Sunday, 26 May 2013

The Hows and How Nots of Lentils

Lentils. Why? How? Where? Huh?  I know these questions have been milling around your head for years.  And I have the answers.

What are lentils?

Teeny tiny lentils, despite their humble appearance and flavour, can be surprisingly mysterious.  In most English speaking countries, they're underused and misunderstood.  Like beans, but not.  How do I cook them?  Why would I want to do that?  Will the vegans show me their secret handshake if I eat them once a day?  The answer to that last question is yes, by the way.  Not only that, but lentils are amazingly nutritious and so cheap it's kinda stupid.  They have more protein than any other type of legume, and have good bits of dietary fiber, folate, and iron.

There are a lot of different kinds of lentils and a myriad of ways to use them, and I'm not going to talk about each and every one of both here because I have stuff to do, people! But a few of the most common of each are detailed below:

What different types of lentils are there?

Red Split Lentils:  These are the first kind of lentils I ever learnt to cook with, so I feel a certain amount of loyalty to them.  And they are super easy to cook, only taking about 15 minutes.  They're supposed to turn to mush, so they're pretty forgivable.  By that I mean that once red split lentils are done, they won't really hold a lentil shape, they will be soft and formless.  Don't freak out.  This is natural and as it should be.  Red lentils are widely available, and have an array of uses, including soups, stews, dals, and curries.  They're also orange. I have no idea why they're called red.  Weird, eh?

Brown/Green lentils (aka continental lentils):  Brown and green lentils are, confusingly enough, the same kind of lentil (this type of green lentil is different to Puy lentils, below). Like red lentils, you can get them anywhere, and are probably the most commonly called for type of lentils in cookbooks.  They take about 30 mintues to cook properly, and hold their form somewhat, but they can turn mushy if cooked a little longer.  If that's what you're into.  So they're good in all kinds of applications: soups, stews, meat subs, salads, and loaves, etc.  Just chuck them into anything you want.

Puy Lentils:  Also known as French lentils and lentilles vertes.  These pretty little suckers come from the volcanic region of Le Puy-en-Velay, France.  And they are So Pretty!  The lovely green little pulses are not only a beautiful, jade-green colour, but they hold their shape very well once fully cooked, which takes about 20 minutes.  Puy lentils are especially good in lentil salads, both warm and cold, but they also work well in soups.

Black Beluga Lentils:  Again, so pretty.  So much prettiness!  These glossy black gems are very similar to Puy Lentils.  They hold their shape well and can be used in the same recipes as their green counterparts.  Weirdly enough, they are named for their resemblance to Beluga caviar, seen them used to replicate caviar in appetizers (for appearances only).  They also take about 20 minutes to cookand work well in salads and soups.

Yellow/Green Split Peas:  These aren't really lentils, but I've included them here as they can often be used in the same way.  These monkeys are nutritious and cheap as can be, and so should be staples in any student's kitchen.  There is no difference between the two types except for the colour.  Split pea soup is a classic use of them, and the smoky flavour that pig's meat sometimes adds can be replaced with a curious little ingredient by the name of liquid smoke.  Split peas can also be used to make stews (especially in a slow cooker), curries, and dals.  They take longer to cook than lentils: about 40-45 minutes, and they should be pretty mushy by the end of things.

How do you cook them?

In a pot.  Ha!  Rinse your lentils, and keep an eye out for little stones (although little stones in your lentils are pretty rare nowadays).  One cup of dry lentils will generally equal 2.5 cups of cooked lentils.  There are two ways of cooking them: 1) cover with a good amount of water and salt (optional), cook for the time mentioned above, and drain and rinse; 2) use 1 part lentils to two parts water and check the lentils periodically and add a bit of water as needed.  This way you don't have to drain the lentils, meaning you don't have to wash your strainer, which everyone knows is the worst part of washing up.

Of course, you can also sprout the lentils, but I don't really know anything about it, so I can't offer any advice.

