Lentils: A Versatile Staple Flavors Classic International Dishes
If you have lentils, you have dinner. This high-fiber, protein-rich legume cooks in 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the dish, and requires no soaking. Lentils are the basis for many starters and salads, soups and stews, side dishes and Middle Eastern pastas. The distinctive flavor has been adapted to a variety of classic cuisines, from France to the Mediterranean, from India to Mexico and North America.
The usual supermarket offerings are brown lentils, but there are other varieties and they’re all worth looking out for. Chefs prefer the pricier small black “beluga” lentils (in their raw state they glisten like caviar, but the resemblance stops there) and the firm green Le Puy lentils from France, because when cooked both types stay intact and maintain a firmer texture. But the flavors of all three are similar enough to make them interchangeable in this week’s recipes.
Red lentils, available in Indian and Mediterranean markets, have a different taste, more akin to dried favas or split peas, and a very different texture when cooked, so do not attempt to substitute these for the brown, black or green varieties.
One fact worth noting: unlike other beans, lentils do not contain sulfur, the gas-producing element in legumes. And in addition to being an excellent source of soluble fiber and a good source of protein, manganese, iron, phosphorous, copper, vitamin B1 and potassium, lentils are an excellent source of molybdenum, a mineral important in the metabolism of fats, carbohydrates and iron.
Lentil Minestrone With Greens
A number of greens work well in this hearty Italian dish. Chard and turnip greens are growing in my garden, so those are ones I’m using now, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use kale, either.
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 large carrot, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
Salt, preferably kosher salt, to taste
1 (14-ounce) can chopped tomatoes, with liquid
1 pound lentils (brown or beluga), washed and picked over
2 1/2 quarts water
A bouquet garni made with a bay leaf, 2 sprigs each thyme and parsley, and a Parmesan rind
1/2 pound Swiss chard, mustard greens or kale, stemmed, washed in two changes of water, and roughly chopped (about 6 cups)
Freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup elbow macaroni or other soup pasta (optional)
Freshly grated Parmesan for serving
1. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy soup pot over medium heat, and add the onion and carrot. Cook, stirring, until the onion is tender, about 5 minutes. Add half the garlic and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Stir together for a minute, just until the garlic is fragrant, and add the tomatoes and their liquid. Turn up the heat slightly and cook, stirring often, until the tomatoes have cooked down and smell fragrant, about 10 minutes.
2. Stir in the lentils, water and bouquet garni, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer 30 minutes. Add the remaining garlic, salt to taste and add the greens. Continue to simmer, covered, for another 15 minutes. Add freshly ground pepper, taste and adjust seasoning. Stir in the pasta, and continue to simmer until the pasta is tender, five to 10 minutes. Remove the bouquet garni and serve, passing grated Parmesan at the table.
Yield: Serves 6 to 8
Advance preparation: The soup can be made up to a day or two ahead of time, but do not add the pasta until you are ready to serve. Reheat and add as directed.
A note about salt: From now on, I will indicate a preference for kosher salt in my recipes. Because of its crystalline structure, kosher salt is not as salty as fine sea salt.