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Sexy Lentils


IMG_1693Beluga . . . Parisian nibble . . . Kashmir . . . Roman Holiday . . . unctuously delicious . . . moistest chocolate cake . . . I’m guessing these words and phrases don’t automatically conjure up lentils for you.  But that is all about to change.

We are going to banish the wet-wooley-hiking socks reputation that has dogged the lovely lentil and rehabilitate the image of this nutritious gift from the garden. Long the victims of sludgey brown casseroles, lentils have been relegated to the slag heap of cuisine for decades. Sure, the occasional chef has tossed them into his confit of duck, but for the home cook, lentils have suffered from the curse of miserly good-for-you-ness. But no more. Today’s post begins the renaissance of the perfect pulse.

To start with we are going to ignore the lentil’s goody-goody two shoes rep, so I want you to pay no attention to the fact that lentils are

  • Extremely affordable
  • An excellent source of protein, iron, folate and magnesium
  • Heart-healthy and cholesterol lowering
  • Available in a wide variety of colors and shapes ( you thought they only came in army green?)
  • Easy to store
  • Quick to prepare: no soaking!
  • Versatile  — they can be used to make soups, stews, salads, dips, dahls, breads, and even cake (yes, cake)
  • More fiber-rich than a commensurate amount of bran flakes
  • More potassium-happy than a banana

So, as I said, ignore the aforementioned list. From now on I want you to think of lentils as a naughty self-indulgence, the bad boy of the dinner table, a bit of wild on the side.  Speaking of wild things, Jo Robinson’s excellent new book Eating on the Wild Side suggests that the inky black beluga lentils are the most nutritious (oh dear, there’s that word again), followed by my personal favorite, Puy lentils…. so French, so Puy, so chi-chi. Whenever I need a hit of Paris-bistro cuisine, I cook up a batch of Puy lentils and toss them with toasted walnuts, chopped celery, shallots and a strong Dijon-parsley vinaigrette fortified with walnut oil.  Here’s the secret: make sure the lentils are still warm when you toss them with your homemade vinaigrette.

Then there are those times when you have to fantasize that you’re Audrey Hepburn playing a runaway princess just to keep going; for days like that, it’s good to cook up a bowl of what I call Roman Holiday lentil soup.  I make a light tomato broth that is Audrey elegant with its chiffonade of mint, and then I throw in a handful of everyday lentils to make it more substantial for your Gregory Peck-type-of-journalist-living-in-a-Roman-garret-who-needs-some-sustenance.  There are earthier Italian lentil soup recipes to be sure — lentil soup with escarole and pecorino comes to mind or the ubiquitous canned lentil soup doctored with red plonk and Parmesan that saw us through graduate school. But Roman Holiday lentil soup has the sophistication we need now to help lentils become a bit more raffiné.

IMG_1686If, instead, you are looking for something on the exotic side, there is always the dish I think of as the Sultan’s Lentils: fragrant basmati rice and green lentils tossed together with luxuriously sweet caramelized onions.  Beloved comfort food of the Middle East, this is one of those combinations that belies the simplicity of its ingredients.Sam and Sam Clark of the acclaimed London restaurant Moro add cinnamon and allspice, while Yotem Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, authors of Jerusalem, etc. add turmeric, cumin and corriander seeds to the mix.I forego the spices in lieu of a bit of parsley and some toasted pine nuts. I can imagine the sultan now, his turban slightly askew as he reaches for another bowl.

sultan image

The Sultan
Illustration by Kate McElhiney

To get truly spicy, head further east where you’ll find lentils used in dahls, soups, curries, and bread.  Wait for the first nippy evening of early autumn to try a seductive vegetable curry, made voluptuous with fast cooking red lentils. Indian cookbooks and blogs are loaded with delightful lentil and dahl recipes.  To be honest, this is worthy of a blog post of its own, so stay tuned (and, in the meantime, feel free to let me know your favorite!)

Feeling hot and bothered myself the other night, I threw together a warm salad of black beluga lentils tossed with pomegranates and feta. Talk about tempting  — the bad boy beluga lentils, punctuated by juicy kernels of ruby red fertility, spanked into tastiness with creamy sharp feta. Oooh baby!  Are you surprised by how inappropriate lentils have suddenly become? I’m calling this particular dish Come Hither Lentils.

Finally, as I was researching lentil dishes, I was intrigued to see pureed lentils in a chocolate cake recipe. Chocolate cake? That aphrodisiac?  I had to try it.  The review? Moist, certainly. Dense, yes, dark-chocolatey yes, but still there was something a bit peculiar about it. Honestly, lentils are much too delicious to hide in a cake, no matter how naughty the cake might be. Let’s keep lentils savory and savor them.



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