Loving Lentils

These tiny seeds provide big nutritional benefits.

October 2016

By Corinne Garcia

Do lentils make you light up or look the other way? I’ll admit that it used to be the latter for me; until I learned how to properly cook and season lentils—I always imagined them to be about as flavorful as cardboard.

These days, many markets carry a variety of lentils that range in size and color. Now, instead of loathing lentils, I absolutely love them.

Lentils are a small legume, or pulse, cultivated in Asia and the Middle East since 7,000 BC that have made their way into cuisines globally. As a staple in vegetarian cooking, they typically make it onto lists of recommended foods by health organizations such as the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association. And for very good reason: Lentils are packed with nutrients.

“Lentils are extraordinarily good sources of fiber,” says Jenny Chandler, author of The Better Bean Cookbook (Sterling Epicure). “The insoluble fiber keeps us regular, whilst the soluble fiber is believed to lower blood cholesterol.” In fact, a study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that one daily serving of lentils could significantly reduce LDL “bad” cholesterol. Chandler adds that lentils also provide plenty of protein in addition to B vitamins, iron and magnesium.

“Think about what you’re getting, but also what you’re not getting,” says Crescent Dragonwagon, author of Bean by Bean (Workman Publishing).

As a meat alternative, with lentils you’re skipping out on saturated fat and any added hormones. “If you are getting protein from animals, you’re also getting all of the toxins they’ve ingested,” Dragonwagon says. “There’s a lot more concentrated chemical load from an animal raised inorganically than a lentil raised inorganically.”

But Dragonwagon argues that lentils ought not be considered as only a meat alternative. “You don’t have to be a vegetarian to love really good plant-based food,” she says. “Let’s not think of it as a meat alternate; it’s another center-of-the-plate thing.”

Lentils are often incorporated into many popular weight loss plans; their high fiber content can leave you feeling fuller longer. In addition, their protein keeps your energy levels up and they are low in calories. If food is fuel, think of lentils as the high-octane variety.

“Their texture and flavor make them one of the first things I dive into in the cupboard and they’re also about the quickest of the pulses to cook, require no soaking, are cheap, and there’s a variety for every occasion,” says Chandler.

Dragonwagon agrees, adding that lentils’ versatility is also key. “It would be cruel to say that they’re bland,” she says. “It would be truthful to say they’re like a blank slate; you can spice them up in a variety of ways.”

Lentil Varieties

Different kinds of lentils have been cultivated in different parts of the world, taking on flavors of the various regions, and range in size, texture and color. Here’s a rundown of some varieties that can be found in the US.

Brewer

The image that most people probably conjure up when thinking about lentils is the Brewer lentil, the common brown-hued variety often used in basic lentil soup. Because they are on the larger side and thin-skinned, they tend to get mushy when cooked, which is perfect for some dishes. “Larger, flatter, lentils, such as Brewer lentils, are more likely to break down into a creamy mash, which is just what I’m after in rustic stews,” says Chandler.

The Brewer is typically Dragonwagon’s go-to lentil because it can be found just about anywhere. “They’re comforting, familiar, available, tasty and quick-cooking,” she says and recommends replacing chickpeas with these lentils for a hearty hummus.

Black Beluga

These tiny gems are said to resemble beluga caviar when cooked, with shiny skins.

Dragonwagon says they appear less starchy than larger varieties due to a greater percentage of skin to inside flesh.

“They hold their shape nicely, have a glistening black color, a nice, round texture and are slightly upscale,” Dragonwagon notes. “I wouldn’t use them as the base of a soup simply because that would not show them off enough. I’d use them in a salad or a pilaf—they look pretty, like black polka dots, in a rice mixture.”

Chandler describes Black Belugas as having a nutty flavor and likes to use them in a salad with lime juice and zest, freshly grated ginger, chopped red chile and extra virgin olive oil. She suggests cooking these smaller lentils until they are soft inside while still maintaining their shape. “To test them, press a lentil between your fingers, and if it feels firm or granular then keep on cooking,” Chandler says. “Undercooked lentils feel mealy in the mouth and are hard work to digest.”

