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making lentils lovely

February 22nd, 2010 | 8 Comments »

There are certain foods that are superstars of nutritional value, simple to prepare and easy on the pocketbook yet are really kind of ugly ducklings in terms of aesthetics. If we eat with our eyes first and foremost, and if we didn’t know that these foods were not only powerhouses in being good for us AND very tasty as well, we would take one look at them and likely turn away in scorn. Take lentils for example. These tiny legumes are so rich in the good things we need for our bodies. But I imagine there’s a huge population of people simply turned off by their unfortunate lot in the food world beauty contest. Cooked to perfection and placed in a bowl, they resemble more a pile of mud than something amazing you want to eat.

Now doesn’t that sound delicious?! Can’t wait to dig in!

I do get it. Really, I do. If it wasn’t for the copious amounts of fragrant dhals and mounds of aromatic Indian food that I’ve come to adore in my life, I might not exactly be in the Lentil Fan Club. But I am. And I think that everyone should. As legumes go, the lentil is one that you can take from dried form to beautifully cooked with hardly a second thought. Even the largest brown lentils will cook up nicely in about 20-30 minutes, the smaller pink and red ones turn delightfully smooth even faster, making the lentil a smart choice to keep on hand for a hearty meal. With added vegetables, it turns into a perfect soup. Served over rice, maybe with a salad and you’ve got a complete meal. Add in one of the heady fragrant spices of Indian cuisine, such as fenugreek or cumin -or in this case, both- and you’ve got a delicious creamy, slightly spicy and overall compelling meal with little more than boiling some water and a measuring spoon or two.

By far and away my favorite lentil is the French Puy, also known as the French Green lentil. It’s smaller than the brown, larger than the more colorful red and pink and will also cook up easily, all the while retaining it’s shape more without turning mushy. While the mushy lentil does have it’s place, I really prefer some texture to them. The Puy has a somewhat higher price tag than the brown, but I think it’s worth it. The flavor too, is deep and earthy, a bit more intense over the somewhat gritty taste I’ve come across in the brown.

My first exposure to lentils was as a wee lass in elementary school. Our schooling, up until I was in 5th grade, centered mostly around a loosely defined cooperative that rented space in an old Catholic school building. We had some pretty progressive education, I guess these days it ties in best with home schooling, and one year we did volunteer work at the Renaissance Festival in a soup booth, making both Beet Borscht and Lentil Soup. I did not like the lentil soup much, but I was a kid. Forgive me for thinking it was odd among my usual repertoire of fish sticks and Rice-a-Roni.

Then in college, I had a roommate for a time who was a vegetarian and loved to cook. On occasion I would tag along with her on her trips to The Wedge Co-Op, back in the long ago days when it was so tiny that barely two people could stand in any aisle. I often had no clue about the foods she would buy but I asked her endless questions and when she cooked she would share some of her meals with me. One meal was lentils, and although I didn’t fall down in love with them, I had a better idea of them than what my childhood memories had given me. Still, it took cementing my love of Indian food for me to begin actually making them at home. Once I did discover how good they could be, really there’s no stopping me now. If only I could convince The Teen to try them.

One of these days, maybe.

Dhal with Green Lentils
adapted slightly from The Curry Book by Nancy McDermott

1 c. french puy green lentils, rinsed and sorted
4-5 c. water
1 t. ground turmeric
1 t. fenugreek seeds, crushed
1/2 t. ground cayenne
2 t. cumin seeds
3 cloves finely minced garlic
2 T. finely minced fresh ginger
1 medium onion, finely minced
1 medium tomato, chopped

In a large saucepan, bring 4 cups of the water and lentils to a boil. Skim off any foam that may form. Reduce heat to medium-low and add the turmeric, fenugreek and cayenne. Allow to simmer, uncovered, until lentils are tender- approximately 25-35 minutes. You may need to add more water as the lentils cook to prevent them from sticking.

When lentils are tender, heat a small skillet over medium heat with oil of choice. Add the cumin seeds and cook until they become dark and fragrant, and begin to pop. Add in the onion, garlic and ginger and reduce the heat, sauteing gently and stirring occasionally until the vegetables are soft, about 5-7 minutes. Stir the mixture into the lentils and blend well. If the lentils are soupy, you can raise the heat and simmer the mixture to reduce the liquid. Keep an eye on it so it doesn’t burn and stir it to keep blended. When cooked to your desired consistency, stir in the tomato. It will thicken slightly as it stands. Season with salt if desired.

NOTE: It’s unlikely you can find fenugreek in anything other than seed form. To crush them, use a dedicated spice grinder if you have one, or place them in a sealed plastic bag and crush them with a rolling pin, a meat tenderizer or other hard implement. The seeds are pretty solid. Don’t be surprised if doing it by hand requires slight effort. It’s totally worth it for the flavor.

