The many lives of lentils – The Denver Post

By David Tanis, The New York Times

At my house, dinner is not a three-course meal every night. More likely, it’s a main course and a green salad. Sometimes, it is a one-pot main course, though not always. (I find that even when cooking a simple meal, at least two pots and pans are often involved.) And, quite frequently, dinner is meatless.

While I consider myself a carnivore, my first love will always be vegetables. I’m quite happy to have a vegetarian meal several times a week.

In addition to fresh vegetables, whole grains and dried legumes are usually part of the picture. I’m a big fan of every type of bean, whether cannellini or garbanzo, with a cupboard full of them to choose from. Lately, it is lentils that most strike my fancy. Aside from being delicious, they have the advantage of being quick-cooking. It usually takes no more than 30 minutes to simmer a pot, so they are perfect for a relatively fast meal.

For most uses, any kind will work, but even among lentils, there are lots of types to choose from. If the meal is leaning in a Spanish direction, I might go with Pardina lentils, a small brown variety good for stews, soups or salads. For an Italianate dish, I like Castelluccio lentils from Umbria. When I want to veer toward Turkish flavors, I choose split red lentils.

What follows are three lentil dinners I highly recommend. They are all vegetarian, and all have the advantage of tasting good, perhaps better, when prepared in advance. Lastly, each of these dishes can benefit from a drizzle of fruity extra-virgin olive oil as a final flourish, to make them that much more luscious.

Smoky Lentil Stew With Leeks and Potatoes

This rustic stew improves after a day in the fridge. At the very least, try to cook it an hour or two ahead of the meal, so the elements have time to meld. (You can also make it to eat over several days, or to freeze for later.) Any size green or brown lentil will work here, if you can’t get the small Spanish Pardina lentils (or French lentilles du Puy). But the smoky pimentón is vital: Along with extra-virgin olive oil, it provides real depth of flavor.

Yield: 6 servings

Total time: 1 hour

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups small lentils, such as Pardina or Puy (12 ounces), or use any size green or brown lentil
  • 1 medium onion, halved, plus 2 bay leaves and 2 whole cloves
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 4 or 5 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced 3/4-inch thick
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 2 medium leeks, white and tender green parts, chopped in 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  • 1 large thyme or rosemary sprig
  • 2 tablespoons pimentón dulce or smoked sweet paprika
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne, or to taste
  • Small pinch of saffron (about 12 strands), soaked in 1/4 cup cold water
  • 1 cup chopped canned tomato with juice
  • 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
  • Chopped parsley (optional)

Preparation

1. Rinse lentils. Put them in a Dutch oven or large, heavy-bottomed pot and add 8 cups water. Pin a bay leaf to each onion half using a whole clove and add to the pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, add a large pinch of salt, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook with lid ajar for about 30 minutes, until soft. Turn off heat.

2. Meanwhile, bring a medium pot of salted water to boil, and cook the potato slices until just done, about 10 minutes, then drain and spread out on a baking sheet to cool.

3. Put 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is wavy, add leeks and stir to coat. Season with salt and pepper. Let leeks cook briskly, stirring frequently until soft but still bright green, about 5 to 8 minutes. Turn heat to medium, stir in chopped garlic, thyme, pimentón and cayenne.

4. Add saffron and soaking water, the chopped tomato and vinegar. Turn heat to high and let everything simmer for a few minutes. Pour contents of skillet into Dutch oven with lentils. Add the reserved potatoes.

5. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook covered with lid ajar for about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning, then cook for 10 more minutes. The lentils will be quite soft and the potatoes will start to break. Discard onion and thyme sprig.

6. Finish with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and chopped parsley, if you wish.

Spaghetti With Lentils, Tomato and Fennel

There are many versions of pasta with lentils, a multitude of which are thick and stewlike, more lentil than pasta. This one emphasizes the pasta. The saucy lentil topping is similar to a traditional Bolognese ragù. The addition of fennel — seeds, bulb and chopped green fronds — gives it a surprising brightness and zest. For even more flavor, put your saved-up Parmesan rinds to use in the sauce. (Meat eaters: Add a little chopped anchovy or Italian fennel sausage.)

