Sunday, September 28, 2008

Fall-toned Lentils – All the Earth Tones of Fall, and Protein, Too

I've not been blogging for a while, but I was inspired by a lentil soup meal we shared during a recent visit from one of our kids, Rachel, who I love to feed almost as much as I enjoy her earnest and honest intellect, her enthusiasm for her work as a media artist, and her crazy sense of fun. She loved the lentil soup and asked for the recipe (also posted on this site), but being new to lentils and newer to cooking, I couldn't resist putting together some food gab to add to the soup!

So now, all about lentils - colors and kinds, cooking tips, recipes and anecdotes for spice.

Lentils may be one of the most perfect foods, plenty of serviceable protein, high in fiber, and no significant fat. Also mineral rich, they have a fair amount of calcium, vitamins A and B, and are a good source of iron and phosphorus. In India, which is also the largest producer of lentils and home to more vegetarians than any other region of the world, they’re a star staple. Lentils have been nourishing folk, especially poor folk, even in Biblical times. Remember Esau selling his birthright for red porridge? That was porridge of red lentils, native to Egypt.

Today lentils are found the world over, particularly popular in Europe and the Middle East for spicy soups, health salads and stews rich with meat.
In Ancient Greece, a lentil soup called Pitisane fed the men of iron that fought the wars - and famously, at least one fine philosopher as well: There is the oft-told story of Diogenes and Aristippus, two philosophers at the court of the Syracusian tyrant, Dionysus. Aristippus, the Hedonist, and as such, quite a bit more successful at court, one day sought to counsel his colleague. Musing as he watched Diogenes preparing some lentils for a meager meal, Aristippus quipped:

"If you would only learn to flatter Dionysius more, you wouldn't have to live on lentils."

"And if you would only learn to live on lentils, you wouldn't have to flatter Dionysius," retorted Diogenes.

The Romans, too, developed a taste for lentils, and apparently a voracious need: Lentils fed the masses, and the crop at home wasn’t enough. Through the reign of Caligula, it is documented that Rome imported lentils from Egypt on a scale unequaled by any other food stuff trade up to that time.
The long and important history of lentils in the development of man yields many a choice anecdote. Clifford Wright, the food historian and expert on all foods Mediterranean, has more interesting info on his website.

The lentil food gab makes for great tableside chatter, but without the main course – lentils, of course - there’s no reason to be at the table! There’s more info below about the palette of lentil varieties, especially how to handle the cooking and soaking, if any.
Some quick lentil sides are described below, and a few special soups have their own posts – see the links or the list of recipes on the side panel.

One important proviso with lentil cooking, save the salting until the end of the cooking. Lentils cook more slowly if they're combined with salt or acidic ingredients, so add these last. Also, never cook lentils with baking soda – an old housewives trick that does soften them faster, but destroys the vitamin B1 in the process. And worried about the after dinner gases? The soaking water contains most of the chemicals that adversely react with bacteria in your system, producing flatulence: Discard the soak water, and there’s little to fear.

The Colors of Lentils

LENTIL LENTILS (brownish): The most common of lentils are the brown variety found everywhere in the dried bean aisle of all groceries. They are sold in two sizes – small and larger (but still smaller than peas). Mass produced, processed and often very dried, the larger regular lentils do require soaking – overnight is too much, but 4 hours at room temperature works; or, pour over boiling water and let rest for 1 hour before rinsing and using in your recipe. Longer simmering is required to completely cook the larger browns – not a good choice for a 30 minute meal! The smaller brown lentils need no soaking and cook up in soups and stews in 30 minutes for al dente. Both large and small brown lentils are great with meat-based lentil soups. A ham hock or diced pancetta are common broth basics. Sausages or franks also taste great in Euro-style lentil soups, with lots of diced veggies to balance franks and beans! And of course, there's a recipe on this blog.

RED LENTILS: The red split, lentils, native to Egypt are my favorite for soups and sides. Because they have no hull, they take the shortest time to cook and require no pre-soaking whatsoever. This type of lentil is usually found in everyday meals and make a quick and healthy (high protein) starch side. For a tasty salmon go-with, bring 2 cups water to a boil. Add an unpeeled clove of garlic, a sprig of rosemary, a shave of lemon peel and a few whole peppercorns. Simmer 10 minutes. Strain to remove rosemary, lemon and peppercorns, then simmer a cup of red lentils in the broth for about 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and serve with chopped cilantro or parsley – tastes great with simple salmon. There's a soup to try as well - see the Spicy Red Lentil from the Recipe List.