This dish definitely gets better with some time to sit in the fridge. It can be made with the smaller colored lentils but keep in mind that the cooking time will be much quicker, and it will have a different texture. One cup of red lentils will need less water, about 3-4 cups.

Overload, and salvation

April 20th, 2009 | 9 Comments »

There’s a glut of food blogs on the ‘net, have you noticed? I’ve been trolling for some new inspiration, awesome lurk-worthy sites that are an instant source of excitement, chock full of recipes that I can’t wait to make.

I found myself gasping at what was in front of me; I was a bit taken aback, like thinking I fell into another era. The posts talked about mac and cheese, baked potatoes covered with canned soup, casseroles with frozen vegetables and potatoes, grilled cheese sandwiches with perfect squares of fake cheese…..and please excuse me for sounding snobbish as I certainly know I do right about now…. but this is the food that Jamie and I joke and laugh about, the stuff we were forced to eat coming of age in the 1970′s from mothers who only knew about Betty Crocker and The Joy of Cooking.  This is not, in all our 2009 understanding about our food, our health, the way we can nurture and protect ourselves from the plate up; this is not food. I’m sorry. Forgive the mini-rant, it’s done now.

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It gets better….I promise-  read on…….

Come in to my kitchen…

Lentil Vegetable Soup

March 27th, 2008 | 4 Comments »

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Lentil Vegetable Soup

2 c. small french green lentils, washed and picked over
6 c. water

Combine in large stockpot and bring to a boil. Simmer about 20 minutes, or until tender. Drain and reserve. Use any form of lentil you wish; the small green ones hold their shape nicely for a good texture in soup.

In a large soup pot, I heated olive oil. Into the oil went two small yellow onions, diced; about 5-6 small carrots, peeled and diced and one yam, peeled and diced. I cooked the vegetables until soft over medium-high heat, then turned down the flame and allowed them to brown slowly, stirring occasionally. After about 25 minutes, I added in two cloves of minced garlic and a cup of cooked wheatberries. I browned it for another 10 minutes, then added in two cans of diced tomato, a quart of water and the cooked lentils. I brought this to a simmer, then stirred in about 2-3 cups of shredded spinach. I seasoned it with a little white pepper, cumin and Prudhomme’s Vegetable Magic seasoning. Five minutes later I turned off the flame.

The browning of the vegetables was solely to add flavor to the soup. It isn’t important, but I like a deep flavorful soup base and I was out of any kind of base except chicken and I didn’t want that. The variations on this recipe are endless and imaginative; Heidi tosses out lots of options on her site. The saffron cream was very good but the soup tasted delicious even without it.


Curried Lentils w/Sweet Potato and Chard

January 3rd, 2008 | 5 Comments »

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Curried Lentils With Sweet Potatoes and Swiss Chard

Yield: 8 to 10 side-dish servings; 6 main-course servings.

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 1-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
1 1/2 teaspoons garam masala
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
1 jalapeño pepper, seeded if desired, then minced
4 to 5 cups vegetable broth as needed
2 pounds orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into
1/2-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
1 1/2 cups dried lentils
1 bay leaf
1 pound Swiss chard, center ribs removed, leaves thinly sliced
1 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
Finely grated zest of 1 lime
Juice of 1/2 lime
1/3 cup finely chopped tamari almonds, for garnish (optional), available in health food stores
1/4 cup chopped scallions, for garnish.

1. In large saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent, 5 to 7 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, garam masala, curry powder and jalapeño. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute.

2. Stir in 4 cups broth, sweet potatoes, lentils and bay leaf. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium, partially cover, and simmer for 25 minutes. (If lentils seem dry, add up to 1 cup stock, as needed.) Stir in chard and salt and pepper, and continue cooking until lentils are tender and chard is cooked, about 30 to 45 minutes total.

3. Just before serving, stir in cilantro, lime zest and juice. Spoon into a large, shallow serving dish. Garnish with almonds if desired and scallions.

RECIPE NOTES: I am not a fan of swiss chard, so I used spinach instead. I added several diced carrots to the dish as well as the potato and that was delicious. At the end of the cooking time I dumped in a cup of cooked wheat berries (i keep them in the freezer). It adds more nutritional value to the dish and a nice nutty and chewy texture.
I cooked this for at least an hour and I think it could have cooked much more as the lentils still seemed a tad chewy. It’s hard to determine how much time is needed, but the potato was getting mushy and I didn’t want to cook it too much longer for fear they would fall apart. The spinach, if used, can be stirred in just a few minutes prior to serving; it won’t need much to make it wilt. It can be eaten alone, no doubt; we love the rice; so for us that was perfect. We did not top it with almonds.