The Beluga’s deep-black color not only looks good but also means it’s high in an antioxidant called anthocyanin, also found in foods such as eggplant, blackberries and plums.

Red

A bright salmon-colored hue when raw, this variety turns brown and loses its texture when cooked, making it perfect for creamier creations.

“These small, flat lentils are in fact hulled and split regular lentils,” Chandler explains. “They cook and collapse quickly as they are missing their protective skin, and are not as high in fiber but absolutely fabulous for Indian dals and creamy soups.”

Dragonwagon loves to display red lentils in the kitchen in jars because of their vibrant colors. “Their beauty is more striking when they are uncooked,” she says. “When cooked they are more of a yellowish color and can be a wonderful base for Indian lentil soup and in dips.”

Puy

This small, dark-green lentil with black or bluish undertones is grown in the volcanic soils of the Puy region of France, resulting in a higher mineral content than other varieties. (French Greens are the same variety but grown outside the Puy region, most commonly in North America and Italy.)

Like Belugas, Puys hold their shape well for use in salads. “I love Puy lentils; it sounds bonkers but their mottled tealy-blue and green skins bring me joy before I even begin to cook them,” Chandler says. “They have a fabulously nutty flavor and an almost peppery aftertaste.”

Chandler enjoys them served warm or cold. “But my favorite way is the classic French dish cooked up in stock with a bouquet garni [a bundle of herbs usually tied together with string] and then served with plenty of melted butter, lemon juice and parsley,” she says. “It’s also sublime with simply grilled fish.”

Dragonwagon likes to use Puys in salads or served as a simple side dish. “In France and Italy to some extent, they often serve beans as a side dish like we might serve mashed potatoes,” she says. “They might have legumes with roasted lamb, and add some of the lamb fat to the legumes for flavor.”

Spanish Pardina

These small brownish-gray lentils, also known as Spanish browns (pardo in Spanish means “brown”), are known for their nutty flavor and a texture that holds up well, making them perfect for salads and side dishes.

“They don’t look glamorous, but they are so so tasty, with almost an herbaceous aftertaste,” Chandler says. “They’re just great cooked up with a hint of chorizo or a touch of smoked paprika.”

Now grown more commonly in North America than in Spain, Spanish Pardinas have a “smooth, meltier consistency,” according to Dragonwagon.She enjoys the flavor, which is slightly richer than that of brown lentils, in a Spanish-style soup or paired with tomato sauces and curry spices. She notes that they work well as a substitute for brown lentils.

 

ET RECIPE

Syrian-style Red Lentil
Soup with Onions

“The slight thickening added by a little flour near the end is traditional (some versions use the more modern cornstarch), but not necessary,” says Crescent Dragonwagon. “Omit it if you like.”

2½ cups split red lentils, picked over and rinsed
10 cups water
2½ tsp salt
vegetable oil cooking spray
2 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1-3 cloves garlic (to taste), finely minced
1½ tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground coriander
2 tbsp unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ cup water
lemon wedges, for serving
extra-virgin olive oil, for serving

1. Put the lentils in a large soup pot; add water. Bring to a full boil, then turn down the heat to medium-low and cover partially. Let simmer, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are mushy, medium-thick and uniform, 45-60 minutes. Add salt and stir well. Continue to simmer over low heat, uncovered, stirring occasionally to keep the lentils warm.

2. Spray a heavy skillet with vegetable oil (or use a nonstick skillet) and place over medium heat. Add olive oil and, when hot, add onion. Cook, stirring, until onion has softened and is translucent but not browned, 7-8 minutes. Then lower the heat slightly and add garlic, cumin and coriander. Cook about 30 seconds (take care; garlic burns easily). Remove from the heat and stir gently into the simmering lentils. If you like, scoop some soup into the skillet, place over medium heat, and stir, scraping the bottom to get up any last little bits; return to the soup.