PUY LENTILS (tiny and dark green): Prized in French cooking, lentiles du puy are available in Whole Foods and better supermarkets. Because of their petit size, they also need little soaking, if any. Diners often remark that puy lentils taste almost like a fresh vegetable, and therefore, they’re great cold in salads. My favorite is a heart-friendly cold dish. Puys are not to be ignored for soups, either. The Velvety Lentil Soup made with puy lentils makes a great mini-meal, especially when temperatures start to climb. (Yes, heat cools!)

BELUGA BLACK (quite black!): These specialty lentils, so-called to conjure up the more luxurious caviar, were featured for a while back at Trader Joe’s, and are certainly a standout. With their novelty came a spate of recipes and recipe gab on the internet, too. Black lentils need no soak, and cook almost as quickly as puy lentils. They, too, work well in salads. I’ve seen some tempting recipes with diced red peppers (hot and sweet!), green onions, lime juice vinaigrette and cilantro, and, with a red wine vinaigrette, shallots, parsely and goat cheese or feta.

TOOR/ARHAR (yellow lentils): The Toor Dal, is dull yellow in color and is most often the base for many South Indian specialties like Sambhar. Other than in specialty Middle Eastern or Indian groceries, yellow lentils are not easy to find. They need to soak for a few hours before cooking, and take longer to boil down to a soft edible center. They cook up perfectly, however in a slow cooker – real comfort food carbs without the high glycemic index.

Spicy Red Lentil

Lentils scented with aromatic cumin and flavored with tangy lemon and garlic, garnished with golden crisp sautéed onions and a little cilantro: a mid-eastern style lentil soup that is both delicious and attractive, and best of all, quite quick and easy and to prepare. Since the soup is water based, no special broths are needed. And the ingredients, except the cilantro, are all pretty much kitchen staples.

I’ve adapted this recipe fusing approaches from several Middle Eastern style lentil soups. The spiciness is most common with the soup flavorings of the Gulf states or North Africa, while the red lentils are more Egyptian. Another recipe on this site, Lebanese Style Lentil Soup, has a much milder flavoring. I’ve come to love these middle eastern lentil soups, and for this I owe thanks to David Scott, author of Recipes for and Arabian Night (Pantheon 1983). His was the first cookbook of Arab recipes I acquired, and I’ve made many of his recipes my own through years of repeating and experimenting.

The Ingredients
1 cup red lentils
5 cups water
1 onion, sliced thin
4 Tbsp Olive Oil, or other good quality oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch fresh spinach or 8 oz. pkge frozen leaf spinach
juice of 1 large lemon, and quarters to server
½ tsp cumin
¼ tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
salt and pepper
¼ cup loosely chopped cilantro leaves (also called coriander)

Notes on the ingredients
Frozen spinach works as well as fresh, but completely thaw the spinach and squeeze out as much of water as possible. Otherwise the spinach will turn to mush when you sauté it with the garlic!

Slicing the onion: Not easy without a high end slicer, or professional experience. But, you will find the onion is much easier to handle if you cut in half from the root to the stem end (vertically). With the cut side down, you can slice thin with greater control.

Getting Started
The lentils cook quite quickly, so it is important to have all other ingredients fully prepped or started. The onions take a good 15 or 20 minutes to simmer and caramelize, so they should go first. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil, then add the sliced onions and allow to simmer over medium low heat, stirring as needed to prevent uneven cooking.

The spinach leaves, if fresh, should be thoroughly washed, stems removed, and if large, sliced horizontally in two inch ribbons. Baby spinach doesn’t seem to work as well, but sometimes its the only fresh available. If frozen, thaw in the microwave and remove as much water as you can, as in the above note.

Bring the lentils to boil in the five cups of water, cover and reduce heat. Allow the lentils to simmer for no more than 20 minutes.

Heat the remaining oil in a skillet type pan to medium, add the garlic and gently sauté until it begins to soften (not color). Add the spinach, stirring to coat evenly until all wilted. Set aside until lentils are ready. Next, check the onions – they are done once they have reached a golden crispness. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

Assembling the Soup

When lentils are cooked, add the cumin, salt and either cayenne or freshly ground pepper. Swirl in the spinach and let the soup simmer for a good five minutes to blend the flavors. Just before serving and off the heat, swirl in the lemon juice. Serve, garnishing each plate coriander leaves, caramelized onions and a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Lots of pita, lightly sprinkled with water and warmed to a gently crisp in the oven is great with the soup. Homemade hummus makes the meal divine.