Ancient, trendy lentils
They're versatile, quick, nutritious, delicious.
How long have lentils been around? Here's a clue: People who say lentils are shaped like lenses have the reference backward. Turns out that the world's first lenses got the name because they were shaped, yes, like lentils. The lentils came first. Way first.
Lentils are Pompeii old. Ezekiel old. Ancient Sumeria old. Stone Age old.
Before there were virtually any other legumes, there were lentils, offering protein and iron and an earthy, nutty flavor to anyone smart enough to boil some water and cook them. Their appeal endures: They're a staple of Indian cooking, they're featured in one of the national dishes of Egypt, and if you were in Italy or Brazil or Chile on New Year's Day you probably ate lentils in some form as a symbol of prosperity (they also resemble coins, not just lenses). Still, it's all too easy to take them for granted. We'll always have lentils, won't we?
In America, where their cookery is relatively young, there seem to be several phases of lentil awareness: (1) The soup/stew phase, also known as the Moosewood phase, in which chilis and burgers and loaves abound; (2) The French phase, or salad phase, in which we learn how to pronounce "du Puy"; (3) The dal phase, or Indian-food-is-so-much-more-than-curries phase; (4) The anything-goes phase, also known as the true-lentil-enlightenment phase, in which we start to ask: What can't lentils do?
I'm squarely at the beginning of Phase 4. As a relatively new vegetarian, I've been realizing that lentils can, nay, should, be nothing short of a dietary staple. Let's quickly review the reasons: They're nutritious. They're inexpensive. They're quick-cooking. (All together now: No soaking!) But what I'm realizing is that, possibly best of all, they're more versatile than I had ever imagined.
That last realization has been gradual, overtaking me as I've perused one vegetarian cookbook after another over the last several months and, more recently, tried recipe upon recipe for lentils. I've fried them into little nutlike snacks, coaxed them into a soothing mash, stuffed them into tacos, turned them into a caviar facsimile, pureed them into gravy, paired them with mozzarella in a warm salad, even transformed them into a credible take on Bolognese sauce. Could the same range be covered by, say, chickpeas, as much as I love those? Never.
One difference is that there's not just one lentil. That might make them intimidating to some (and if you look at the dal section of a stocked Indian market, you will see why), but I consider that a plus. On one end of the spectrum are the split red and yellow lentils, so common in dals, which disintegrate when you cook them and might be the best gateway lentil of all. "You sprinkle a handful in a soup, and nobody knows," says Kathy Hester, author of The Great Vegan Bean Book (Fair Winds Press, 2013). "You can add some to whatever you're cooking, and it enriches it, makes it a little thicker."
On the other end? Small black beluga lentils, so named because they look like beluga caviar, which keep their shape and a slightly firm texture when cooked. Their name/appearance is what prompted authors Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence of The Southern Vegetarian (Thomas Nelson, 2013) to simmer them with dried seaweed to approximate caviar and to put them on creme-fraiche-topped blini, which I stuffed myself with on New Year's Eve. Those delicate little French blue-green du Puy lentils similarly hold up well, making them grand for salads warm and cold.
In between are the big brown or green lentils, which go either way, getting soft enough to mash or staying firmer if you stop the cooking short. Their heft makes them useful for sauces, and for vegetarians that often means sauces that in their traditional form include ground beef or pork.
Because lentils are one of the best plant-based sources of protein on the planet, their ability to play the part of meat can't be overstated. "Indeed, the phrase so often applied to the lentil, 'the poor man's meat,' is only derogatory if you put the emphasis on 'poor man's' instead of on 'meat,' " writes Waverly Root in Food, his 1980 tome. "This may well have been meant as a compliment by the first users of the phrase."
Burks, whose book also uses lentils in tacos and to make a riff on bourguignon, says it's all about the texture. "Those soft but toothy little rounds of lentils really do speak the same language as a ground beef," he says. "We're not into meat analogues, those weird fake chickens or what have you. We don't cook with them. But what we try and do is take something that exists naturally, i.e., a lentil, and draw the connection to something people would eat and wouldn't mind having swapped out."
