Blog » Learning Lentils
The holidays are over. The ornaments and lights are packed up. The Christmas tree is at the curb. The Three Wise Men have gone home. Holiday hours have been discontinued and it's back to the weekly grindstone of work and school. My personal resolutions have been committed to memory (writing them down has never done me any good) and I have a few food resolutions tucked away, too.
Every January I promise myself I will eat less fast food, plan my meals and snacks ahead of time, and a host of other heart-healthy habits. It’s barely a week into 2011 and I’ve already scrapped those resolutions. They never had a chance. I never was committed to them anyhow.
This time, this year, I plan to simplify my dinners by making one-pot meals. I look forward to daydreaming about scintillating combinations I can put together and what scents will greet me when I lift the lid. The first recipe I plan to make is lentils.
Lentils are usually cooked into a flavorful potage of colors, textures, and delightfulness. In the Bible, Esau attempted to purchase first birthright from Jacob using a pot of lentils — and rightfully so. Each legume is a tiny bead of potential joy.
Lentils are the pretty stepsisters of dried beans. Found in red, green, pink, yellow, and black, they don’t require soaking, cook in far less time, and have an exotic quality to them that ‘regular ol’ beans’ can’t match. Here in the South, we are used to our pintos, kidneys, and butter beans. Lentils are eaten in Indian restaurants, seen on elaborate salad bar outfits, and are a bit of a mystery.
Lentils are low in fat and high in protein and fiber, just like our beloved beans, but they have the added advantage of cooking quickly. Just like rice, use a 2-to-1 ratio to cook them and you will have no problems. While we may put on a pot of beans with some bacon or a ham hock for flavoring, lentils taste best with assertive flavorings like vinegars and spices. The most common lentil is the brown lentil. The mild brown lentils hold their shape after cooking, but can easily turn to mush if overcooked. It’s easy to find and usually sold in bags (in the same aisle as the beans). The best, most delicate lentils are the peppery French green puy lentils. These hold their shape well, but take a little longer to cook than other lentils. Before cooking, always rinse lentils and pick out stones and other debris. Lentils cook more slowly and harden if they're combined with salt or acidic ingredients, so add these last. Store dried lentils for up to a year in a cool, dry place.
Makes 4 ½-cup servings
1 cup brown lentils, picked through for stones
2 cups water
2 bay leaves
½ cup onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 Tbsp. ginger, peeled and minced
1 cup tomatoes, diced
1/2 tspn. cumin
1/2 tspn. mustard powder
1/2 tspn. turmeric powder
1/2 tspn. Hungarian paprika
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil
Handful chopped fresh cilantro leaves
1. Put the lentils in a strainer and rinse them under running water. Sift through for stones and small inedible pieces. Drain and set aside.
2. In a medium saucepot, combine 2 cups of water, bay leaves, onions, garlic, ginger, tomatoes, and the lentils. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat, cover the pot with a lid, and gently simmer until the lentils are tender and almost falling apart, about 30 to 40 minutes. Remove bay leaves and add salt, to taste.
3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl combine cumin, mustard, turmeric, and paprika. In a small skillet, over a medium-high flame, warm 1 tablespoon vegetable oil. Once the oil is shimmering, add the spices. They should sizzle and bubble a little — that's the blooming and it's exactly what you want. Don't let them burn. The mixture should bloom for about 30 seconds, no more.
4. Pour the oil mixture into the lentils, standing back so you don't get hurt if mixture splatters. Stir to combine. Transfer the lentils to a serving dish and garnish with cilantro leaves.