last week's ever-so-slightly nippy weather brought us more than cooler temperatures and less humidity. I call it hope. When we can open windows and turn off the AC, even for just a few days, it's a sign that Florida's version of fall is on the way. • Hallelujah, sticky days are waning. • To me, even a dip into the mid 80s means it's cooking time, especially comfort food cooking time. Turning on the oven or standing over a hot stove are more tolerable now. The burbling melange in the soup pot fills the house with enticing aromas, and if the wolverines aren't exactly clamoring, there does seem to be more appreciation for a hot bowlful of something when they aren't wiping their brows. • That brings me to the subject of lentils, a food that has nourished humankind for 8,000 years but that always makes me think of 1970s hippies. Lentil loaf, peace signs and granny dresses, ah, the good old days. When I was in college, lentils were a mainstay of the communal kitchen. They were cheap and nutritious, and they were also dirt brown, avocado green and harvest gold, colors that symbolized the decade.
While lentil loaf isn't on my rotating repertoire of dinners today — I would fear a living room demonstration complete with protest signs — there are other dishes that make delicious use of this humble legume.
To me, lentils are a fall and winter food. Their earthy nature brings to mind the colors of changing leaves, which I hear happens in some places. In summer, we love the vibrancy of fresh fruit to cool us off. As the days grow shorter, the color of our food often becomes muted, and that's true even in Florida where the weather actually gets better as we head toward winter.
Packed with protein, iron and fiber, lentils have bolstered diets for centuries and are vegetarian favorites. Plus, they are cheap. You'll only pay a few bucks for a bag big enough to feed six people.
Lentil soup, classically made with celery, onion and carrot and seasoned with thyme, is perhaps the most standard of lentil dishes for American cooks. The cooking techniques are elementary and the ingredients mostly common pantry and refrigerator items. A pot of soup is ready in about an hour, and just gets better with time.
But lentils have their roots in the Middle East and India, where they are called dal, so there are many more interestingly spiced dishes to make from them, such as Lehsuni Dal (Garlic Flavored Lentils). Some Mediterranean dishes combine lentils with rice or couscous, plus spices such as cumin, cinnamon and cayenne. Crumbled feta is also an amiable accompaniment, bringing a bright taste to the subtle lentils.
Today, we offer three recipes besides the garlic lentils.
I tested Red Lentil and Winter Squash Soup with pumpkin, which I won't do again, even though it was delicious. The diminutive pie pumpkins were expensive and a hassle to peel and seed. I recommend you go for the butternut squash. The cooked pumpkin doesn't have the creamy texture of the butternut; I thought it seemed dry, though the overall flavor of the soup was wonderful.
We sampled the soup chunky and then pureed half and served it with a dollop of sour cream. In the photo studio, people thought they were two different soups. I supposed the complete melding of the ingredients in the pureed version did make a difference. There were fans in both camps.
Yummy Lentils from Cook Like a Rock Star by the Food Network's Anne Burrell overcomes its silly name with a mouthful of powerful flavors. Blame it on the bacon. I served this side dish hot with a rotisserie chicken, and it was well received. Good, too, the next day. Serve it hot or at room temperature.
Warm Lentil Salad is another satisfying dish. The warm lentils and sauteed aromatics are served on a bed of cold greens and then dressed with a sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. The vinaigrette is a snap to make, but you can use store-bought if you can find it. A balsamic vinaigrette would work, too, and you could also add dried fruit (cherries or diced apricots) for more flavor. The basic recipe is highly tinkerable. Toasted almonds? Why not.
It's lentil weather, after all. At least in Florida.
For cooking lentils
2 cups green or black lentils
1/2 red onion, peeled, root end left on
1 celery rib
2 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 fresh thyme bundle, tied with kitchen twine (do not use dried thyme)
For finishing the lentils
Extra-virgin olive oil
6 slices thick bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 red onion, finely diced
1 clove garlic, smashed and finely chopped
1 carrot, finely diced
1 celery rib, finely diced
1/2 cup reserved lentil cooking liquid
1 bunch fresh chives, finely chopped
To cook the lentils: In a large saucepan, combine the lentils, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, bay leaves and thyme bundle. Add water to cover everything by about 2 inches. Bring the water to a boil and reduce to a simmer; cook for 20 to 30 minutes or until the lentils are soft.
Remove the pot from the heat, and season the water with salt. Taste it to make sure it is well seasoned. Let the lentils sit in the salty water for 10 to 15 minutes.
Ladle out 1/2 cup of the lentil cooking water and reserve. Strain the lentils. Remove all the veggies and aromatics and discard.
To finish the lentils: Coat the bottom of a large saute plan lightly with olive oil, add the bacon and bring to medium heat.