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 1 hour

Ingredients

  • 1 cup small lentils, such as Castelluccio or Puy
  • A small piece of Parmesan rind (optional)
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 small onion, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 2 small fennel bulbs, diced (about 2 cups), lacy green fronds finely chopped and reserved
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed fennel seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup tomato passata or crushed canned tomato
  • 1 pound spaghetti
  • Shavings of ricotta salata or pecorino cheese

Preparation

1. Rinse lentils. Put them in a saucepan and cover with water by 1 inch. Toss in Parmesan rind, if using. Add a good pinch of salt and place over high heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until soft, about 30 minutes. Drain lentils and reserve cooking water.

2. As lentils cook, put 3 tablespoons oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. When oil is wavy, add diced onion and fennel, and season with salt and pepper. Add fennel seeds and red-pepper flakes. Cook, stirring, until softened and slightly caramelized, about 10 minutes.

3. Add garlic, passata and 2 or 3 tablespoons finely chopped fennel fronds. Stir to combine and add drained lentils. Turn heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes or so, until somewhat thickened. Taste and correct seasoning, then cook for 5 minutes more, so the flavors meld. Add lentil cooking water as necessary to keep everything saucy.

4. As sauce cooks, set a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook the spaghetti until al dente. Divide among individual bowls and ladle sauce over each serving. Top with shavings of ricotta salata and more chopped fennel fronds. Drizzle with a little extra-virgin olive oil, if desired.

Red Lentil Loaf

You may have encountered the kind of vegetarian lentil loaf that masquerades as something else. With its brownish-grey color and a red ketchup glaze, it tries to emulate the homespun comfort of meatloaf. Most recipes call for Worcestershire and barbecue sauce to make it taste beefy. This delicate red lentil loaf is worlds away from that. It’s all about the undisguised flavor of the lentil: sweet and vegetal. The seasoning is a little bit Turkish, with lemon, cumin, cilantro, dill and yogurt. It is delicious served at room temperature or warm. The loaf is easier to cut if cooled, with slices heated through in the oven. Even better is to griddle the slices with a little oil in a nonstick or cast-iron pan until crisp and golden on both sides.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 2 hours, plus cooling

Ingredients

  • 1 cup red lentils
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1 medium onion, diced (about 1 cup)
  • 1 teaspoon toasted and ground cumin seeds
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 medium carrots, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • Pinch of ground cayenne
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 tablespoons roughly chopped cilantro
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 2 Persian cucumbers, thinly sliced
  • 3 scallions, thinly slivered, for garnish
  • 1/4 cup roughly chopped dill, for garnish
  • Red-pepper flakes, for garnish

Preparation

1. Rinse lentils. Put them in a medium saucepan. Add water just to cover and a good pinch of salt. Bring to a boil high, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook for about 30 minutes, until very soft. Drain well.

2. Meanwhile, put 3 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add cumin, garlic and carrots, seasoning mixture well with salt and pepper. Add lemon zest and juice, and cayenne.

3. Transfer drained red lentils and onion mixture to the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until it’s the consistency of soft mashed potato, a bit lumpy. The mixture should be bright, peppery, lemony and well salted. Taste and adjust seasoning.

4. In a small bowl, beat the eggs with a fork. Add the cilantro and beat together. Pour egg mixture into lentil mixture and pulse to incorporate. Add oats and mix in.

5. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a loaf pan with olive oil. Lay a wide strip of parchment paper into the pan, leaving an overhang on two sides to help in removing cake later. Pour lentil mixture into the pan, smoothing the top. Fold excess parchment over the top. Bake until nicely browned, about 1 hour. Remove from pan and let cool. (The loaf is easier to cut if cooled.) Cut into 1-inch slices.

6. In a small bowl, mix together yogurt and cucumbers, and season with salt. Warm the slices up briefly in a 350-degree oven, if desired. Even better: Griddle the slices with a bit of oil in a nonstick or cast-iron pan until crisp and golden on both sides. Or simply serve at room temperature.

7. Spoon yogurt-cucumber sauce over each slice and sprinkle with scallion, dill and red-pepper flakes. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil, if you wish.

And to Drink …

The earthy, smoky flavors in this lentil stew send me on a beeline to the Northern Rhône Valley of France, ancestral home of the syrah grape, which with its peppery, savory flavors will be an excellent complement to this dish. Look for St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage or a midaged Cornas, coincidentally just what we drank in Wine School recently. You could also try syrahs from California or Australia, as long as they are made in a restrained style. Other red options? You could drink a new-wave grenache, like those coming from the Sierra de Gredos region of Spain, or an aglianico from Campania, as long as it’s not too tannic. Or if you want a white, I think this dish would go really well with a good chenin blanc. — Eric Asimov