to help answer any questions you have.

I will be including a printable version of this recipe without all my witty repartee (ha-ha!). I hope you enjoyed it enough to try it! If you have questions or comments feel free to email me at bradymunchblog@yahoo.com!
For more of my recipes and delightful commentary, please check out my blog BradyMunch on Word Press!

Much love & light to you all! See you on the flip side!
Erin Brady

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