A staple in so many other parts of the world — lentils are bursting with nutrients, rich in protein, packed with fiber and slow-release carbs, incredibly versatile, and cheap to boot.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY PAOLA THOMAS
The Palouse region, which stretches across the Washington-Idaho border, used to grow 90% of the nation’s lentils. Nowadays, Washington state has slipped to third place in the national lentil league table, as more of the land is devoted to the production of garbanzo beans to feed our hummus addiction. But lentils remain an important crop and an ingredient that is shockingly underutilized in American cooking.
I say shockingly because these ancient legumes — a staple in so many other parts of the world — are bursting with nutrients, rich in protein, packed with fiber and slow-release carbs, incredibly versatile, and cheap to boot. This humble superfood has suffered somewhat here from its association with sandals, hippies, and the more earnest reaches of vegetarian cooking, so I turned instead to those cuisines where lentils are rightly prized for their subtle earthiness, intriguing texture, and ability to absorb layer upon layer of spice and flavor, to create dishes that elevate the lentil to gourmet status.
Italian Tomato, Lentil, and Bacon Soup
I couldn’t get enough of this soup the first time my Italian zia lifted a big pot of it from her stove, and it is still one of my family’s favorite suppers — rich, filling, and tasty enough to satisfy the heartiest of appetites and, if served with a loaf of crusty bread, the perfect one-pot meal for when the nights start drawing in. If you’re the sort of person who keeps a bag of Parmesan cheese rinds in the freezer ready to add unctuousness to soups (and if you’re not, I strongly recommend that you become one), this is the perfect time to deploy one of your golden treasures. If you want to create a vegetarian version, omit the pancetta or bacon and use vegetable stock or water.
Serves: 4 | Active time: 15 minutes + 40 minutes cooking time
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces pancetta or bacon, diced small
1 carrot finely chopped
1/2 large onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 14.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes (best without basil)
1 cup green lentils
3 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1 Parmesan cheese rind (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 generous handful spinach leaves
extra-virgin olive oil to swirl
2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan
Take a large soup pot and warm the olive oil until hot but not smoking. Add the bacon or pancetta and cook over a medium heat until golden, fragrant, and releasing its fat. Add the carrot, onion, and garlic, and sauté over a medium heat until soft and starting to caramelize, about 6 minutes.
Add the crushed tomatoes, lentils, chicken broth, and water — and Parmesan rind if using — and bring to a simmer. Cover the pot, leaving the lid open a crack, and continue simmering gently over a low to medium heat for 30–40 minutes until the soup has thickened and the lentils are soft. The soup should be substantial, but stir in a cup of hot water if it has thickened too much. Adjust seasoning to taste.
Remove from the heat and stir in the spinach until it wilts and melts into the soup. Top each bowl with a little swirl of extra-virgin olive oil and top with chopped parsley and grated Parmesan.
I like to serve this with grilled bread, brushed with a little olive oil and rubbed with a cut clove of garlic.
Like most Brits, I am obsessed with Indian food, and when I lived in London, we would eat curry almost once a week. The very first curry I tried in my teens was a prawn dhansak, and although I’ve zig-zagged through the menu a lot since then, it’s the dish I always return to. The menus in Indian restaurants usually inform me that it is a Parsi dish, which means it was brought to India by Zoroastrians from Persia. Beyond that, I know nothing about it, except that it is a delectable study in contrasts, balancing sweet and sour flavors with the heat of chillies and juxtaposing soft, creamy lentils with fat, juicy prawns. The red lentils in this dish cook down to a mush, though you could add more robust lentils for a bit of a bite. Anglo-Indian restaurants often use canned pineapple to add sweetness, but butternut squash or pumpkin is more usual in Indian recipes, and it lends an extra creamy texture and a less aggressive sweetness to the lentils.
Serves: 4 | Active time: 45 minutes
For the lentils
For the spice paste
8 black peppercorns
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
2 teaspoons garam masala
5 cloves garlic
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1–2 serrano chillies, deseeded and chopped
For the curry
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or ghee
2 medium onions, diced
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon tamarind paste (or juice of two limes + 1 tablespoon brown or palm sugar)
1 cup fresh tomatoes, chopped (or 1/2 14 ounce can crushed tomatoes)
6 cardamom pods
1 pound prawns, peeled (any size, though butterflied if large)
1 tablespoon ghee (optional), to finish
Handful of cilantro, chopped, to garnish
Put the lentils and butternut squash into a small saucepan with the turmeric and mint leaves and pour on water until just covered. Bring to the boil, cover the pan, and gently simmer 15–20 minutes until the lentils and squash are soft and have absorbed most of the water. Add more water during cooking if the mix gets too dry and starts to stick.
