The Lucky Lentil

The Lucky Lentil The New Year is an excellent time to explore the world of this little legume, as its round, coin like shape is said to bring good luck in the year ahead. Even without this little superstition, there are plenty of sound reasons to cook and eat lentils. Nutritionally, lentils are powerhouses. Low in fat, sodium, and Glycemic Index, they are high in protein, fiber, calcium, iron, and vitamin B. Lentils are also the most easily digestible legume. Cultivated for at least 10,000 years, lentils were the first legume to be domesticated, probably in Central Asia, where they are still a mainstay of the diet. Lentils figure prominently in the cooking of many countries around the world.

  • India, of course, is known for its many delicious dals, mild lentil dishes served at just about every meal. Indians in the southern part of the country also use lentil flour to make bread, pancakes, and fritters.

  • Lentils are big in Africa, where they are frequently the first food that mothers feed their babies. Lentils are popular in Europe, as well. While cooks in many countries make some variation of lentil soup, the German version is my favorite. You’ll also find lentils served with some great sausage, as well as the Swabian specialty of lentils with spaetzle, bacon, and vegetables. The French actually grow a unique lentil variety, lentilles du puy. These are grown in volcanic soil, in a dry climate in the Auvergne. A taste comparison of these two products is a perfect definition of the French term, terroir, meaning the characteristics of a certain food (or wine) that are attributable to soil, climate, and other environmental elements. Both the French and American lentils hold their shape very well when cooked, but the intense, minerally flavor of the French product makes them worth the extra cost. If you’re making a dish where you want the lentils to retain their shape, Puy or French green are the ones to choose, along with the tiny black Beluga (so named because when cooked, these lentils bear a resemblance to Beluga caviar available at Goods for Cooks). and Europe, and will hold its shape if not overcooked. If you want to end up with a lentil puree, choose yellow or red lentils, particularly split ones, (available at shops selling Indian foods, such as 10th Street Market). Nutritious and delicious, lentils also are super easy to cook. Unlike other legumes, they do not need to be soaked, so can be prepared on the spur of the moment. Depending on the variety, they usually cook in 10 to 20 minutes (older lentils will take longer). Additionally, unless you’re buying the fancy Puy or Beluga varieties, lentils are extremely easy on the wallet. One word of caution: lentils, especially those bought in bulk, can harbor tiny stones and other debris, so it is essential to pick them over before rinsing and cooking. This is best accomplished by spreading the lentils out on a light colored surface, and inspecting them carefully. Skipping this step could result in a broken tooth. Tasty, cheap, good for you what’s not to like about these little flavor sponges? Cooking with lentils is a great way to explore the cooking of many lands, and is perfect winter comfort food (if it ever gets cold). I’m including 3 recipes with my column today, and if you Google “French lentil recipe,” “German lentil recipe,” etc., you will find many more. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer until tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Drain well and leave to cool. Put the shallots in a bowl with the mustard, vinegar, and salt and pepper. Mix well and whisk in the oil. Put the eggs in a small saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 3 minutes. Cool quickly under cold running water, and peel.

  • Put eggs in a bowl of cold water until ready to serve. Stir the dill into the dressing, and pour over the lentils. Spoon onto 6 plates. Halve the eggs and put one half on each plate. Place 2 slices of salmon on top of the lentils. Scatter on a few dill fronds. Spicy Lentil and Sweet Potato Stew 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil1 medium onion, chopped2 cloves garlic, mincedSalt to taste2 teaspoons cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground2 medium carrots, diced1 cups brown or green lentils, rinsed6 cups water2 medium sized red skinned sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into large dice1 to 2 chipotles in adobo (to taste), chopped2 tablespoons tomato paste1 bay leaf cup chopped fresh parsley or cilantroLime wedges for servingHeat the olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat and add the onion. Cook, stirring often, until it softens, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and a generous pinch of salt; cook a further 30 seconds, and add the cumin and carrots. Stir together for a minute, then add the lentils, water, sweet potato, chipotles, tomato paste, salt to taste, and the bay leaf. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 40 to 45 minutes, until the lentils and sweet potato are tender. Taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in the parsley or cilantro and cook another minutes. Ladle into bowls and serve, passing lime wedges so that individual diners can add a squeeze to their portion. Recipe from The New York Times African Spiced Red Lentil Dip 2 cups brown lentils1 carrot, cut into 1 inch pieces1 medium red onion, chopped1 quart water or stock4 tablespoons unsalted butter or olive oil1 teaspoon ground cumin1 teaspoon ground coriander1 teaspoon ground ginger teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg teaspoon ground allspice to teaspoon cayenne pepper, to tasteSalt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste1 tablespoon fresh lemon juiceToasted pita triangles for servingIn a large saucepan, cover the lentils, carrot, and onion with the water or stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the lentils are tender and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 35 minutes. In a food processor, puree the lentils and vegetables. In the same saucepan, heat the butter or oil. Add the spices and cook over low heat, stirring a few times, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add the lentil puree and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Season generously with salt and black pepper, and stir in the lemon juice. Transfer to a serving bowl. Serve warm or at room temperature.