Tuesday, October 19, 2004

For those of you trying to maximize protein on a money budget and cooking in general on a time budget, lentils should be at the top of your list.

The lentil is a wonderful, accessible, inexpensive food that is full of iron and protein, easy to find and even easier to cook. Unlike most other legumes, lentils require no advance soaking and cook in 30 minutes or less, so you can prepare them spontaneously.

They have a wonderful natural flavor, and even though they absorb strong seasonings beautifully, they are also delicious with just a little salt, garlic and olive oil.

The three most readily available types of lentils are brown lentils, red lentils and French lentils. Here’s the lowdown:

Brown lentils, the most common type, have an earthy flavor and remain whole when cooked in gently simmering water. You can also cook them in rapidly boiling water for a softer, mushier result, much like a thick soup.

Red lentils, which are actually a bright orange that turns deep golden yellow when cooked (so what’s with the name?), are smaller and sweeter than brown lentils. They lose their shape during cooking and become the most delightful mush this side of cornmeal. Use red lentils for soups or purees; they won’t work for salads or chili.

French lentils are dark, plump and tiny. They cook up firmer than the other types, stay whole throughout cooking and marinating, and have a peppery flavor. These are the ones to use for salad.

But back to brown lentils. They may be humble, but they have a secret talent.

They make great chili and are four times quicker cooking than the more traditional kidney bean (and, as mentioned, need no soaking).

Lentils have another excellent chili-friendly trait.

If cooked long enough, they achieve a consistency similar to ground beef and can offer a similar satisfaction to those who no longer eat much meat but who, nonetheless, are nostalgic for beef barbecue and sloppy Joes.

The lentil chili recipe that follows is full-bodied and richly seasoned. The seemingly huge amount of garlic blends in well, mellowing as it cooks.

Because it largely cooks on automatic once assembled and requires only intermittent attention, lentil chili can be made on a day when you are home doing other things. Rainy Sundays are especially conducive.

The recipe makes at least 8 servings, but if you are cooking for fewer, keep in mind that lentil chili freezes beautifully.

For a lovely informal supper on an autumn weekend when you’re going to have a number of people around, start the meal with an eggplant dip appetizer scooped up with raw vegetables, and then serve lentil chili with fresh, hot corn bread. Wash it down with hot spiced cider, either spiked or plain.

Lentil chili

4 cups brown lentils

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 cups minced onion

1 large carrot, diced

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 teaspoon paprika

½ teaspoon dried thyme

2 teaspoons salt, divided

1 medium-size head garlic (about 12 cloves), minced, divided

1 14-ounce can crushed tomatoes, or 3 to 4 large ripe fresh tomatoes, chopped

6 tablespoons tomato paste

1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar

Freshly ground black pepper

Hot red pepper flakes

Thin slices of sharp cheddar, optional

A handful of toasted cashews, optional

Minced fresh parsley or cilantro, optional

Place lentils and 6 cups water in a large kettle or Dutch oven. Bring to a boil, cover but leave an air vent open, and lower the heat to simmer. Leave it this way for about 30 minutes, checking every now and then to be sure it isn’t cooking faster than a gentle simmer.

Add more water as needed to maintain a soupy consistency.

Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium heat. After about 1 minute, add the olive oil and swirl to coat the pan. Add onion and carrot, and saute over medium-high heat for about 3 minutes. Add cumin, paprika, thyme and 1 teaspoon salt.

Turn heat to medium and cook for 5 to 8 minutes, or until onion is soft and carrot just tender.

Add half the garlic, and cook about 3 minutes longer.

After lentils are tender, add the sauteed mixture along with remaining garlic, remaining salt, tomatoes and tomato paste. S

tir until well-combined, then partially cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, adding more water, if necessary, to maintain a chili-like consistency.

Season to taste with vinegar, black pepper and hot red pepper flakes, and serve with the toppings of your choice, which could include cheddar cheese, toasted cashews and minced parsley or cilantro.

Makes 8 servings.


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