Although they may be cheap, lentils are very nutritious, filling and very flavorful. From a nutritional standpoint, they are rich in fiber and in iron and are, consequently, ideal for people suffering from anemia.
Lentils have been a source of sustenance for our ancestors since prehistoric times and lentil artifacts have been found on archeological digs dating back 8,000 years. As a plentiful source of protein, lentils were found on the tables of peasants and kings alike and the poor, who could not afford fish during the season of Lent, substituted lentils.
Thought to have originated in the Near East and/or the Mediterranean area, lentils are small disks resembling a flat baby pea. When halved, dried lentils resemble their split pea cousins. They grow two to a pod and are dried after harvesting.
In Italy two major types of lentils are grown: the hiemal strain matures in late summer and produces larger seeds that are more delicate in flavor, whereas the minus strain matures in the spring and has smaller seeds.
In addition to playing an important role in soups and other first course dishes, lentils are a traditional Italian accompaniment for sausages. Lentils are served on New Year’s Day in Italy because their shape brings to mind tiny coins and people eat them in the hope that they won’t want for cash during the rest of the year.
There are hundreds of varieties of lentils, with as many as fifty or more cultivated for food. They come in a variety of colors with red, brown and green being the most popular. Lentils have an earthy, nutty flavor and some varieties have a slight peppery taste.
Select lentils that are dry, firm, clean and not shriveled. The color of lentils you choose will depend on your usage, but in general, the color should be fairly uniform. Canned lentils are also available, but it is just as easy to cook your own.
If your recipe calls for a lentil that will retain its shape when done, common brown lentils are the usual choice. Brown lentils still have their seed coat and have not been split. Most red, yellow and orange lentils tend to disintegrate with long cooking because the hulls have been removed. Slightly sweet in flavor, these are best reserved for pureed soups or stew thickeners. Other choices include French lentils which are olive-green and slate-colored. These will cook up the firmest. Persian green lentils will turn brown as they cook and become tender while still retaining their shape. Considered the most flavorful (and most expensive) are the French Puy lentils, which also retain their shape.
You may be able to find lentil flour in some specialty markets. It is used in India to make a fermented dough for bread.
Dried lentils have an indefinite shelf-life, yet another reason why our ancestors kept them as a staple food. With age, the color may fade a bit, but the flavor will not deteriorate. Store lentils in a sealed package or airtight container in a cool, dry place.
Cooked lentils may be refrigerated up to one week in a sealed container. Cooked lentils may also be frozen up to six months. However, they may fall apart when reheated, if not handled gently.
These measures will help you determine how many lentils you need for your recipe.
• 1 cup dry lentils = 2-1/2 cups cooked
• 1 pound dried lentils = 2-1/4 cups dry
• 1 pound dried lentils = 4 servings
• 1 pound dried lentils = 5 cups cooked
Lentils are a natural in soups and stews and also make a great cold salad. The high protein content in lentils makes them an excellent meat substitute.
Lentils need no pre-soaking and cook much more quickly than other dried legumes. To cook lentils, simply pick over to remove debris or shriveled lentils, rinse and drain. Cover with water or broth and boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat and simmer until tender. Depending on the variety and age, cooking time may take anywhere from 10 minutes to 1 hour. Add salt once the lentils are completely cooked. Acidic ingredients such as wine or tomatoes can lengthen cooking time. You may wish to add these ingredients after the lentils have become tender. Older lentils will take longer to cook because they have lost more moisture. Do not mix newly purchased lentils with old ones. They will cook unevenly.
Lentil and Herb Salad
Lentils are popular across Italy, where they are grown in Umbria in the north and Puglia and Sicily in the south. Technically not a “bean,” lentils are legumes. Unlike beans, lentils require no soaking, so this salad is quick and easy to prepare. Serve as a side salad or add a cup of diced mozzarella and it makes a light main dish.
- 1 cup dried lentils
- 1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil
- 1 tablespoon thyme leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
Place lentils in a large saucepan. Cover with water to 2 inches above lentils; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 30 minutes or until tender. Drain well.
Place lentils in a large bowl. Stir in onion and next 4 ingredients (through pepper). Add vinegar and oil; toss well. Serve at room temperature.
Italian Lentil Soup with Rice and Spinach
- 1 cup (200 g) short-grained rice
- 1 cup (200 g) lentils
- 1 bunch spinach, washed and cut into strips
- 2 cloves garlic
- One whole onion
- 1 rib celery, cut in half
- 1 cup plain tomato sauce
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
Rinse the lentils and cook them for 30-45 minutes in 2 quarts of water with the onion and celery. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove the lentils with a slotted spoon and strain the broth, discarding the celery. Reserve the broth and onion separately.
Slice the onion and sauté it with the oil and the garlic for 3 minutes; add the tomato sauce and cook 2 minutes more. Add the lentils, the spinach and the lentil broth. When the soup comes to a boil add the rice and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is done, about 15 minutes. Adjust seasoning.
Lentils with Italian Sausage
- 1 pound dry lentils
- Cold water
- 2 pounds fresh italian sausage, sweet or hot
- 3 cups homemade or low sodium canned chicken broth
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 rib celery, finely chopped
- 1 carrot, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
- 8 fresh sage leaves, chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried rubbed sage
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste, diluted in a little water
Wash lentils well by soaking them briefly in water and changing the water at least once. Put them in a 2-1/2-quart saucepan, add cold water to cover and bring to a boil. Lower heat to simmer and cook until not quite done, about 30-40 minutes.
Meanwhile, pierce the sausages in several places and then put them in a small saucepan. Add the chicken broth and place over medium heat. Bring to a gentle boil and simmer for about 40 minutes. From time to time, skim off and discard foam and fat that rise to the top. When sausages are done, remove the pot from the heat and let them sit in the broth while you finish the lentils.
Warm the oil in a medium skillet and saute the onion, celery, carrot, garlic and sage in the olive oil over medium heat until the onion is translucent and the vegetables are done.
Drain the sausages, saving their liquid. To the lentil pot, add the vegetables, season with salt and pepper and add the tomato paste. Mix gently using a wooden spoon. Add 3/4 cup of the broth in which you cooked the sausages. Taste and adjust the seasoning, if needed.
To serve, arrange the sausages on a platter next to the warm lentils.
Pasta with Lentil Bolognese
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 small onion, chopped
- 1 small carrot, chopped
- 1 stalk celery, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste
- 1- 28 to 32 oz can whole peeled plum tomatoes, drained and roughly chopped (juice reserved)
- 1 1/4 cups dried green lentils
- Coarse sea or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 pound shaped pasta, such as cavatappi or rigatoni
- Pecorino cheese, grated or shaved
- Fresh basil, chopped
In a large pot over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onion, carrot, celery and garlic and cook slowly until the vegetables soften and turn golden, about 20 minutes.
Increase heat to medium-high and add the tomato paste. Cook until the mixture dries out a bit, about 3 minutes. Pour in the reserved juice from the tomatoes and cook, scraping the browned bits from the bottom of the pan, until the liquid has reduced by half, 1 to 2 minutes.
Stir in the lentils, tomatoes, and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat. Season with the oregano,crushed red pepper, salt and pepper and simmer until the lentils are tender, 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the lentils. (If the sauce begins to dry out, add additional water as needed.) Reduce heat to low and keep warm.
Cook the pasta according to the package directions; drain. Serve with the lentil sauce, sprinkle with the pecorino and garnish with basil.
Seafood Stew with Lentils
For the Fish Stock:
- 1 fresh flat-leaf parsley sprig
- 1 fresh thyme sprig
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 carrot, sliced
- 1 celery stick, sliced
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns, lightly crushed
- 2 and 1/4 lbs (1 kg) white fish or white fish bones and heads, gills removed
For the Stew:
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
- 1 celery stick, chopped
- 1 carrot, chopped
- 1 onion, chopped
- 3 and 1/2 oz (100 grams) cooked lentils
- 9 oz (250 grams) fish and seafood cut into serving pieces, such as sea bass fillets, prepared squid, peeled prawns, peeled langoustines (small lobsters or use lobster claws) and scrubbed clams
- 28 oz can crushed Italian tomatoes
- 1 fresh flat-leaf parsley sprig, chopped
- 1 fresh basil sprig, chopped
- Salt and pepper
Prepare the Fish Stock:
Pour 3 pints (2 liters) water into a large saucepan, add the herbs, onion, carrot, celery and peppercorns and season with salt.
Gradually bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove from the heat, let cool.
Add the fish bones and return to the heat, bring just to the boil; lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
Remove from the heat and let the fish bones cool in the stock for a stronger flavor. Strain the stock.
Prepare the Stew:
Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a skillet and add 1 tablespoon each of the celery, carrot and onion and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
Stir in the lentils and cook for a few minutes more.
Heat the remaining olive oil in a shallow saucepan and add the remaining celery, carrot and onion and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
Add the sea bass and the squid. Increase the heat to high and cook for 1 minute, then add the prawns, langoustines, clams and lentil mixture.
Pour in the strained fish stock, tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Cook until the fish is tender.
Remove the pan from the heat and add the parsley and basil. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil.
Braised Chuck Steak with Savory Lentil Stew
Makes 4 to 6 servings
- 2 pounds beef chuck blade steaks, cut 3/4 to 1 inch thick
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2-1/4 cups water
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cup uncooked lentils, rinsed
- 2 large carrots, diced
- 1/2 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
Heat a large deep skillet with a cover over medium heat until hot. Add the beef to the skillet and brown evenly. Season the beef with salt and pepper to taste.
Add water, onion and bay leaves to the skillet; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; cover tightly and simmer 1-1/4 hours.
Add lentils, carrots and Italian seasoning to the skillet; return to a boil. Continue simmering, covered, 30 to 45 minutes or until lentils and beef are fork-tender.
Discard bay leaves before serving.
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