Sunday, September 28, 2008
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.