When the bacon has rendered a lot of fat and become brown and crispy, 5 to 6 minutes, add the diced onion. Season with salt and cook until soft and aromatic, 8 to 10 minutes.
Add the garlic and cook for 2 to 3 minutes more, stirring frequently.
Add the carrot and celery and continue to cook until soft and aromatic, another 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the cooked lentils and the reserved lentil cooking water. Cook until most of the liquid has reduced. Taste for seasoning, and add salt if needed. Toss in the chives and serve hot or at room temperature.
Serves 4 to 6.
Source: Cook Like a Rock Star by Anne Burrell (Clarkson Potter, 2011)
Warm Lentil Salad
2 celery stalks, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 onion, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons butter, divided use
1 cup lentils
Water or stock to cover lentils
1/4 cup white wine
Sun-dried tomato vinaigrette
1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
2 tablespoons chopped sun-dried tomatoes
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
Salt and pepper to taste
Spinach, arugula or mixed greens
Saute diced celery, carrots, garlic and onion in the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large pan. Let soften about 5 minutes.
Stir in lentils. Add enough water or stock to cover by 1/2 inch, then add the white wine. Let simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until lentils are soft. Check at 20 minutes. When done, the water will be mostly absorbed. Finish with remaining tablespoon of butter. Set cooked lentils aside.
To make dressing, combine vinegars and olive oil in a jar and shake, or whisk in a bowl to incorporate. Add remaining dressing ingredients.
Dress greens lightly then top with warm lentil mixture. Drizzle with more dressing.
Serves 4 to 6.
Source: St. Petersburg Times
Red Lentil and Winter Squash Soup With Variation
1/2 pound (1 heaped cup) red lentils, rinsed (see note)
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 medium onion, cut in half
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
20 sprigs cilantro, tied into a bunch
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 medium carrots or 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1/2 pound winter squash (such as pumpkin or butternut squash) or sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
Freshly ground pepper
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
Combine the lentils, water or stock, onion, garlic cloves and bay leaf in a large soup pot or Dutch oven. Bring to a boil. Add turmeric and cilantro. Reduce heat, add salt to taste, cover and simmer about 20 minutes.
Remove the onion and garlic cloves from the pot, and add the remaining ingredients except the parsley. Bring back to a simmer, cover and simmer 30 minutes or until the lentils and vegetables are tender. Discard the cilantro bundle and bay leaf, taste and adjust seasonings (Some of the cilantro leaves will have broken away from the bundle and into the soup. No need to fish those out.) Just before serving, stir in the parsley.
Note: Red lentils are actually orange. If you can't find them at your grocery, look at natural food markets or specialty stores such as Fresh Market. If you strike out completely, use whatever lentils you have on hand.
Creamy variation: Before adding the parsley, puree the soup in a blender or with a handheld immersion blender until smooth. Garnish with a dollop of sour cream and chopped parsley.
Source: St. Petersburg Times
(Garlic Flavored Lentils)
1 cup red lentils, rinsed and picked over
3 cups water
2 tablespoons vegetable or canola cooking oil
1 onion chopped fine
1 tomato chopped fine
1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
Salt to taste
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
8 to 10 cloves of garlic
3 dry red chilies, stalks and seeds removed and broken into small pieces
Wash the lentils thoroughly. Mix the lentils, water, cooking oil, onion, tomato, turmeric powder, red chili powder and salt in a large pan and simmer until lentils are soft, 20 to 30 minutes.
In another small pan, heat the butter and add the cumin seeds, which will sizzle. When they stop sizzling, add the garlic and dry red chilies and fry until the garlic is light brown. Turn off heat. Add the butter and spice mixture to the cooked lentils and stir well.
Serve hot with rice.
Serves 4 to 5.
There are many, many kinds of lentils, but you're likely to find only a few types in grocery and natural food stores. Indian markets stock black lentils and skinned black lentils (white), called urad dal, plus other varieties. According to the Cook's Thesaurus on foodsubs.com and healthdiaries.com, the most common lentils are:
The standard khaki-color lentils are perhaps the most common. They tend to get mushy if overcooked and don't hold their shape well. That's why they are a good choice for soups or to bolster stews. Adding oil to the water and undercooking them slightly will keep them intact.
Also known as French green lentils, they are considered the most flavorful of all lentils. They are small, brownish or green and slightly speckled. They are the best choice for salads because they have a rich flavor and keep their shape through the cooking process. They cook slower than other lentils.
As common as brown lentils, but like the French puy, they don't get as mushy as other varieties.
They are more yellow-orange than red and turn golden when cooked. They're the quickest-cooking lentils and are best in purees and soups.
Black or beluga lentils
These are more expensive than other lentils and are good in both soups and salads. They are small and shiny, sort of like Beluga caviar, which is how they got their nickname. You'll have to hunt to find these, and your best bet is a well-stocked natural food store.