What types of dishes can you make with them?

Soups and Stews: Happy, warm, soupful tummy.  Lentil soups are pretty common even outside of vegan land, and even in the pulse-phobic UK these bowls of homey bliss have stood the test of time. 
Best type of lentils: red, yellow/green split peas.  Both of these types of lentils will cook down until they're soft, making a thick, blended-esque soup.  Green split pea soup is a classic, and the smoky flavour of ham can be replaced using liquid smoke.
Good types of lentils: brown/green lentils, puy lentils, black lentils.  There's no bad lentil for soup.  Brown and green lentils can still be cooked into a sort of mushy texture, and make a thick soup.  Puy and black lentils will make a brothier soup.
Flavours: cumin, coriander, cinnamon, garam masala, tomatoes, thyme, rosemary, lemon, ginger, and basil are all common.

Dals and Curries: If you're unaware, dal is a type of smooshy, lentil based Indian curry, although it can be made with other types of pulses.  Dals are usually thick in texture, although sometimes they have a thinner, more soup-like texture.  Outside of dals, lots of curries will accept a handful of lentils thrown in for extra bulk.
If you visit a middle eastern or Indian grocery store, you'll see a lot of pulses with names like chana dal (split chickpeas), toor dal (yellow pigeon peas), and urud dal (black gram). Try currying them up and see how you like them.
Of the lentils in this post:
Best: red lentils, green/yellow split lentils (not commonly used in India, but suit this type of dish very well.
Good: green/brown lentils
Flavours: cumin, coriander, tomato paste, mustard seeds, garam masala, fenugreek seeds...general Indian-ish flavours.

Cows' Meat Substitute: Lentils can often be used instead of minced cows' meat (blurg).  If you're trying to avoid the more processed soy protein or commercial veggie minces, lentils can take their place.  Don't use this method expecting the lentils to taste exactly like cows.  They won't.  This is a garden of new delights you'll be entering.  In particular, try lentils substituting for cows' meat in spaghetti bolongnese, in lasagne, tacos, sloppy joes, and casseroles.
Best: brown/green lentils.
Good: red split lentils.
Flavours:  whatever the recipe calls for.  Mediterranean herbs, Mexican spices, bay leaves, garlic, etc.

Lentil Loafs:  Welcome to the 70's.  The 70's of deliciousness!  Oh, time tested loaf of hippie goodness.  You are so much better than the hideous meatloaves of my childhood nightmares.  And you usually come with delicious tomato-y sauces too.  Mix together cookied lentils, grated carrots, nuts/seeds, oats, maybe some breadcrumbs, and some herbs, and bake.  Serve with ketcup or tomato sauce or whatever the heck you want.
Best: brown/green lentils
Good: red lentils
Flavours: you can be creative here, but traditionally these are made with woodsy flavours, such as rosemary, sage, basil, parsley, and thyme.

Salads: Variations of lentil salads are endless, and putting them together is easy as pie.  There's not really much to say about them...salads made of lentils.  Sometimes combined with rice.
Best: Puy lentils, black lentils
Good: green/brown lentils.
 Flavours: whatever you want! Dressings: lemony, orange uice with jam, vinegar, mustard and thyme, tahini and miso.  Salad ingredients: nuts, seeds, raw veggies, berries, tropical fruit, peaches, apples, pears, raisins and other dried fruit, spinach.  Dang it, now I want one.

Mujaddara:  Yes, this dish needs its own entry.  One of the oldest recipes that's still with us today, it is reputed to be a descendant of of the dish with which Jacob buys Esau's birthright (bible stuff).  And the dish is so simple.  Lentils and rice are cooked together with a few spices and topped with carmelized or fried onions.  Vegetarian comfort food.
Best: Brown/green lentils.
Ok: Black lentils, Puy lentils, red split lentils
Flavours: cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, allspice.

I hope this answers your lentil-based questions and I hope you make mujaddara tonight. Recipes soon to follow.