If there is a queen of lentils, at least an American one, surely it would be Mollie Katzen, creator of that iconic (at least to vegetarians) lentil-walnut burger recipe in The Moosewood Cookbook of 1977 and so many more. In her latest book, The Heart of the Plate (Houghton Mifflin, 2013), Katzen revisits the burger idea, combining lentils with caramelized onions and brown rice. But perhaps more intriguing, she takes inspiration from a Burmese salad that includes fried split yellow peas and applies the same technique, frying, to lentils, creating an addictive out-of-hand snack or topping. She also cooks lentils in the same pot as Chinese forbidden (black) rice, topping it all with mushrooms and white beans.
"Some of the best cooks I know do very little to lentils," she tells me. "Just cook simply with aromatic vegetables, and dress with really good olive oil, salt and pepper." That's not too far from what Sarah Copeland does for a winter salad of lentils and torn shreds of fresh mozzarella in her new book, Feast (Chronicle Books, 2013).
Katzen recently had a swoon-worthy experience with a dish that included smoked lentils at the restaurant Camino in Oakland, Calif., near where she lives. The cooks had put the pot near an open fire and let the smoke infuse them. "I love the taste of accidental smoke and lentils," she says, "like when you forget them in the pan and they scorch a little bit." (Sure enough, Burks and Lawrence add smoke from various sources, but not from scorching the pan, to their lentil taco filling.)
Some of Katzen's favorite treatments involve the marriage of lentils and onions. "I think there's a love affair between them," she says, and as soon as I made her "cozy mash" of red lentils (which turn golden) stirred into long-cooked onions, I knew what she meant. She swooned over the Camino dish, but I melted as completely as a cup of red lentils when I tasted hers.
It seems reminiscent of dal, albeit without the Indian spices. Instead, the sweet onions, a little balsamic vinegar, and a pinch of cayenne add a round, mysterious flavor. Cozy indeed. And, dare I say, enlightened.
Lentil Quinoa Bolognese Sauce
Makes 8 servings
1 cup dried lentils (preferably brown or green), rinsed
3 medium carrots, well scrubbed, then cut into large chunks
2 cups water
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 small onion, chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, cored and seeded, then chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
28 ounces no-salt-added crushed tomatoes or 3 cups tomato puree
1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 small bunch kale, stems removed and discarded, leaves torn into small pieces (about 3 cups)
1/2 cup dried quinoa, rinsed well
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Combine the lentils, carrots, and water in a large pot over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low; cover and cook until the lentils are tender, 20 to 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, pour the oil into a medium saute pan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and stir to coat; cook until translucent, 5 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the bell pepper and garlic, stirring to coat; cook until tender, 4 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a food processor.
3. Once the carrots and lentils are cooked, transfer the carrots from the pot to the food processor, along with the tomatoes or tomato puree, oregano, basil, crushed red pepper flakes, and kale. Pulse until mostly smooth.
4. Add the quinoa and red wine to the pot of lentils, stirring to incorporate; cover and cook until the quinoa grains start to show their white tails, 6 or 7 minutes.
5. Stir the carrot-kale puree into the lentil-quinoa mixture; cook, covered, over low heat until the sauce melds and heats thoroughly, about 20 minutes. Season with the salt and pepper.
6. Serve hot, or cool completely before storing.
Notes: Use this the way you would a meaty Bolognese: over tagliatelle or the pasta of your choice, or in lasagna. The sauce can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for up to 6 months.
Per serving: 232 calories; 11 grams protein; 36 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams sugar; 5 grams fat; no cholesterol; 202 milligrams sodium; 12 grams dietary fiber.
Tacos With Spicy, Smoky Lentils
Makes 4 servings
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small white onion, diced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)
1/2 teaspoon ancho chili powder
1/2 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1 cup dried brown lentils, rinsed
1 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped (drained, if oil-packed)
3/4 cup roasted salsa of your choice, homemade or store-bought
12 small corn tortillas, flour tortillas, or taco shells, warmed
1 cup shredded smoked cheddar cheese (about 4 ounces)
2 cups finely shredded green cabbage
4 large scallions, chopped
Flesh of 1 avocado, sliced or cubed
1/4 cup sour cream
1. Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and stir to coat; cook until it is translucent, stirring occasionally. Add the cumin, salt, smoked paprika, and chili powders and cook, stirring, for 1 minute.
