Lentils have countless culinary uses beyond soups and stews

 

Lentil basics

Here's what the most common varieties are best for, and how long they take to cook. Figure 3 cups cooking water per cup of raw lentils.

Red, orange or yellow split lentils: Used for Indian dal, they break up during cooking. Best for mashes, soups and stews. Cooking time 15 to 25 minutes or more, depending on how soft you want them.

Black beluga lentils: Small, shiny and black, they resemble caviar and maintain their shape and firm texture when cooked. Best for salads or appetizers. Cooking time 20 to 25 minutes.

French du Puy lentils: These small, blue-green-spotted lentils keep their shape when cooked and have a particularly creamy texture. Best for cold or warm salads. Cooking time 25 to 30 minutes.

Brown or green lentils: Larger varieties, these can get mushy when overcooked but otherwise keep their shape. Good for sauces or for playing the part of meat in taco fillings, sloppy Joes, etc. Cooking time 30 to 40 minutes.


Sauce

Lentil Quinoa Bolognese Sauce

Use this the way you would a meaty Bolognese, over the pasta of your choice.

1 cup dried brown or green lentils, rinsed

3 medium carrots, well scrubbed and cut into large chunks

2 cups water

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 small onion, chopped

1 medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped

3 garlic cloves, chopped

28 ounces no-salt-added crushed tomatoes

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 pepper

Combine the lentils, carrots and water in a large pot over high heat. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the lentils are tender, 30 to 40 minutes.

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 to a food processor.

Once 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.

Stir the quinoa and red wine into the pot of lentils. Cover and cook until the quinoa grains start to show their white tails, 6 or 7 minutes.

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. Makes 8 servings.

Source: Adapted from "The Great Vegan Bean Book," by Kathy Hester (Fair Winds Press, 2013).

Per serving: 230 calories, 11 g protein, 34 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 180 mg sodium, 11 g fiber, 6 g sugar.


Main dish

Tacos With Spicy, Smoky Lentils

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

1/2 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

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

Lime wedges

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and stir to coat; cook until translucent, stirring occasionally. Add the cumin, salt, smoked paprika and chili powders; cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

Add the 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.)

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. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Adapted from "The Southern Vegetarian," by Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence (Thomas Nelson, 2013).

Per serving: 580 calories, 23 g protein, 73 g carbohydrates, 24 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 20 mg cholesterol, 810 mg sodium, 25 g dietary fiber, 7 g sugar.


Side dish

Golden Lentils With Soft, Sweet Onions

Top with chopped tomatoes or pomegranate seeds and yogurt. Serve as a side dish or part of a collection of small plates.

1/2 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 pepper

Ground cayenne

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.

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. 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, cook uncovered for a little longer.

Add the lentils to the onions, stirring to thoroughly blend; taste, and add salt and/or vinegar as needed. Season to taste with pepper and cayenne. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature. Makes 10 servings (5 cups).

Source: Adapted from "The Heart of the Plate," by Mollie Katzen (Houghton Mifflin, 2013).

Per serving: 170 calories, 10 g protein, 28 g carbohydrates, 3 g fat, 0 saturated fat, 0 cholesterol, 110 mg sodium, 12 g fiber, 3 g sugar.


Main-dish salad

Lentils and Mozzarella

Creamy, fresh mozzarella pairs well with earthy lentils, sharpened with a vinaigrette. Serve warm with bread.

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 rib celery, finely chopped

1 medium carrot, scrubbed well and finely chopped

1 cup dried French du Puy lentils, rinsed

Fine sea salt

1/2 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar

1/4 cup fresh dill, chives, basil or mint, or a combination, finely chopped

Freshly ground pepper

8 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced or torn into bite-size pieces

Coarse sea salt, for sprinkling

2 tablespoons toasted, slivered almonds

Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the garlic, celery and carrot; cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, about 6 minutes. Add the lentils, 1/2 teaspoon of fine sea salt and just enough water to cover. Increase the heat to bring the water to a boil. Reduce the heat so it is barely bubbling around the edges and cook until the lentils are just soft, 25 to 30 minutes. Drain the lentils.

