Sunday, February 5, 2012

Lentils: the legume that needs more love

The lowly lentil.  Something that never made its way into my culinary repertoire until adulthood.   A lentil is not terribly attractive.  It's small, brown, round and almost homely next to more exciting legumes like anasazi beans, which look like miniature pinto ponies, or sleek black beans with their rich, purple undertones, or split peas with their vibrant green hue, or even chickpeas, with their little dimples.

No, lentils are something that one could easily pass by for their nondescript-ness.  Unless you can see and experience their potential.  Lentils are rather like a librarian who looks quiet and unassuming by day, but is a knock-out sex kitten when she lets her hair down.

Because I think they are so neglected, I'll go so far as to suggest that lentils are the legume that needs more love.  And love them we should, because lentils are full of protein, fiber, amino acids, vitamins and minerals and are an important part of a lot vegetarian diets.  They cook fairly quickly, in about 30 minutes, as opposed to the 2 hours or more than a lot of other legumes take to cook.  They have also been a part of the human diet since the Neolithic period.  Find more information about this unassuming little legume here.

So today I bring you Lentils Four Ways.  I'll give you four recipes, all very different in their flavor profiles,  but all very easy and delicious.  What's more?  Cooked lentils freeze beautifully.  So you can make a batch of lentils, eat your fill and store the leftovers until you're craving lentils again.  And believe me, you will crave them.  To me, nothing tastes quite as good as bowl of well-seasoned lentils on a blustery winter day.

My Friend Thrint's Favorite Lentil Soup

Thrint credits Alton Brown with this recipe.  I just made it last night for the first time and it was beautifully seasoned.  Thrint likes to use an immersion blender to make his finished soup a little smoother; I like the texture of the lentils and finely chopped vegetables.  But have it your way.  This recipe calls for an ingredient known as grains of paradise, which you can find at Central Market in Austin in the bulk foods section, or you can mail order this spice from a wonderful company I'm beginning to do business with, The Spice House.  If you can't find grains of paradise or don't want to use this spice, substitute pepper, because GOP (pardon the political reference here) is a pungent, peppery spice.

What I also did with this recipe was to roast a pan of chopped kale with plenty of EVOO, kosher salt and garlic until the kale was crispy.  Then I used the crispy kale like croutons on my soup.  It was a flavor bomb!

Lentil and Sausage Soup

I've been making this soup for years.  It's a recipe from an old Family Circle publication and it's the soup that I credit for turning me on to how delicious lentils are.  Rich and hearty, it's a great soup for supper with a salad and crusty bread.

1 cup dried lentils
6 cups water or broth
8 oz. canned tomato sauce
1/2 lb. Italian sausage, mild or hot
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 lb. fresh baby spinach or 1 10 oz. pkg. frozen chopped spinach, partially thawed
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
1/4 cup ditalini or other small pasta
grated Parmesan cheese for serving

1.  Wash and pick over lentils; place in a large saucepan with water or broth and tomato sauce.
2.  Bring to a boil, lower heat and let simmer while you prepare the rest of the soup.
3.  Remove casings from sausage.
4.  Heat oil in a large skillet, then saute sausage, browning well, breaking up chunks with a wooden spoon.
5.  Stir in chopped carrot, onion and celery and cook until just tender, about 10 minutes.
6.  While vegetables cook, coarsely chop spinach.  If you are using frozen spinach, cut block into small pieces.
7.   Add spinach and meat/vegetable mixture to lentils.
8.   Stir in salt and pepper; simmer for 30 minutes.
9.   Add pasta and cook, covered, 10 minutes more, or until lentils are tender.  Serve hot with grated cheese.  Serves 6.

Soupa Fakes

The tang of the red wine vinegar that finishes this soup is surprising and lovely.  This is a recipe from Sofi Konstantinides' cookbook Sofi's Aegean Kitchen, a favorite cookbook of mine, brimming with fabulous Greek food.
1 lb. dried lentils                                             2 bay leaves
6 cups water                                                    ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped                   salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 garlic cloves, minced                                    ½ cup red wine vinegar
2 large tomatoes, thickly sliced

Rinse lentils well and put them into a pot with water.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer over medium-low heat for about 45 minutes, or until lentils are almost tender. 

Add the onions, garlic, tomatoes, bay leaves, olive oil, and salt and pepper.  Simmer the soup, partly covered, over low heat for about 50 minutes, until it has thickened.  Stir in the vinegar and heat thoroughly.  Serve hot or warm.

NOTE:  I like to add a good dollop of plain Greek-style yoghurt, or a nice piece of creamy goat cheese, such as Chevre, or Montrachet.  This soup is excellent with pita bread or any crusty bread and a green salad.  Makes a lovely lunch or supper for 6.

Truly Delicious Everyday Dal

I've published this recipe from Sudha Koul's wonderful little book, Curries Without Worries, in a previous post, but want to mention it again since it is an important part of my soup repertoire.  It's easy, it's incredibly flavorful and it's Indian.  It will perfume your house and all your neighbors will line up at your door to sample it.  Truly.

May your tastebuds do the Lindy with lentils!

1 comment:

  1. Don't be so formal, you can call me Steve! A couple of notes. I often chop up a punt of sliced bacon into one inch bites and fry 'til just about crispy then set aside and reserve some of the bacon grease to sauté the veggies. Add the bacon back when you add the rest of the ingredients.

    Speaking of which I use a bunch more than the recipe calls for and use my food processor to get a very fine chop on the veggies.

    I will also grab a few white or red potatoes (4 or so) and chop them into 3/4" cubes. They add a heartiness to the soup. I remove them if I use the hand blender so they don't turn into mush.