Whenever I am going to be home alone (except for the cats and the parrot) for a week, I cook a pot of lentils, and that gives me a sort of instant vegetable that I can enjoy with other foods and in a variety of ways throughout the week.
What are lentils?
Lentils are one of the earliest foods that we eat today; there are several references to lentils in the Bible. With their high protein and iron (“one of the best vegetable sources of iron” – source), they are a valuable food for vegetarians, and consequently, lentils are an important part of the diet in India, where many people are vegetarian. Even if you are not vegetarian (and I am not), you can enjoy and benefit from eating lentils.
Scientifically, lentils are not “beans,” but “pulses.” But, I’m no scientist, so I will refer to them as beans in this article. There are several varieties and colors of lentils. I buy the cheapest generic lentils I can find at the grocery story. You can go to a health food store and pay more, if you wish.
Cooking lentils without recipes
Some people are so insecure in the kitchen that they probably want to know the precise number of lentils to cook. Since this article is based on cooking at home for myself alone, I do not have recipes. I start with a pound of lentils, which seems to be the standard size package, and which gets me through a week of eating lentils once a day. This could be a great way of cooking for people who come in from work and wonder what to prepare.
Lentils are such a good, simple food that you almost cannot go wrong cooking them. So, you have no recipes here, just adventures with a great, versatile food. Also, this is use-it-up cooking. Use what you find around the house. Going out and buying some fancy spices just defeats part of the purpose, to eat good, economical, nutritious food.
Lentils and the environment
All plant-based foods are better for the environment than any animal-based foods. Lentils do not have to be refrigerated (at least until they are cooked). They require much less time to cook than other dried beans, so you consume less energy.
Since I mainly eat them when I am alone, I am not sure about this, but it seems that lentils do not cause the environmental pollution and embarrassment (that is, flatulence) of other dried beans, even though (as I already said) lentils are not beans.
The most basic non-recipe for lentils
You need a four quart pot for cooking a pound (about two cups) of lentils. If you are lucky enough to have an old cast iron pot (as I have), then so much the better. As with all dried beans, it is good to wash the lentils in a colander. Or, you can put them into water and stir them around. If you want to be fussy about your lentils, you could remove any that float. Unlike other dried beans, lentils do not have to be soaked.
To your pot, add about five or six cups of water, that is roughly three times the volume of the lentils. Bring the water to a boil, add the lentils, reduce heat, and simmer for about fifteen to twenty minutes. Cooking lentils is just a matter of getting them to the texture you want. Strangely, The Joy of Cooking gives the cooking time for lentils as an hour and a half. The bag of lentils I recently bought, as well as almost all the recipes for lentils I have seen on the Internet, give a cooking time of a half hour or less.
My secret non-recipe for lentils
As you see, all you need to cook lentils is water. Oh, and lentils. Salt and pepper would not cause any problems. Neither would a bay leaf, perhaps some parsley. A clove or two of garlic would always be welcomed.
This is the way I prefer to cook lentils. I dice a potato. What size potato? What size do you have? If it seems too small, use two. If it seems to large, use half. What size dice or cube? Oh, please…
Add a little oil (olive or otherwise) to your pot. Remember, we are starting over, so your pot will be dry. Heat the oil, and brown the potato. Chop an onion, and add it to the potatoes and brown. (Trying to brown the onions and potatoes at the same time does not work, since the onions have too much water.)
Now, add the water, bring to a boil, and add the lentils. Also add a diced carrot and diced stalk of celery, as well as any friends they may have, such as garlic or a bay leaf. Again, anything beyond lentils and water is optional.
Lentils: carnivorous options
In some traditions, lentils are associated with lamb (wonderful). As a Southerner, I appreciate a ham hock, and one of the best lentil dishes I ever created involved some slices of kielbasa. As short as the cooking time for lentils is, if I use meat, I boil the meat in the water until it is done before I add the lentils.
Lentils: get ’em while they’re hot!
The simplest way to eat lentils, and the way I typically begin my lentil week, is as a soup. Add a sandwich or salad or even a fast-food burger, and you have a good meal.
Vegetarians are familiar with the concept of complementary proteins; if you are not, you can learn about the concept here, combining two plant-based proteins that, separately, are lacking in some necessary nutrient. The concept is behind such dishes as hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas and rice) or all the southern variants of beans and cornbread (no sugar in the cornbread, please!). Lentils can similarly be served on rice or with cornbread or whole-grain bread.
Drain your lentils, and you can serve them on the plate with the main course as a side vegetable. Curry powder and chili powder go well with lentils.
Mash lentils, and add a little flour for binding. Shape into lentil sausages or lentil burgers, and fry them. I have seasoned lentil sausages with chili powder and served as finger food.
Fruity lentils for Armenian vegans
There are some recipes for lentils with fruit. The Joy of Cooking has a recipe for lentils with prunes, which I’ve never tried. Nor have I ever tried on online recipe (here) for lentil soup with pears and prunes.
I have tried an Armenian recipe called mushosh (recipe) for lentils and dried apricots. It is the tastiest Armenian vegan dish I’ve ever eaten. Of course, it is the only Armenian vegan dish I have ever tasted. Since it can be served hot or cold, it makes a good covered-dish lunch contribution. In fact, I have taken it to covered dish gatherings where I thought there would be some vegetarians present. And, so, mushosh leads us to ways to serve lentils cold.
Cold lentils make a great addition to a tossed salad. So, how much do you add to your salad? Don’t start that again. Mash lentils, add a bit of lemon juice, and stuff celery, which gives a great mix of textures. And, if you do stuff celery, and you would like to get fancy, could leaves of Belgian endive be far behind?
The pork and bean sandwich is a classic of kid-cuisine, once again combining complementary proteins, grains (in the bread) and beans. Honestly, I have never made a lentil sandwich, but one time, I found three tortillas hiding in my freezer, so I improvised lentil tacos. If I had found pita bread, I might have used lemon juice and fresh mint for something vaguely Greek.
Lentils: happily ever after
If I get tired of lentils (it has happened) or I have too many, they are easy to freeze (and more importantly, to thaw). I cook a pot of lentils when I will be alone, but they are also good when I have company coming in, as would any dried beans or other soups. I would imagine that most of these ideas for cooked lentils would work with other cooked dried beans.
Sources are linked to throughout the article. Personal experience is the main source.