While the lentils are cooking, make the spice paste. Grind the peppercorns, mustard seeds, cinnamon, coriander, and garam masala together in a spice grinder or pestle and mortar. Add the garlic, ginger, and chillies and grind everything together to make an aromatic paste. Add a splash of water to loosen if required.
For the curry, heat the oil or ghee in a skillet and fry the diced onions with the salt over a medium heat for about 10 minutes, until they are golden brown and caramelized. Indian cooking requires onions to be cooked longer than is usual in Western cuisine, which brings out all the sweet flavors. Just be vigilant to make sure the onions don’t burn.
Add the spice paste to the onions and continue frying for about 5 minutes until the spices smell fragrant and the oil separates out. Again, be careful not to let the paste burn. Add the tamarind paste (or lime juice and sugar) and stir in the tomatoes and whole cardamom pods. Fry everything together gently for a further 5 minutes. Add the lentil mixture and cook, covered, for a further 10 minutes, adding a cup of warm water if the curry is very thick. (The curry should be very creamy but not soupy.) Add the prawns and cook for another 5 minutes until pink. Remove the cardamom pods, top with the remaining ghee and garnish with chopped cilantro.
Serve with basmati rice, naan bread, or some sautéed spinach if you’re low-carbing.
Lentil Salad with Roasted Carrots and Labneh
In Europe, the lentille du Puy or du Puy lentil from France’s Auvergne region, is considered to be the very king of lentils and a gourmet delight. This tiny grey-green lentil has a singular flinty taste, a firm bite, and keeps its shape very well during cooking, making it perfect for salads. Though the du Puy lentil is a protected appellation in France due to its unique terroir, Washington lentil farmers have been growing similar heirloom varieties. If you can’t find a du Puy–style lentil, then by all means use a regular green lentil, but be careful not to overcook.
The earthy taste of lentils goes perfectly with the earthiness of root vegetables. Carrots, roasted to a caramel sweetness, seem to be a particularly felicitous match. I have paired this lentil and carrot salad with labneh, a Middle Eastern cream cheese made of strained yogurt, mostly because I’m addicted to making the stuff, but a creamy goat cheese or salty feta would also go well. If you want to turn this into a hearty meal, serve with grilled salmon.
Serves: 4 | Active time: 45 minutes + about 1 hour cooling time
For the labneh (if using, you will need to start this the night before)
Measure yogurt into a bowl and add a pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon juice. Stir them in thoroughly. Line a fine strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth, leaving an overlap for wrapping the yogurt, and set the strainer over another bowl. Add the yogurt, wrap it with the cheesecloth, and set the bowl, strainer, and yogurt into the fridge for 12–24 hours. Before serving, swirl on some olive oil and, if you have it, sprinkle on some za’atar, the traditional garnish made from thyme and sesame seeds. (World Spice Merchants does a good version.)
For the lentils
1 1/2 cups French-style green lentils
1 bay leaf
5 sprigs thyme
1 small onion, peeled
4 cloves (optional)
For the carrots
10–15 slender carrots (or larger carrots, peeled if necessary, and sliced lengthwise into halves or quarters)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
For the lentil dressing and salad
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 generous handfuls arugula
1/2 red onion, finely sliced
1/2 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1/2 cup finely chopped mint
Preheat oven to 425°F.
Rinse lentils in a strainer and put them in a saucepot with the bay leaf and thyme. If using, press the cloves into the onion and place that in the pot. Cover everything generously with water and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook 20–25 minutes until the lentils are tender but still retain some bite. Be careful not to overcook.
While the lentils are cooking, place the carrots on a baking sheet, sprinkle on the olive oil and cumin seeds, and stir to coat thoroughly (I use my hands). Place in the oven for 20–25 minutes until tender to the fork. Set aside to cool. Whisk together the olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper for the dressing in a bowl big enough to accommodate the lentils.
When the lentils are cooked, remove the onion, thyme sprigs, and bay leaf, and drain the lentils well. Add the lentils to the dressing while still warm, stirring to coat. Set aside to cool until lukewarm or room temperature.
When the lentils have cooled, stir in the arugula, sliced onion, parsley, and mint. Taste and add a little more salt if necessary.
Serve the lukewarm lentils together with the carrots and a big scoop of labneh.
Paola is a keen home cook and baker and regular contributor to Edible Seattle. She loves playing with flavors in everything from cocktails to salads. Check out Paola’s food photography and other writing on paolathomas.com.