I didn’t always love lentils. To me, their flavor was not so much earthy as musty and dusty. As a very young foodie, I thought of them as international and exotic. No one I knew cooked them or ate them. They were a food that intrigued me. The first opportunity I had to try them was at the home of a friend who was newly vegetarian. She prepared them in the simplest way possible, simmered and served over brown rice. I was underwhelmed. It struck me as the type of thing that one would eat only because there was nothing else. Like porridge. Or gruel. Very Oliver Twist.
It wasn’t until I got a new cookbook for my 30th Christmas, “Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant” by The Moosewood Collective that I was inspired to give lentils another try. It was the beginning of my lentil love.
What I learned is that lentils are one of those foods that don’t have all that much flavor on its own. Rather, it easily absorbs the flavors around it. A lot like rice. (Which is why that early combo of lentils and rice was so very blah.) I started with a simple lentil stew, but soon moved on to lentils for salads and spreads and even snacks. One of the biggest things I learned was that a little bit of something acidic after cooking goes a long way in changing the flavor of lentils from musty and dusty to delicious! A splash of fresh squeezed lemon or a couple dashes of vinegar is just the right bright tone for this legume. Be sure not to add the acidity during the cooking! It will toughen the shell and your lentils will never become tender. (Learned that one the hard way!)
Besides being versatile, lentils are also affordable. Like dried beans, they will last practically forever in your pantry. Unlike dried beans, they do not require soaking and they cook up in minutes rather than hours. That makes them great for a quick meal, like LENTIL QUESIDILLAS. If you’re looking for a show-stopping dish that is earthy and full of goodness, try BELUGA LENTIL STEW with ROASTED BEETS and MUSHROOMS. Beluga lentils are small black lentils that are rounder than other lentils and resemble caviar. Hence the name Beluga. If you’ve made a big batch of lentils and have them in the fridge, there’s a lot you can do with them. Whiz some up in your blender and use it as a gluten-free thickener for soups and stews. Add some puree to your banana bread recipe or pancake batter or even chocolate chip cookies! Lentils for dessert? Sure! Why not? Add just a smidge to start and I will bet that no one will even know it is there!
But if you want a snack that is truly lentil-y, I recommend SPICY LENTIL CRUNCHIES. These addictive bites can be flavored in so many ways. Try my recipe then use your imagination. Soon, I promise, you will be in Lentil Love!
Makes 3 cups cooked lentils
1 cup lentils, rinsed and drained
3 cups water
½ teaspoon salt
In a saucepan, bring all ingredients to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer until lentils are desired degree of tenderness. 15-20 minutes for regular lentils, 5-7 minutes for small lentils. Drain any remaining water.
Makes 6 quesidillas
3 cups cooked green/brown lentils
3 cups cooked brown rice
12 Flour tortillas
3-4 cups Pepper Jack cheese, shredded
Salsa (tomatoes, onions, jalapeno peppers) for serving
¼ cup avocado oil
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat. Lightly brush one side of a flour tortilla with avocado oil and place it, oiled side down, in the skillet. Sprinkle about ¼ cup of the cheese evenly around the tortilla. Then spread about ½ cup of rice and ½ cup of lentils evenly over the cheese and tortilla. Sprinkle another half cup of cheese over rice/lentil mixture. Brush one side of a second tortilla with oil and place on top, oil side facing up. Cook 3 to 5 minutes, carefully flip the quesadilla and cook 3 to 5 minutes on the other side until both sides are golden brown. Remove from skillet and let stand a minute before cutting. This will help it hold together. Cut into wedges and serve with your favorite salsa. Repeat with remaining tortillas.
BELUGA LENTIL STEW WITH ROASTED BEETS AND MUSHROOMS
3 beets, peeled and cut into bite sized chunks
2 cups mushrooms (Crimini, shiitake, oyster, etc.), sliced
Thyme (2 sprigs fresh or 1 teaspoon dried)
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 small red onion, chopped
1 cup Beluga (black) lentils, rinsed and drained
2 cups stock
Juice of half a lemon
1 cup baby spinach or beet greens, washed and stemmed
Lentil sprouts (garnish), optional
Preheat the oven to 350°.
Peel the beets and cut them into bite sized chunks. Slice the mushrooms. Place beets and mushrooms on a foil lined sheet pan and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Season with salt and 2/3 of the thyme. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes or until beets are tender. Remove from oven and set aside.
In a saucepan heat about 1 Tablespoon of olive oil and add the onion, garlic, Beluga lentils and the remaining thyme. Sauté for a few minutes, then add the stock to the pot and stir. Lower the heat, cover and simmer for 25-30 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Most of the liquid should be evaporated. About 5 minutes before the end of cooking time, add the roasted beets to the pot and stir. Season to taste with salt and pepper, add the lemon juice and a splash of olive oil. Stir in the spinach until wilted (about 2 minutes). Transfer to a serving dish and place the mushrooms on top. Sprinkle lentil sprouts over for garnish and serve.
SPICY LENTIL CRUNCHIES
Makes approximately 1 cup
½ cup green/brown lentils, rinsed and drained
½ Tablespoon avocado oil
½ teaspoon garlic powder
Red chili flakes (or cayenne pepper, or your favorite hot pepper), to taste
½ teaspoon dried oregano
Salt and pepper, to taste
Rinse and drain lentils and place them in a saucepan. Add 1 ½-2 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer 15-20 minutes until lentils are cooked.
Preheat oven to 400°.
Drain any remaining water off of lentils and return them to the saucepan. Add garlic powder, red pepper flakes and oregano. Stir well to coat the lentils.
Transfer lentils to a sheet pan lined with parchment or foil. Spread into a single layer. Bake for 12 minutes. Stir lentils and bake for another 12-15 minutes until they are crunchy. Watch carefully during the last few minutes that they do not burn. Remove from oven and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Allow to cool before storing in an airtight container.