Lentil Love: How to Sex Up a Simple Staple and Save
Let's face it. Lentils aren't usually a food that folks write love songs about, at least in this country. But for price and nutrition, they're pretty tough to beat. Bonus? They don't need a lengthy pre-soak and slow roast like some of their larger bean counterparts. Also, in many parts of the world they are prepared in ways that are so flavorful, we as Americans might not even recognize them. After test driving the Indian lentil soup (yum) from the nearest Sweet Tomatoes restaurant here in the St. Petersburg area, my interest in exploring these little nuggets of nutritional thrift was renewed.
What's to love about lentils? Well, they're dirt cheap, pack a powerful nutritional punch, and are incredibly versatile. Worried about only having access to brown ones? They come in a variety of colors, making them suitable for customizing a meal for visual presentation. And as I mentioned above, they cook up much more quickly than their larger bean relatives, making them ideal for those nights when you are short on time to prepare dinner. So, how do you make them sexy? Here's a break down.
DIPS AND SPREADS.
Looking for an alternative to hummus with your next batch of pita crisps? This affordable recipe mixes pureed lentils with split peas and ethnic seasonings, resulting in an unexpected alternative to onion dip. With split peas being right up there with lentils on my list of rock bottom cheapies I'd like to do more with, I was happy to see them used for something besides my stand by pea soup. Bonus? If you're into vegan, this fits the bill. Here's another link to a spicy lentil pate using coconut and cayenne. A couple of other interesting finds were lentil butter (a great sandwich idea or hummus substitute) and this recipe for lentil tepenade. Here's another link for reasonably interesting lentil spread.
SOUPS AND STEWS
My previous experiments with lentil soups were hum drum at best. The recent taste test of the Indian lentil soup at the nearest Sweet Tomatoes restaurant renewed my enthusiasm. While I'm still in the process of tracking down a copy of that particular recipe, here's a great Moroccan one from a fun little blog that Linsey turned me on to, and an interesting sounding French version from Chow.com. The most interesting sounding Indian one I've found so far is this one using lamb and served with zatar-seasoned dinner rolls. A few others I found of note?
- Here are one or two directly comparable recipes to a pureed yellow lentil soup that was always one of my favorites to order in Kuwait. Great with lemon wedges and some DIY sumac and pita pocket croutons. Feeling like something slightly more Syrian? Here's a link to a red lentil version as well.
SIDES AND SALADS
How do you turn a pile of dried legumes into a side dish you can serve with confidence? For starters, making a pilaf is really a super simple way to add a little protein and pizazz to a very basic side dish. A few brown lentils and grated carrot with some basmati, parsley and chicken stock in the rice cooker and you've got a scoop-able one dish dinner side you don't have to tend to. But really, that's just the beginning. There are many other options out there, both for hot sides and chilled salads.
Some ideas for sides?
How about this unusual idea for lentil bread, or curried lentils with sweet potatoes? A few others that made my list are herbed lentils with bacon, cauliflower-lentil curry, Ecuadorian sauced lentils, and this recipe for spicy red lentils courtesy of the Mayo Clinic.
Are salads more your speed?
I had quite a bit of luck researching these, finding Mediterranean, Southwestern, German, and quinoa-lentil combo salads. I also found a couple of meal-worthy lentil based salads, including this one for warm lentil potato salad with roasted garlic vinaigrette.
THE MAIN EVENT
Believe me, nobody was more shocked than I to find so many ways to take these things center stage at meal time. Seriously, who knew? In fact, with all the options available, I started to notice some category patterns in the way you could serve them.
As an entrée stuffing.
Personally, I think this is one of the sexier ways I saw them used. Some specific examples? Bulgur and lentil stuffed tomatoes with a yogurt garlic sauce, as an alternative to rice in stuffed peppers, and here in a recipe for baked sweet potato and lentil stuffing.
As a burger or salmon patty alternative.
Again, I have to come clean here. I went into this thinking I'd be lucky to find one or two recipes that weren't tasteless, not to mention visually frightening. I'm happy to report, I was pleasantly surprised. I'm not saying it was an easy search, mind you. There were some seriously terrible ideas out there in internet land. That being said, a few ideas for lentil based patties managed to make their way to the top of my list.
For starters, this resource for a spinach and bean combo patty caught my eye. So did this one for spicy black bean and lentil burgers. Overall though, I think the award for the most colorful, can't wait to try it recipe goes to this recipe featuring yellow lentils, Thai chili peppers and ginger root. Here's an extra one for those on a low glycemic index diet.
Boy, do I know what you're thinking. Lentil loaf. It's hard to even say the words without sounding like you have a ten ton weight on your shoulders. I think one of the things that helped me embrace this idea a little more was knowing from personal experience with other legumes just how effective the right sauce and seasonings can be. The list of links to recipes I felt showed any promise turned out to be quite sparse. Here's a link from Taste of Home, a source I trust for down home flavor. On the upside, the other categories have some yummy sounding options I did not expect, and as a result I have some modification ideas lined up to try. I'll keep you posted.
As a direct bean equivalent.
What I'm talking about here is the use of lentils in ways that you would also use any type of larger bean. Baked in a crock and served with biscuits, as a main chili ingredient, in a burrito, served over rice, whatever.
Make it a co-star.
Lentils make an excellent filler and pair well with other main ingredients to take center stage on the dinner plate. For example, how about this Moroccan meatball and lentil bake, or this spicy South African recipe? I was also excited to find this recipe for traditional Egyptian kosherie, a dish I fondly remember enjoying with a fellow international teacher after a night of bargain shopping in the old souk in Kuwait City. Don't forget the hot sauce though, if you want it to be truly authentic.
A FEW OTHER TREASURE TROVES FROM AROUND THE WEB
While much of my research resulted in large data bases comprised of every tasteless soup recipe featuring brown lentils, water and salt known to man, there were a few little golden nuggets of hope. My top three picks? A collection of slow cooker recipes for lentils, a great break down of one couple's favorite lentil recipes (including great pictures), and this resource from VegWeb.Com.
Hope this was helpful, folks. As inexpensive as lentils are, it would be a shame not to at least try to incorporate them into your family meal plan a few times a month (or week, if you're feeling adventurous). Now that I know how many appealing options are available, I'll be using these little budget beauties way more often. Got some suggestions or tips? You KNOW how I love to hear from you. Share the love, as usual, in the comment section below.
This post was included in the August 12, 2009 edition of Wanderfood Wednesday.