3. Dissolve flour in 1/4 cup water and stir into the soup. Simmer, stirring often, until the soup loses any raw-flour taste, 5-7 minutes. Serve hot, passing the lemon wedges and additional olive oil at the table.

 

Serves 4 to 6

Crescent Dragonwagon, from Bean By Bean: A Cookbook

(Workman Publishing Company, 2012; www.workman.com).

 

ET RECIPE

CD’s Very Best Lentil, Mushroom
& Barley Soup

Dragonwagon suggests serving this hearty soup with “warmed brioche,
perhaps, or popovers. Add a simple green salad with some bitter greens,
very lightly dressed with an assertive vinaigrette.”

4 cups water
1 cup lentils
¾ cup pearled barley
1 bay leaf
6 cups mushroom stock
2 oz mixed dried porcini and shiitake mushrooms
2-3 tbsp butter
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 stalks celery with leaves, coarsely chopped
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
1 small parsnip, peeled and finely chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups crisp, dry white wine
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 lb fresh mushrooms, tough stems removed, coarsely chopped
½ bunch fresh dill, tough stems removed, chopped
1 tsp salt, or more to taste
freshly ground black pepper

1. In a large soup pot, combine water, lentils, barley and bay leaf. Bring to a full boil, then turn down to simmer and cook, covered, until the legumes and barley are almost tender; 45-50 minutes. Stir in the mushroom stock, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover tightly. Continue to cook slowly.

2. Meanwhile, place the dried mushrooms in a heatproof bowl, pour in enough boiling water to barely cover them and set aside.

3. Put a large skillet over medium heat; when hot, add butter. When melted, lower heat slightly, add onion, and cook, stirring often until limp and golden but not browned, about 8 minutes. Add celery, carrot and parsnip, and sauté for 3 minutes more. Turn heat to low, add garlic, and sauté for 1 minute. Add wine and tomato paste; heat, scraping with a wooden spoon to loosen any browned bits. Stir onion mixture into the legume-barley mixture.

4. Strain the soaked mushrooms through a coffee filter–lined sieve over a bowl; reserve the soaking liquid. Coarsely chop the mushrooms and add them and the soaking liquid to the pot. Add fresh mushrooms, dill, salt and black pepper to taste. Stir well, cover, and continue cooking over very low heat until lentils and barley are very tender and the soup thick, about 1 hour. Discard the bay leaf. Serve hot, in warmed bowls, with a sprig of dill atop each one.

Serves 4 to 6

Crescent Dragonwagon, from Bean By Bean: A Cookbook
(Workman Publishing Company, 2012; www.workman.com).

 

More Ways to Enjoy Lentils

Marinated Lentilles du Puy
with Greens, Baked Beets,
Oranges & Walnuts

Crescent Dragonwagon calls this “a perfect main-dish salad for a late-fall lunch or dinner.”

Vegetable oil, for greasing the baking dish
3 medium red beets with fresh, vibrant greens
2 cups dried lentilles du Puy (French green lentils)
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
2 quarts vegetable stock, chicken stock or water
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 recipe Orange Vinaigrette (see below)
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 large or 2 small heads romaine lettuce, leaves washed and dried
3 medium oranges, peeled, seeded, and sectioned
About ½ cup toasted walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 baguette (preferably wholegrain), sliced and toasted, for serving
1 log (4 oz) plain or herbed goat cheese, for serving

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Coat the bottom and sides of a shallow baking dish with oil.

2. Trim the leaves from the beets, discarding any bruised or rotten ones. Set the greens aside. Scrub each beet, and place them in the prepared baking dish. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake until the beets are fork tender, 1 hour. Let the beets cool to room temperature; then slip them out of their skins and slice them into ¼” rounds. Reserve.

3. Meanwhile, combine the lentils, garlic, bay leaf, cinnamon stick and stock in a large pot over high heat. Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer and let cook, covered, until the lentils are almost tender, 30-40 minutes.

