Lately, I have been cooking a lot with lentils – yet another food I refused to eat as a child. Of course, back then I only knew lentils two ways: as a soup and as a loaf, neither of which my childish taste buds wanted. Luckily, my taste buds grew up and now I adore lentils. While they may be relatively new to me, lentils are an ancient food that dates back to about 13,000 years ago. These legumes come in a wide variety of types with distinct flavors and textures and colors that range from green, brown and black to red, orange, yellow and gold.
There are many reasons to love lentils. Lentils are a rich source of protein, fiber, iron, and folate. They are also one of the easiest legumes to digest. Lentils are super-affordable and can be stored in the pantry. Unlike beans, you don’t have to soak lentils. They cook up quickly, you can use them in a bunch of ways and you can eat them hot or cold. Lentils, with their earthy flavor, are extremely satisfying. There’s a reason these little legumes have been around so long.
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Here are 10 ways to create something new and delicious with this ancient wonder.
1. Basic Lentil Cookery
The different types of lentils have different cooking times and uses. Brown lentils are the most common type of lentil and are probably the one people are most familiar with. They have a rich, earthy flavor and hold their shape well, though they are easily mashed. They cook in 20-30 minutes.
Green lentils or French lentils have a more robust flavor. They have a firm texture even after cooking. Green lentils take about 45 minutes to cook. Red lentils can actually be red, orange, yellow or gold. They take about 30 minutes to cook and get mushy with a sweeter taste. They are often used in Indian dishes.
Before cooking, pick through the lentils to remove any pebbles or debris. Rinse the lentils under running water. Transfer the lentils to a saucepan and add water. Lentils generally have a 2:1 water to lentil ratio but it’s a good idea to use a little more water, especially for the lentils that need more than 30 minutes to cook. Add any seasonings such as garlic or a bay leaf. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes (40-45 minutes for green lentils) until tender. Add water, if needed, to keep the lentils just submerged.
When the lentils are tender, strain them and return them to the pan. Add salt to taste. Use them in your recipes or eat them on their own.
2. Lentil Soups
The first way I ever ate lentils was as a soup made from brown lentils. Today, I make a version of that lentil soup with lots of veggies. I saute diced onion, carrot, celery, zucchini and garlic in a spoon of oil until they are tender. Add 2 cups of lentils, 8 cups of broth or water and 1 ½ cups of diced tomatoes. I add my favorite seasonings of thyme, cumin, basil, parsley, bay leaves, salt and black pepper. In 45 minutes I have a rich and hearty lentil veggie soup.
3. Dals and Stews
Dals are basically thick, hearty stews, though the term also refers to the legumes used to make them. Most dals are made from lentils, but they can be made from other legumes or split peas. Dals are easy to make – cook lentils in water or broth with onions, tomatoes and Indian spices such as turmeric, cumin, curry, ginger, mustard seeds, coriander and garam masala. They are usually served with rice or roti.
In Southern India, Tamillian meals are traditionally composed of thick lentil and coconut stews with lots of vegetables. This South Indian Lentil Stew has eggplant, potato, cabbage, and lentils. The Sophie Dal uses green lentils and broccoli to make a delicious, healthy dish. Tuvar Dal or Pigeon Pea lentils are used to make this Indian Tangy Lentils with Curry Leaves and Red Chiles.
4. Lentil Salads
Lentils, especially the green and red ones that hold their shape, are wonderful in salads. They can be added to any salad or they can be the main ingredient. My favorite lentil salad is a warm one with vegetables. I cook 1 ½ cups of red lentils until they are tender. While they are cooking, I saute chopped red onion and roasted red peppers. Then I combine the sauteed vegetables with the lentils and wilt a big bunch of baby spinach into it. I top this with a vinaigrette of red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, extra-virgin olive oil, thyme, garlic, salt, and pepper. It’s delicious hot or cold, as a main dish or a side dish.
5. Lentil Dips and Spreads
The next time you’re having a party, try making some exotic lentil dips and spreads. Everyone loves hummus and we know we can make unique types of hummus by substituting other beans and legumes for the beloved chickpea, but have you ever considered making lentil hummus? Cook up a cup of red or green lentils until they are tender. Throw them into the food processor with tahini, chopped garlic cloves, lemon juice and olive oil and puree until smooth. Add some herbs and spices such as cumin, paprika, salt, cilantro or parsley. For a spicy kick, add red pepper flakes or a dash of hot sauce. Serve your extra-special hummus with pita chips or raw veggies.
