Lentils are a tiny bean (legume, pulse) that has been consumed as a food source for millenia. Lentil seeds have been found in the Middle East dating back 8000 years, and lentils are thought to have been one of the first cultivars. Poor ancient Greeks ate lentils as a staple, and it was said of the nouveau riche that they didn't like lentils any more. In the Bible Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for lentils, and lentils were an ingredient in a bread the Jews made during their captivity in Babylon.
From their Middle Eastern origin lentils have spread around the world, notably to India, where they became the basis for the staple dish dal. (Dal is the Indian term for pulses that have been split and skinned, as well as for cooked dishes made with them.) Lentils are popular in Catholic countries during Lent, when they are used as a meat substitute, and have long been consumed by vegetarians.
Lentils are not eaten fresh, instead being dried when ripe and then cooked in liquid. There are dozens of varieties of lentils, distinguished by their colour, size, and shape, but all are united in their small size, a boon to cooks, for unlike most other dried beans, lentils do not require soaking before cooking. Lentils can thus be prepared quite quickly and are suitable even for a weeknight dinner.
The most commonly found in western supermarkets are brown or green lentils; these are among the largest varieties. They have a khaki-coloured seed coat and a yellowish interior, and are fairly bland. They will become mushy if over-cooked. Smaller darker skinned varietes include the wonderful French puy lentils and the tiny beluga lentils, which look almost like caviar. These varieties keep their shape when cooked, making them ideal for salads. Masoor lentils and red lentils have brown skins and reddish orange interiors; they cook quickly and turn mushy, making them ideal for dal. Masoors may be whole or split; red lentils are always skinned. Yellow lentils have tan-coloured jackets and are usually skinned and split, used to make dal.
See http://www.foodsubs.com/Lentils.html for pictures of lentil varieties.
Purchase lentils from supermarkets or bulk food stores, ideally busy ones so you can be sure the product you're buying hasn't sat on the shelf for ages. Store them in a cool dry place, ideally in a tightly sealed container in the fridge.
To prepare lentils, first pour them onto a flat surface and pick through them, discarding any stones and misshapen beans. Rinse them well, then place in a pot and cover with liquid - water or stock - using four parts liquid to one part lentils. For flavouring, add some chopped onion, garlic, and a bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer till tender, keeping a close eye on them so they don't overcook. Most varieties of lentil cook in 20 to 25 minutes, but puy lentils take about 40 minutes.
Lentils can be served as a side dish, either pureed, whole, or combined with vegetables, as in the recipe below. They make a wonderful soup or stew, and can be pressed into service as a meat substitute in a vegetable loaf or patty. They can be cooled and tossed into a salad. They are a good source of calcium, vitamin A, vitamin B, iron, phosphorus, and fibre.
This is an excellent side dish for some kind of meat - say blackened chicken breast or duck confit - and will make enough for four.
What you need:
What to do:
Pick over lentils and discard any stones, misshapen lentils etc. Rinse and drain well.
Place lentils in medium saucepan and add liquid and bay leaf. Bring to boil, then turn down to simmer and cook, uncovered, until lentils are tender when bitten in to. Start checking puy lentils after 30 minutes, other varieties after 20 minutes. Discard bay leaf.
Meanwhile, fry bacon, if using, until crispy, then remove to a paper towel to drain; pour off all but 1 tablespoon (15 ml) fat. Or just heat oil in a frying pan.
Add vegetables to oil or bacon fat and saute gently, over medium low heat, till soft. Add garlic and saute for another minute.
Stir vegetables (and bacon if using) into lentils, taste and adjust seasonings, and serve immediately.
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