My senior year of college, a vegetarian restaurant opened in town. My friend Sally and I decided to give it a try. We asked others to join us but were soundly rebuffed.
“Eeeew,” sniffed Sally’s roommate, Ann.
“Double eeeew,” said my roommate, Cece.
Understand that this was the early ’80s and the beef-happy Midwest. Vegetarian eateries weren’t as prolific as they are today, and those manning the ovens weren’t as well-trained. Still, Sally and I trekked off on our eating adventure, leaving Ann to her double-beef burrito and Cece to her breaded pork chop.
We should have listened to our roommates. Sally and I were the only customers in an almost literal hole in the wall. The smell of incense overpowered any aromas coming from the kitchen, which specialized in endless variations of black beans, alfalfa and lentils. I got home and became terribly sick.
“I don’t think lentils agree with you,” Sally said.
Turns out, my sickness had more to do with health code violations than lentils — which is a good thing. Today, lentils are one of my favorite dishes.
I love these little seeds. Red lentils, green lentils, brown lentils, French indigo lentils … I happily eat them all. Once you master a few cooking techniques, they’re a snap to make and are delicious on their own or as a complement to entrees as varied as seafood, poultry and lamb.
Lentils are a good source of protein and iron (hence their proliferation at that vegetarian restaurant). They’re also rich in folate, fiber, potassium and thiamin. A quarter cup of dried seeds has between 110 (brown) and 170 (red) calories.
I like my lentils to be as fresh as possible, so I bypass the supermarket’s mass-produced plastic bags of legumes. Instead, I buy them from the Roots organic market in my neighborhood.
Lentils have a deep, meaty flavor. Their earthiness makes them excellent playmates with assertive spices like curry, cardamom and coriander. They stand up to tartly astringent flavors like Dijon mustard and tarragon vinegar. They’re excellent foils for sweet vegetables like carrots and caramelized leeks.
And they’re versatile: You can puree cooked lentils into a velvety soup. You can mash them into hummus. You can toss them with vegetables and herbs, then chill them for a bracing salad. Or you can douse them with mustard, vinegar and olive oil and spoon them atop roasted salmon or cod.
Just remember that when cooking lentils, less is more. They only need 20-25 minutes in an uncovered pot of simmering water to emerge tender but with their shape still intact. (If you’re adding an acidic ingredient like tomatoes or lemon juice to your cooking liquid, you’ll need to double your cooking time.) A 1:4 ratio — 1 cup lentils to 4 cups water or broth — is perfect when using them for soups or precooking them for salads; a 1:2 ratio works well for stews.
I pulled out my lentil stash last night to repurpose Easter dinner’s leg of lamb. Because lamb’s flavor is so distinct, I wanted a lentil variation that would stand up to it. I turned to this recipe from Ina Garten, modifying it slightly to accommodate my pantry staples.
I cooked the lentils, then tossed them with my leftover lamb, which I’d cut into chunks. The dish was rich, aromatic and teeming with vegetables and spices. The carrots and vinegar lent a sweet note to the meat. The tang of mustard cut through the lamb’s richness. The entire kitchen smelled warm and inviting.
With no hint of incense.
Lentils With Carrots & Mustard (adapted from Ina Garten’s “How Easy Is That?”)
Measure 1 cup lentils (I use French indigo) and place in a colander. Pick out any stones; rinse well and drain.
Place lentils, 4 cups water, 1 smashed garlic clove, 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and freshly ground pepper in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, saute 1 small, diced onion and 1/2 cup diced carrots in 2 tablespoons olive oil for about 5 minutes. Add 1 large minced garlic clove and saute for an additional minute.
When lentils are boiling, turn the heat to low and add the onion/carrot mixture. Stir well then simmer, uncovered, for 20-25 minutes, or until lentils are tender. Drain and place in a bowl. If possible, pick out the smashed garlic clove.
In a separate bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup olive oil, 4 teaspoons Dijon mustard, 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, salt and pepper. Pour over lentils, then add 1 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary and 1/4 cup finely chopped parsley. Stir well. Serve as is or with baked salmon or lamb.