4. Trim away and discard the tough stems from the beet greens. Stack the leaves, roll them into a tight cylinder, and cut them crosswise into 1/4” ribbons (you’ll want to use a good sharp knife). Add the sliced beet greens to the lentils, and continue cooking until the lentils are fully tender but still hold their shape, about 10 minutes more. Drain off the excess liquid (reserving it for a soup stock, if you like). Discard the bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Transfer the lentils to a large bowl and let them cool to room temperature.

5. Toss the red onion into the lentils. Shake the dressing and add about two-thirds of it, tossing well to coat. Season the lentils to taste with salt and pepper, then cover them and place them in the refrigerator.

6. In a separate bowl, toss the beets with the remaining dressing. Chill them, too. You can prepare the recipe, up to this point, up to 2 days before serving.

7. About an hour before serving, bring both the beets and lentils to room temperature. When ready to serve, place the romaine lettuce leaves on one large or several small serving plates. Overlap the beets on top of the romaine, mound the lentil salad over that, and scatter with the orange sections and toasted walnuts. Put the toasted bread slices in a basket and pass with the goat cheese on a small cutting board at the table.
Serves 4 as an entrée, with accompaniments

 

Orange Vinaigrette

“It doesn’t get easier than this,” says Dragonwagon.
“Taste your olive oil; you want it fruity and fresh, with just a tiny hint of pleasing bitterness.”

Juice and grated zest of 1 orange (preferably organic)
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 clove garlic, pressed
1 tsp coarse salt
1 tsp honey or maple syrup, or a little more to taste

Combine all of the ingredients in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake the heck out of it. It’ll keep, refrigerated, for up to 10 days.
Makes about ¾ cup (enough for 1-2 salads)

Crescent Dragonwagon, from Bean By Bean: A Cookbook
(Workman Publishing Company, 2012; www.workman.com).

 

Lentil Tapenade

“This hearty, addictive spread has olives in it, like classic tapenade,” says Dragonwagon, “but because they don’t serve as the base, it’s less salty and less oily. Serve at room temperature with before-dinner drinks, in a bowl with several butter knives provided and a basket of baguette toasts on the side.”

Vegetable oil cooking spray
1 cup lentils, preferably French green lentils, rinsed and picked over
5 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bay leaf
2 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken stock, or water
2 tbsp sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, drained, patted dry and chopped
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil or the oil the sun-dried tomatoes were packed in
2 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley
3 tbsp capers, drained
1/2 cup chopped pitted kalamata olives
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
A few pretty sprigs of fresh parsley or 1 tbsp minced fresh parsley, for garnish
Lemon wedges, for garnish

1. Spray a large saucepan with oil and in it combine the lentils, 3 cloves of the garlic, the bay leaf and the stock over high heat. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and let cook gently for about 20 minutes. Add the sun-dried tomatoes and continue cooking, over medium heat, until the lentils are tender, 30-45 minutes. Let the lentils cool slightly and remove the bay leaf.

2. Transfer the lentil mixture to a food processor and buzz for 30 seconds, scraping down the sides of the bowl a couple of times. Add the remaining garlic cloves, 1 tbsp of the olive oil and the lemon juice, and buzz a little more, again pausing to scrape the bowl. When smooth, add the chopped parsley and pulse several more times to incorporate. Transfer to a mixing bowl.

3. Stir in the capers and chopped olives. Taste, and season with salt and pepper. If you like, you may refrigerate the tapenade for up to 2 days, bringing it to room temperature before serving.

4. When ready to serve, drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and garnish with the parsley sprigs and lemon wedges.

Serves 6 to 8 as an appetizer, more as part of a buffet

Variation
If by chance you have a few slices of leftover baked or grilled eggplant around,
chop it fine and stir it in with the capers and olives.

Crescent Dragonwagon, from Bean By Bean: A Cookbook
(Workman Publishing Company, 2012; www.workman.com).


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