Loving lentils: In soups to main dishes, this tiny legume packs a protein punch

Steve Peters / Photo

Steve Peters
RUTLAND BITES

I started on another popular diet recently. And I failed terribly. This time it was Paleo and I lasted less than a week. Between traveling out of town two of the past three weekends and starting a new job, trying to adhere to a new set of food rules was not realistic.

I learned that you should not decide overnight that you’re going to stop eating the majority of the food you already have in your kitchen. You also simply can’t focus on making the most strategic food choices when the other aspects of life are too messy and hectic. I don’t do specific kinds of diets often, but with the number of times I resorted to eating out rather than cooking in the past few weeks, I was reminded of how challenging it is to just eat well in general when life is demanding. Forget tacking on a new diet.

Which brings me to lentils. Lentils are inexpensive, easy to cook and a good source of protein and many other nutrients. They’re in two of the meals I planned out for this week as I ease back into some sort of routine. When people say they can’t afford to eat well or they don’t have the time to cook, lentils should be at the top of the list of suggestions.

Lentils are classified as a pulse, which is part of the bean or legume family. They grow in pods and are the seed of a plant, much like peas. Records indicate that humans have eaten lentils for thousands of years, dating back to prehistoric times. However, for other reasons, they’re not accepted in the Paleo diet — just so we’re clear. Lentils likely originated in Central Asia, and today, our top lentil producers are India, Turkey, Canada and China.

You may think you know lentils and have already formed your opinion on them. Though I bet you may be surprised by the number of varieties out there. Generally, lentils fall into three broad categories of brown, green or red. Green are the most common ones you see in bags in the grocery store, though the Rutland Co-op had at least four kinds of lentils in their bulk bins the last time I counted. If you haven’t ventured beyond the brown ones, you should give these others a try. I’ve found that some cook quicker and break down easier, like red, and others have great texture for salads, like dark green French lentils.

For the longest time, I only associated lentils with my grandmother’s lentil soup, one of the common dishes she would make whenever I stopped by for lunch. Yet, there are many other uses. In summer, lentils make a fine addition to a salad when you need a fast dinner and it’s too hot for much else. Or lentils may be mixed into pasta dishes for a meal that is a complete protein. Later this week, I’m trying a lentil and bean burger.

You can cook lentils as you would other legumes, by covering them with water and bringing to a simmer. The great thing about cooking them is that they require no presoaking. Just cover with water by an inch or two, simmer until tender, then drain off any excess liquid. Green lentils take about 30 minutes, while others may be ready in as little as 20. Of course, as you should before cooking any dried bean, look through for any small pebbles or debris and give them a rinse in a fine-mesh sieve.

Surprisingly, red lentils are the most popular variety of lentil in the world. Perhaps that’s due to India’s staple dish of dal. Dal, which is actually just an Indian term for lentils or beans, is also a creamy, spiced lentil food made with red lentils. Not to confuse you, but when looking for red lentils, note that they’re more orange than red, and often come split in half.

Dal is served with pita bread, vegetables and sometimes over rice in restaurants. I always imagined it simmered away for hours to achieve that creaminess and depth of flavor. But you can achieve the same quality in just about a half an hour at home. If you’ve never given red lentils a try, here’s your chance. They break down beautifully in no time.

In case you also have stalks of rhubarb piling up in your fridge or freezer, there’s another reason to give this version of dal a try. If not, feel free to leave it out. I found the key to achieving a good flavor is proper salting at the end of cooking and to not skip out on the butter.

Dal with Rhubarb

Adapted, just slightly, from “How to Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman

Serves 4 – 6

  • 1 cup red lentils, rinsed
  • About 3 stalks rhubarb, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 5 cardamom pods
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds
  • 3 cloves
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • Chopped cilantro, for serving

Combine all but the salt, butter and cilantro in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add water to cover everything by about 1 inch. Bring to a boil then simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the lentils are tender to your liking, remove the cloves and cardamom pods, add the salt and butter, and simmer a few more minutes until the dal is a sauce-like consistency. Taste and add more salt, if needed. Serve with pita or over rice.

Steve Peters

Steve Peters is a cook, gardener and baker living in Rutland.

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