Food of the Week: Lentils

Lentils have a certain humbleness about them. They are inexpensive and don’t come in exciting packaging. They often feature in soups and what some would regard as weird, desperate vegetarian dishes like lentil loaf. Their appearance is dull, at least the brown and red types most common in this part of the world. “Red” lentils have more of a boring orange hue, certainly less colorful than a red bell pepper or strawberry.
Despite these humble qualities, lentils deserve a place in everyone’s diet, for most people a much more prominent place than they currently possess (barring an allergy). As states, “[L]entils are relatively quick and easy to prepare [judged against other dried legumes]. They readily absorb a variety of wonderful flavors from other foods and seasonings, are high in nutritional value and are available throughout the year.” Rich in protein, folate, iron, and manganese, and providing several other nutrients in smaller quantities, lentils are good for the heart and other muscles, and their large amounts of fiber can help people maintain a healthy weight.

Savory Lentils
with Goat Cheese

My Zone Diet cookbook says this serves one, but I can’t imagine eating this quantity by myself in one sitting. Instead, I think this makes a nice lunch for three people, accompanied by a vegetable and/or fruit.

1 c. brown lentils, rinsed and drained
 t. salt
2 c. water
1 clove garlic, minced
2 T. cilantro, chopped
2 T. chives, chopped
1  t. olive oil
Juice of 1 lime
4 oz. goat cheese
Black pepper to taste
Place lentils,  t. salt, and water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 20 minutes or until lentils are tender but still have texture. Remove from heat and drain. In a medium-sized bowl, combine the lentils, garlic, cilantro, and chives. Add the olive oil and lime juice, tossing gently, then fold in the goat cheese. Season with remaining salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Note: To cook the lentils faster, soak them in hot water for a while beforehand, and add about  c. less water when cooking.

Lentil Coconut Soup

1 can coconut milk
1 c. red lentils
1 onion, chopped
1 T. minced fresh ginger
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
3-4 c. chicken broth or water
Curry powder and cumin to taste
Pinch chili powder
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh spinach
Combine the first six ingredients in a crock pot or stock pot and cook on low for several hours to allow the lentils to break down, adding more broth or water if needed. Add spices and adjust after tasting. When nearly ready to serve, add the amount of spinach you want and cook until spinach is wilted.

Braised Lentils with Parsnips

The friend I ate this Mark Bittman dish with remarked that lentils and parsnips, once regarded as peasant fare, are now likely to be alien to working-class tables. I had to agree, which is unfortunate. Whatever your socio-economic status, I hope you’ll give this healthy and delicious recipe a try.  

2 T. olive oil
 onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, chopped
1 c. peeled and chopped parsnip
1 bay leaf
 c. dry (fino) sherry (opt.)
2 c. vegetable or chicken stock or water
1 c. brown lentils, rinsed and drained
Salt and pepper
1/8 c. cream or 1-2 T. butter (opt.)

Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, celery, and parsnips, cooking and stirring occasionally until the onion is soft, 5-7 minutes. Add the bay leaf, sherry (if using), stock/water, and lentils. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover partially, and cook until the lentils are tender, 25 to 30 minutes. (See note above about soaking lentils in advance). Stir occasionally and add more stock/water if needed. Taste, adding additional salt and pepper if needed and cream/butter if desired, and sprinkle with nutmeg just before serving.

Baked Apples Stuffed with
Pork, Lentils, and Cheddar

This recipe, of my own invention, was far easier to prepare in my imagination than in reality. I had to laugh at myself as I struggled to hollow out the apples while keeping them intact, and again when only half of the stuffing mixture fit inside the apples, resulting in a presentation that definitely wouldn’t win any food photography awards. But my dining companion and I agreed that the combination of flavors really works, so I decided to share this recipe even though it might cause you similar frustration.  

2 apples, such as Braeburn
 c. lentils
 lb. ground pork
 c. shredded cheddar cheese
 t. each salt and pepper

Heat oven to 375°. Remove the top third of each apple core and place the apples in an oven-proof loaf pan with a bit of water on the bottom. Bake about 35 minutes, until apples are tender enough to scoop out insides but not completely soft. Meanwhile, bring lentils to a simmer in  c. water and cook until just tender, adding more water if necessary. Cook the pork in a small frying pan until nearly cooked through. Let lentils and pork cool while returning to the apples, hollowing them out as best you can (let them cool off a bit before handling). Mix the cheese, salt, and pepper into the lentils and pork, then stuff the apples with the mixture. Chop up the scooped-out apple flesh, removing the seeds and hard bits of core, and put this together with any remaining lentil mixture in the dish alongside the stuffed apples. Return to the oven and bake until cheese is melted and pork is cooked through, about 10 more minutes.