While the lentils are cooking, combine the mustard, vinegar, herbs, 1/4 teaspoon of fine sea salt, and pepper to taste in the bowl of a food processor or blender, or in a small mixing bowl. Drizzle in the remaining 1/4 cup of oil, pulsing or whisking by hand to form a vinaigrette. Taste, and add fine sea salt as needed.

Spoon the warm lentils onto plates. Top with the mozzarella, and sprinkle the cheese with coarse sea salt. Scatter the almonds over the mozzarella and lentils, and drizzle with the vinaigrette. Serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Adapted from "Feast," by Sarah Copeland (Chronicle Books, 2013).

Per serving: 550 calories, 23 g protein, 32 g carbohydrates, 37 g fat, 11 g saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 460 mg sodium, 15 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar


Appetizer

Beluga Lentil 'Caviar' With Potato Blini

Kombu imparts a briny flavor. Look for it at natural-foods stores.

1/2 cup dried black beluga lentils, rinsed

2 cups water

2 pieces kombu (dried seaweed, about 2 inches by 2 inches)

1 tablespoon sea salt

1 1/2 tablespoons highest-quality extra-virgin olive oil

For the blini

8 ounces Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 teaspoon water

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1/2 cup flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 large egg

1 cup whole or low-fat buttermilk

Canola or other vegetable oil, for frying

For assembly

1/2 cup creme fraiche (may substitute low-fat sour cream or Greek-style yogurt)

Coarse sea salt (optional)

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill

Rinse the lentils. Combine them with the water, kombu and salt in a small pot over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat so the mixture is barely bubbling around the edges; cover and cook until the lentils are just tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

Allow the lentils to cool in the liquid. Discard the kombu. Drain the lentils and stir in the olive oil.

To make the blini, combine the potato, water and butter in a microwave-safe dish; cover and microwave on high for 6 minutes, until the potato is tender. Cool.

Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Whisk together the egg and buttermilk in a small bowl.

Run the cooled potato mixture through a ricer into the bowl with the flour mixture. (Or mash thoroughly with a potato masher or fork.) Whisk the egg-buttermilk mixture into the flour-potato mixture.

Pour 1 tablespoon of canola or vegetable oil into a large skillet over medium heat. Once it shimmers, add batter 1 tablespoon at a time to form small pancakes. (You'll be able to fit about 5 blini at a time in a 12-inch skillet.) Cook until bubbles form all over the blinis' surface and the blini are deeply browned on one side, 2 to 3 minutes; carefully flip and cook on the second side, then transfer to a plate. Working in batches, cook the remaining blini, adding oil to the pan between batches if it looks dry.

To assemble, top each blini with creme fraiche and a teaspoon of beluga lentils. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt, if desired, and with fresh dill. Makes 6 to 8 servings (24 to 30 blini).

Source: Adapted from "The Southern Vegetarian," by Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence (Thomas Nelson, 2013).

Note: Ingredients are too variable for meaningful nutritional analysis.


Washington Post Service

How old are lentils? Here's one clue: People who say lentils are shaped like lenses have the reference backwards. Turns out that the world's first lenses got that name because they were shaped like lentils.

Lentils are Pompeii old. Ezekiel old. Ancient Sumeria old. Stone Age old. Before there were virtually any other legumes, there were lentils, offering protein, iron and an earthy, nutty flavor to anyone smart enough to boil some water and cook them.

As a relatively new vegetarian, I've begun realizing that lentils should be nothing short of a dietary staple. They're nutritious, inexpensive, quick-cooking (no soaking!) and, best of all, more versatile than I had ever imagined.

One reason is that there's not just one lentil. On one end of the spectrum are the split red and yellow lentils, common in dals, which disintegrate when you cook them.

"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, whose name and appearance prompted Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence, authors 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. Delicate 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 can go either way, getting soft enough to mash if you want or staying firmer if you stop 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.

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.

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 some of her 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.

It seems reminiscent of dal, but without the Indian spices. Instead, the sweet onions, a little balsamic vinegar and a pinch of cayenne pepper add a round, mysterious flavor. Cozy indeed.

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