- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 14, 2006

I first learned about lentils not at the table but in Bible class, where we heard the story of Esau, who gave away his birthright for a bowl of lentils. This Bible story could well be true, since lentils are certainly ancient. In the Middle East, where they were thought to have originated, lentils were found in a 10,000-year-old site in northern Syria. From the Middle East, lentils traveled to India, where they were enthusiastically adopted and gained a central role in the diet. “They are integral to our very existence,” wrote Neelam Batra in “1,000 Indian Recipes” (Wiley, $35).

Later, lentils became popular around the Mediterranean and in much of Europe but were more esteemed in some cuisines than in others. Jennifer Abadie, author of “A Fistful of Lentils” (Harvard Common Press), said, “While the Romans believed that lentils made their people lazy and even rude, the Arabs [felt that] lentils inspired people to great productivity and optimism. Perhaps that is why lentils flourished in those countries under Arab control (such as Turkey, Syria and Spain).” Eventually, lentils made their way to the New World in the kitchens of Latin American cooks.

It’s not surprising that lentils have been widely accepted. Inexpensive, satisfying and nutritious, they are nature’s convenience food. Lentils cook rapidly, usually in less than 30 minutes.

In India, lentils are usually made into dal, a well-seasoned souplike dish that is good over rice or eaten as a side dish. Popular flavorings include onions, ginger root and garlic. At serving time, lentils might be sprinkled with sizzling sauteed spices, often cumin and chilies.

Rich in protein, fiber, iron and potassium, lentils are staples on meatless menus. Creative vegetarians, as well as those observing meatless days for religious reasons, turn them into such dishes as Armenian lentil and bulgur wheat patties, lentil loaves with mushrooms, or lentil burgers with almonds and cilantro.

Grains are popular partners for lentils. One of the best-loved dishes in the Middle East is rice with lentils, crowned by caramelized onions. For a Persian variation, the rice-lentil medley is enhanced with saffron and butter and topped with raisins and dates. Iraqi cooks prefer a spicy version with cumin and tomato paste. In Lebanon, bulgur wheat sometimes replaces the rice.

Italians pair lentils with pasta, as do cooks in Egypt, where a much-loved casserole combines lentils with macaroni, rice, fried onions and peppery tomato sauce.

French cooks like lentils, too, especially in salads dressed with wine vinegar vinaigrette and embellished with a rich meat, such as duck confit (preserved duck). For such dishes, small, slightly peppery, green Le Puy lentils from France are favorites because they retain their shape well after cooking.

Black beluga lentils, named for their caviarlike color and new to our markets, are favored by chefs for the same reason. For cooks in a hurry, another newcomer is steamed ready-to-eat French lentils.

The most common lentils are the brown or green type. These all-purpose lentils are good in soups, stews and salads. Red lentils, also called orange, pink, crimson or Egyptian lentils, are skinned and usually split and are the fastest cooking lentils. You’ll find them at many supermarkets and in Middle Eastern, Indian and natural foods shops.

Years ago, when I lived in the land of the Bible, I bought red lentils at a Jerusalem market and cooked them following a recipe for brown lentils, picturing the finished dish as white rice dotted with red disks. I didn’t know then that red lentils fall apart quickly and cook to a yellow puree and, thus, are ideal for soups. Some cooks simmer a handful of red lentils in vegetable or chicken soups to give them a delicious and nutritious way to thicken them.

Red lentil soup with pasta

This soup is inspired by the lentil soup at Magic Carpet restaurant in Los Angeles.

1 cups red lentils

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

Water

1 14-ounce can tomatoes, drained

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

Salt

3 ounces (about 1 cup) linguine, vermicelli, spaghettini or extra-fine egg noodles broken in 3- to 4-inch lengths

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

Cayenne pepper or other hot red pepper, optional

Spread lentils on a plate. Pick through them carefully, discarding any stones; rinse and drain lentils. Heat oil in a medium saucepan, add onion and saute over medium-low heat for 7 minutes or until deep golden. Remove half the onions and reserve.

To mixture remaining in pan, add lentils and 4 cups water. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat for 15 minutes.

Puree tomatoes in a blender or food processor and add to pan. Add cumin, turmeric and a pinch of salt. Simmer for 15 more minutes, or until lentils are very tender, adding more water if soup becomes too thick.

Meanwhile, cook pasta in a pot of boiling salted water uncovered over high heat for 8 minutes, or until just tender. Drain. Add reserved onion mixture and cooked pasta to soup and heat gently. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding plenty of black pepper and a pinch of cayenne or other red pepper, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Lentils with rice and caramelized onions

A generous topping of deeply browned onions makes this traditional Middle Eastern dish festive. Serve it with chicken, beef or lamb or as a meatless entree.

11/3 cups brown or green lentils

Water

1 cup long-grain white rice, preferably Basmati

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil or vegetable oil or 2 tablespoons oil and 2 tablespoons butter

2 large onions, chopped

4 large garlic cloves, chopped, optional

1 teaspoon ground cumin, optional

1/4 to teaspoon hot red pepper flakes, optional

Salt and freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley, divided

Spread lentils on a plate. Pick through them carefully, discarding any stones; rinse and drain lentils.

Combine lentils with 3 cups water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes, or until lentils are nearly tender. Drain liquid into a measuring cup and add enough water to make 2 cups; reserve. Also, rinse and drain rice.

Heat oil in a heavy skillet. Add onion and saute over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or until deep brown.

Reduce heat, if necessary, so they become tender but do not burn. With a slotted spoon, remove half of onion and reserve.

Add remaining onion with oil to pan of lentils. Add garlic, cumin and pepper flakes, if desired, and cook, stirring, over medium heat for 30 seconds. Add reserved 2 cups liquid and bring to a boil. Add salt, pepper and rice and return to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat, without stirring, for 15 minutes, or until rice is just tender.

Turn off heat and let stand 5 to 10 minutes. Fluff gently with a fork, blending in 2 tablespoons parsley. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve hot, warm or cold, topped with reserved onions and remaining parsley. Makes 4 servings.

Lebanese lentil salad

This dish makes a vegetarian main course with fresh bread, rice or pasta and is a delicious accompaniment for sandwiches, grilled meat or chicken.

1 cup French green lentils or other green or brown lentils, sorted and rinsed

Water

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

2 onions, chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon dried mint

1 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley, divided

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Lemon wedges for serving, optional

Spread lentils on a plate. Pick through them carefully, discarding any stones; rinse and drain lentils. Combine lentils with 2 cups water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over medium heat for 20 to 30 minutes, or until lentils are just tender but still firm.

In a heavy skillet, heat vegetable oil over medium heat. Add onion and saute, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add to lentils. Stir in garlic, mint, olive oil, lemon juice and 2 tablespoons parsley.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve sprinkled with remaining parsley, accompanied by lemon wedges, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Faye Levy is author of “Feast From the Mideast” (HarperCollins).


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