A combination of brown lentils, leeks, lemon, and spices make up this Pureed Lentil Dip with Caramelized Leeks. Put this out with some flatbread or pita crisps and no one will miss the potato chips.
6. Crunchy Lentil Snacks
Speaking of potato chips, here is another way to enjoy a crunchy snack but so much healthier. We all love crunchy, roasted chickpeas to munch on and guess what – we can make a similar snack with lentils. Rinse and cook a cup of dried brown or green lentils until they are just tender. Drain them and spread them on paper towels to dry. Toss them in oil. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and arrange the lentils in a single layer. Bake in a 425-degree oven for 15-20 minutes, stirring often, until they are crispy. Toss them in salt and spices such as onion powder, garlic powder, curry powder, cayenne pepper, red chile flakes, dried oregano or whatever you like. Let them cool and munch away.
7. Lentil Desserts and Flour
What? Who wants lentils for dessert? You do! It’s not as strange as it may sound. After all, we use other legumes in desserts and in baking. Try adding lentil puree along with raisins, nuts, and seeds when baking cookies or cakes. Substitute lentils for other beans in desserts such as the white beans in these Pumpkin Bean Bars.
I make these amazing Peanut Butter and Chocolate Chip Black Bean Brownies that are healthy and delicious. Lentils can be used in place of the black beans. Red lentils are the sweetest so choose those for desserts.
Just combine ½ cup cooked red lentils, ¼ cup peanut butter, ½ cup maple syrup, agave nectar or sugar, 1/3 cup cocoa powder, 2 tsp. vanilla extract, ½ tsp. baking powder, ¼ cup melted vegan butter, a pinch of salt and a pinch of cinnamon in a food processor. Process until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Gradually add ½ cup oats and process until they are incorporated and you have a thick but spreadable batter. With a spatula, mix in ½ cup vegan chocolate chips. Transfer the batter into a baking pan lined with parchment paper and sprayed with cooking oil. Add more chocolate chips to the top of the batter. Bake for 30-35 minutes at 350 degrees. Let cool and set up before cutting into squares.
Another way to use dried lentils in baking is by processing them into flour and using them as a healthy and gluten-free alternative to other flours. Lentil flour can also be used in savory dishes like this Ayurvedic Lentil-Crusted Tofu.
8. Lentils for Breakfast
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so it only makes sense to start your morning with one of the healthiest foods. Make porridge by cooking up some red lentils until they are tender. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, apples, raisins, nuts or coconut. Sweeten your porridge with agave, maple syrup, brown sugar or whatever you prefer. Add cooked red lentils to your next pancake batter for a different spin on flapjacks.
When I was creating my vegan Spicy Italian Sausage recipe, lentils were the first main ingredient I used. Lentils are “meaty” and can be used in place of beans in any vegan sausage recipe. Try using them in place of the black-eyed peas in my vegan and gluten-free Breakfast Sausage recipe.
9. Lentils as a Meat Substitute
Lentils are very popular as a replacement for ground beef because of their rich, meaty taste. My new favorite way to cook lentils is to make a vegan Bolognese sauce to serve over pasta. I saute mashed brown lentils with onions, bell peppers, and garlic until browned. Then I add tomato paste, vegan Worcestershire sauce, diced tomatoes, fennel, oregano, paprika, and red pepper flakes. Cover the pot and let it cook while you make the pasta. Add some starchy cooking water to the Bolognese sauce, season it with salt and pepper and ladle it over the pasta. Garnish with fresh torn basil and you have a hearty Italian dish that tastes even better than the original. Serve the leftover Bolognese sauce on rolls and you have vegan lentil Sloppy Joes.
Use lentils to make burgers like this Red Lentil Burger with Kale Pesto and this Hearty Lentil and Brown Rice Burger. Green lentils are used to make this amazing Lentil Loaf. Learn how to make Lentil Meatballs and then use them in this BBQ Lentil Meatball Sandwich with Sweet Miso Coleslaw. For taco night, cook brown lentils to make these Lentil Tacos or red lentils for these Double Decker Lentil Tacos. Combine two earthy tastes to make this amazing Lentil and Mushroom Shepherd’s Pie.
10. Lentil Power Dishes
When you add lentils to a dish, you are adding power. