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THE LENTIL // AS OLD AS TIME, AS NEW AS TODAY

Lentils have been called "convenience legumes" because these tiny, disk-shaped seeds cook quickly without the soaking required by their firmer relatives, dried beans and peas.

Their ease of use, distinctive peppery flavor, low cost and high nutritional profile fit right in with the culinary demands of the '90s.

The lentils most familiar to us are khaki-brown, but there are other varieties _ the red lentils for which the biblical Esau sold his birthright, the golden orange lentils of India, and the French favorite, bright green lentils.

Lentils are among the oldest cultivated plants known. Archaeologists have found lentil seeds at the sites of Middle Eastern villages that existed 8,000 years ago.

When these ancient people migrated to Europe, India and Africa, they took the easily transportable lentils with them.

No wonder that populations all over the globe have adopted lentils into their diets, giving rise to a wealth of ethnic dishes. French, German, Indian, Italian, Greek and Middle Eastern cookbooks offer a profusion of recipes starring lentils.

Lentils are an excellent source of potassium and fiber. A cup of cooked lentils has only 1 gram of fat, no cholesterol and only a trace of sodium.

When buying packaged lentils, look for undamaged boxes or bags of uniformly sized seeds that are whole, not cracked or broken. Health food and ethnic stores may offer a wider variety of lentils than your local supermarket, which often stocks only the common tan variety.

Always pick over any dried legumes, including lentils, before cooking. One easy way is to spread them on a white kitchen towel so that you can easily see and discard any dirt, debris or damaged seeds. Then place the lentils in a strainer and rinse them under cold water.

Lentils do not need to be soaked _ you can cook them immediately in water, or in vegetable, chicken or beef broth for added flavor.

Seasoning possibilities abound. In the Middle East, lentils are flavored with garlic, cumin and lemon, while in India they are paired with cinnamon, turmeric, coriander and ginger.

Any or all of the following can be added to the pot when cooking: peeled and chopped onion and carrot, a bay leaf, a ham bone, a sprig of thyme (or crumbled leaf thyme). Green lentils cook in about 35 minutes, orange lentils in about 20 minutes and brown lentils in about 25 minutes.

Adjust the cooking time according to the final use: for salads and casseroles, remove from heat while they are still firm; for soups and purees, cook them until they are very soft.

Try combining lentils with fresh greens, herbs or raw vegetables _ their "pepperiness" goes especially well with the biting flavor of arugula or watercress.

Lentil salads _ served warm, at room temperature, or chilled _ are a delicious alternative to hot dishes. Use a light vinaigrette dressing, adding it while the lentils are still warm, so they absorb the flavors of the dressing.

For a basic lentil soup, use 4 to 5 cups of liquid to a cup of lentils, and add the seasonings of your choice. Cover and simmer for up to an hour, or until the lentils are slightly mushy. Leave the ingredients whole, or puree all or some of the solids for a creamy soup.

Thick lentil purees make tempting side dishes and are an interesting change from mashed potatoes. Cook lentils until tender and then mash them with a potato masher, put through a food mill or process in a food processor. Season with sauteed, pureed garlic, and thin with a little cream if desired. Or mash cooked lentils and form into patties, brown on both sides in a lightly greased pan, and serve on whole wheat buns as vegetarian burgers.

Lentils can be transformed into appetizing sandwich spreads and dips, too. Try mashing or pureeing lentils with salsa, chopped tomatoes and a little grated Monterey Jack cheese, or season with chopped green chilies, minced onion, garlic and cumin. Use as a filling for burritos and tacos or as a dip for corn chips and raw veggies.

Spiced Red Rice with Lentils

1 cup (red lentils)

2 teaspoons canola oil

1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced

1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger

2 teaspoons chopped garlic

1 dried red chili

} teaspoon ground turmeric

1 cup basmati or other long-grained rice

Salt to taste

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Garnish:

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

8 lemon wedges

Sort, wash and drain the red lentils. In a large non-stick saucepan, heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the onion and stir-fry for 2 minutes or until translucent. Add the ginger, garlic, dried red chili and turmeric. Stir-fry for 1 minute. Add the rice, lentils and salt. Stir gently to mix. Add boiling water to cover the ingredients by a half inch. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 20 to 25 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed and the rice and lentils are tender.

Remove the mixture from the heat and let sit, covered, Fluff gently with a fork. Drizzle with lemon juice. Garnish with chopped coriander and serve with lemon wedges. Makes 4 generous servings.

Source: Indian Light Cooking by Ruth Lawless.

Israeli Lentil Casserole

1 cup lentils

4 cups cold water

cup minced onion

1 tablespoon minced parsley

{ clove garlic, minced

1 medium carrot, finely chopped

3 tablespoons minced celery stalk

1 tablespoon shortening

2 tablespoons flour

1 teaspoon salt

\ teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons tomato puree

6 to 8 small smoked sausages

Wash lentils and soak overnight in 4 cups cold water. Drain and reserve liquid. Heat 2 cups of this liquid to boiling point and add lentils, onion, parsley, garlic, carrot and celery. Cook until tender (about 15 minutes). Drain and measure liquid. Pour lentil mixture into greased baking dish.

To the liquid add enough of the reserved soaking liquid to make 1 \ cups. Melt shortening in saucepan, add flour, salt, pepper, and stir in the 1 \ cup reserved liquid. Cook until thickened. Pour over lentils, then spread with tomato puree. Arrange sausages in attractive design on top of the mixture and bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. Makes 6 servings.

Source: Favorite Recipes from the United Nations, United States Committee for the United Nations, Washington, D.C, 1960.

Greek Lentil Soup

2 cups uncooked lentils

8 cups water or vegetable stock

{ onion, chopped

1 small carrot, chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

1 small potato, chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 bay leaves

1 {-2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons red wine vinegar

Pick over lentils and wash. Mix all ingredients except the vinegar in a soup pot and cook until the lentils are very soft, about one hour. Stir in vinegar at the end and serve. Makes 6 servings, 1 cups each.

Source: The New Laurel's Kitchen by Laurel Robertson, Carol Flinders and Brian Ruppenthal.

Lentil Salad with Summer Squash

Salad:

3 cups water

4 small yellow summer squash or zucchini (1 pound), quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced

1 small stalk celery, cut into 1-inch lengths

2 whole cloves

1 cup dried brown lentils

2 green onions, including tops, sliced ( \ cup)

8 cherry tomatoes, quartered (optional)

Dressing:

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons apple juice or water

2 tablespoons olive oil

{ teaspoon grated lemon rind

{ teaspoon salt

\ teaspoon fennel seed (optional)

Pinch ground red pepper (cayenne)

To prepare the salad: In a medium-size saucepan, bring the water to a boil over moderately high heat. Add the squash and cook for 4 minutes or until crisp-tender. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the squash to a colander, rinse under cold water, and drain well; place in a large bowl.

Stud 2 celery pieces with the cloves, and add all the celery to the boiling water. Stir in the lentils, lower the heat, cover, and simmer for 25 minutes or until the lentils are just tender. Drain well and add to the bowl with the squash; discard the celery and cloves.

Meanwhile, prepare the dressing: In a small bowl whisk together the lemon juice, apple juice, oil, lemon rind, salt, fennel seeds if desired, and red pepper until smooth. Or place the dressing ingredients in a small jar, cover tightly and shake until blended. Add the dressing to the salad and toss to coat. Marinate for at least 1 hour. Stir in the green onions and cherry tomatoes if desired; serve chilled or at room temperature. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Reader's Digest Live Longer Cookbook.

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