Cooking With Lentils

New ways to cook with one of the world’s great foods.
Lentils are one of nature’s powerhouse foods. Hailing from India, Canada, China, and the Middle East, these little disc-shaped legumes are stocked with protein and soluble fiber. What’s more, they’re relatively inexpensive, a great budget stretcher for dinner any weeknight.

If that’s not enough to convince you, they’re relatively easy to cook: no soaking as with dried beans, and no changing the water as with dried chickpeas. Instead, you toss lentils into a pot, add some liquid and cook them up in a matter of minutes.

Most of us only know them about them from soups and stews — like beef barley soup, a diner favorite. In fact, there’s an Italian Beef and Lentil Slow-Cooker Stew right in our database that you can put together for dinner tonight.

But there’s so much more to lentils. So let’s get the basics down pat.

Lentil varieties
The most common lentils in North America are the tiny, delicately flavored green lentils (sometimes called French lentils) and the larger, earthier, brown lentils, sometimes used as the base of lentil burgers.

Those green lentils are perfect in salads. Want to try one of the best? Cook them up, then add some chopped veggies and a little vinegary dressing. Make a mound on a plate and top each serving with a poached or fried egg. Lentil bliss! This recipe for French Green Lentils is a great starting point — it's also a nice side dish on its own.

Here’s something surprising: the larger, brown lentils fall apart when cooked, way more so than those tiny French ones. So the brown ones are better as binders in burgers, pates, and dips.

There are also yellow and red or pink lentils, common in East Indian and Asian cooking. These fall apart even more than the brown ones, often turning mushy in curries and stews, a thickener as well as a nutritious additive. The yellow ones are particularly sweet and nutty.

And don’t miss the more esoteric black lentils, sometimes called beluga lentils and favored by gourmets worldwide. These little black buttons are prized for the way they hold their shape during cooking and for their musky, mushroomy flavor. If their black skins have been removed, they become the even rarer and more highly prized white lentils, a real treat.

In all cases, store any of these lentils as you would rice: in a dark, cool pantry inside air-tight containers.

Flavor combos
Because lentils have an earthy flavor, they take well to big tastes. Consider cumin, ground cinnamon, ground coriander, and even garam masala mixtures as a jumping off spot. In terms of fresh herbs, go big as well: rosemary, oregano, or tarragon.

Lentils are also superb with a variety of Asian flavors, including fresh ginger and most of the bottled Chinese condiments, from black bean sauce to spicy sambal olek.

Beyond the soup pot
Now that we’ve got you thinking about lentils, here are our top six ways to use them:

1. Lentil burgers. These little patties are great inside pita pockets, topped with shredded cucumber and a little low-fat sour cream. To make them, combine 1 3/4 cups cooked brown lentils, 3/4 cup rolled oats, 1/2 cup caramelized onions, 1 large egg white, 1 teaspoon dried herb like thyme or oregano and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a food processor; pulse until the mixture becomes a paste. Form into 6 patties and fry over medium heat in a skillet sprayed with nonstick spray.

2. An easy salad. Cook up a pot of green or black lentils and store them in the fridge for easy salads all week long. Toss the lentils with diced vegetables, a little cubed cheese, and the dressing of your choice, as in this wonderful recipe for Lentil Salad with Fresh Mint and Goat Cheese.

3. A meat stretcher. By adding cooked brown lentils, you can cut down the meat by half (by weight) in your favorite meatloaf or burger recipes, an excellent way to economically add even more flavor to weeknight favorites.

4. Lentil loaf. Go all out and make a whole meatless meat loaf with lentils. Shred 3 medium carrots into a food processor fitted with the chopping blade. Add 2 cups cooked brown lentils, 6 chopped medium scallions, 1 tablespoon minced peeled ginger, 1 quartered garlic clove, 1/2 cup regular or quick-cooking oats, 1/2 cup whole-wheat bread crumbs, 1 large egg plus 1 large egg white and 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce. Pulse until well combined but not puréed. Spray the inside of a 9-x-5-inch loaf pan with nonstick spray, then spread this mixture into it. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 45 minutes or until set. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a cutting board and slice into 8 pieces.

5. Dips and spreads. It's easy to make a creamy dip when you've got cooked lentils on your side. Put 2 cups in a food processor with about 1/2 cup cooked vegetables, jarred roasted red peppers, thawed-from-frozen broccoli florets and/or canned artichoke hearts. If you like, add an anchovy or two, a quartered garlic clove, some dried spices and a few dashes of hot red pepper sauce. Whir it up and you're good to go, ready for toasted whole-wheat pita triangles or celery sticks.

So now you know: lentils are a great culinary find, way beyond the soups and stews in which we already love them. Enjoy this powerhouse all winter, a great nutritional spark on these otherwise dull days.

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