2. Add tomato paste, sesame oil, lentils, water, vinegar, and sun-dried tomatoes; increase the heat to medium-high to bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat so the mixture is barely bubbling; cover, and cook until all of the liquid has been absorbed and the lentils are tender but not falling apart, 30 to 40 minutes. (If the lentils are dry before they become tender, add water 1/3 cup at a time and continue cooking.)
3. Serve family-style, setting out the lentils, salsa, tortillas, cheese, cabbage, scallions, avocado, sour cream, and limes in separate bowls on the table and allowing diners to assemble their own tacos.
Per serving: 580 calories; 23 grams protein; 73 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams sugar; 24 grams fat; 20 milligrams cholesterol; 781 milligrams sodium; 26 grams dietary fiber.
Golden Lentils With Soft, Sweet Onions
Makes 8-10 servings
11/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or more to taste
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, or more to taste
2 cups dried red lentils, rinsed
5 cups water
Freshly ground black pepper
Ground cayenne pepper
1. Pour the oil into a large skillet over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onions, stirring to coat; cook until the onions wilt, about 1 minute. Reduce the heat to medium-low; cook, stirring often, for 20 minutes. Add the 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are super-soft and very sweet, 10 to 20 minutes or longer, if needed. Stir in the 2 tablespoons of vinegar during the last 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, combine the lentils and water in a large saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium or medium-low until barely bubbling around the edges (use a heat diffuser, if you have one, underneath). Partially cover and cook gently until the lentils are perfectly soft, about 40 minutes. The mash will be supple at this stage. If you'd like it stiffer, simmer uncovered for a little longer.
3. Add the lentils to the onions, stirring to thoroughly blend; taste, and add salt and/or vinegar as needed. Season to taste with black pepper and cayenne pepper.
4. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
Notes: Serve as an appetizer, a side dish, or part of a collection of small plates. The dish can be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months. Defrost, then reheat in a 250-degree oven or in the microwave on low.
Per serving: 170 calories; 10 grams protein; 29 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams sugar; 3 grams fat; no cholesterol; 110 milligrams sodium; 12 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 24 servings
1 cup dried lentils, preferably small red, yellow, black beluga, or French du Puy
Safflower oil, olive oil or grapeseed oil, for frying
1. Put the lentils in a bowl with water to cover. Soak for 1 hour. Drain the lentils in a fine-mesh strainer, shaking out as much excess water as you can, then lay them out on absorbent towels in a single layer to dry. (Gently shake the lentils around a bit from time to time to help speed up the drying.)
2. Set a paper-towel-lined plate and a slotted spoon by the stove. Pour the oil to a depth of 1/4 inch in a large skillet over medium heat. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle a lentil on contact, carefully add just enough lentils to form a single layer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they crisp and become slightly translucent around the edges, 5 to 6 minutes. (Red lentils will turn yellow; French du Puy lentils will turn brown.)
3. Use a slotted spoon to lift out the lentils in batches, holding and slightly tilting each spoonful over the pan to let the oil drain off, then transfer them to the lined plate. Salt lightly.
4. Repeat with the remaining lentils, being sure to wait until the oil is instant-sizzle-hot before adding the lentils.
5. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Notes: This recipe turns lentils into something more like nuts: crunchy and addictive as a snack, but also good on salads and grains and, as cookbook author Mollie Katzen suggests, layered between beets and yogurt in a savory parfait. The lentils need to soak for 1 hour; they can be drained and left to dry for a few hours or even overnight. Store the fried lentils uncovered at room temperature for up to a day; freshen them in a 200-degree oven for 5 to 10 minutes.
Per serving: 40 calories; 2 grams protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; no sugar; 1 gram fat; no cholesterol; 15 milligrams sodium; 2 grams dietary fiber.