Lentil and Couscous Salald

November 7th, 2007 | 5 Comments »

Lentil and Couscous Salad

1 ½ c. lentils
3 c. water
Bring water and lentils to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until lentils are tender but not mushy; 20-25 minutes.

¾ c. couscous
1/3 c. broth or water
1 T/ olive oil
Bring water/broth and oil to a simmer and stir in couscous. Cover and remove from heat, let stand for 5 minutes then fluff with fork.

1 small red, orange or yellow pepper, seeded, cored and diced
1 shallot, peeled and diced
½ c. diced dried apricots
½ c. currants
½ c. chopped almonds

Saute shallot and pepper until soft, add in currants and apricots, cook for 5 minutes. Stir in almonds and remove from heat.

Dressing: Combine together:
½ c. olive oil
3 T white wine vinegar
3 T. lemon juice
2 T. lemon zest
1 t. cumin
1 clove garlic, mashed
2 T. fresh oregano, minced
salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, combine lentils, couscous and pepper/apricot mixture, stir to combine. Pour dressing over and toss gently. Chill or serve at room temp. Top with toasted almonds if desired.

Mix in one cup cooked wheatberries, if desired. Your choice.

Recipe Notes:
The original recipe called for the tiny french green lentils, but I used the larger brown ones because it was what I had on hand. Sub in any kind or color you like. You could even use a flavored couscous. Mix up the dried fruit too; cranberries might be yummy. Or omit it all together.

Wheatberry Lentil Soup

February 22nd, 2007 | 12 Comments »

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This utterly outstanding soup is courtesy of the current issue of Eating Well magazine. There is an very nice article about wheat berries in it, along with some very tempting recipes. We have enjoyed wheat berries before but I wasn’t 100% sure of how to cook them and so they disappeared from our meals. The magazine lists a method too. Of course, you could make this soup without the wheat berries and it would still likely be quite good. The berries add a certain earthy-ness to it though. Wheat berries are the whole, unprocessed wheat kernel, they are loaded with B vitamins, iron, magnesium, zinc and fiber and because they aren’t refined, all three parts of the grain- the nutrient rich bran, germ and endosperm are all intact making them a whole grain. And we all know how whole grains are very good for you. They do require a long cooking time though. Once cooked however, they keep very well in the freezer and can be tossed into soups still frozen, or heated up quickly in the microwave for a nice side dish. They are nutty, chewy, and grainy. You should be eating some of these little grains. To cook them, put two cups of washed and picked over berries in a large saucepan and add 7 cups of water with about 1/2 t. of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 1-1 1/2 hours while you go about your business. They should be chewy, easily broken with your teeth but not hard. Spread the cooked berries on a cookie sheet to cool, then they can be frozen in one cup increments in freezer bags for a month. The two cup amount yielded about 5 1/2 cups when I cooked them.

When you have the berries cooked, then make this soup.

Wheatberry Lentil Soup
1 ½ c. green or brown lentils, washed and picked over, 4 c. vegetable broth, 4 c. cold water. Place lentils in 4-quart stockpot, add broth and water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until lentils are tender, 25-35 minutes.

4 carrots, peeled and finely chopped, 1 large onion, finely chopped, ½ t. salt, ½ t. fresh ground pepper, 2 T. olive oil. Heat oil in sauté pan. Add carrot, onion, salt and pepper and sauté for approximately 15-20 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Vegetables should be tender, slightly browned. Then add the following:

4 cloves garlic, minced, 1 ½ t. ground cumin

Sauté for about 30 seconds to one minutes, Turn off heat.

When lentils are tender but not mushy, add 1-1 ½ c. cooked wheat berries and about two cups of rough chopped fresh chard or fresh spinach. Heat through until greens are wilted. Add in carrot mixture. Add in 3 T. fresh squeezed lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste.

(Serving size: 1 2/3 cups. Calories per serving: 250. Fat: 8 g (1 g sat, 5 g mono) O mg cholesterol, 36 g. carbs, 9 g. Protein, 9 g fiber, 617 mg sodium, 433 mg potassium. Extra nutrition: fiber, vitamin A, folate, vitamin C and Iron)

This soup was really delicious, and very flavorful. The lentils and berries added a nice chewiness to it, the carrots, while soft, weren’t mushy and had some good texture still. And I just love spinach, so that was perfect as well. The soup had a really good scent to it too, very earthy and hearty and it reminded me clearly of what the air smells like after a good rain. Kind of odd, but that was the image that came to mind when I bent over the steaming pot. Although I only had one serving, it filled me up. What a lunch! I could have just kept eating but y’know that just doesn’t help me when I see that drawer full of jeans that don’t fit.

A good note- all of Eating Well’s recipe’s are available on their website without a magazine or online subscription, so if you are at all interested in more things to do with the mighty wheat berry, visit them at eatingwell dot com. You might be really glad you did.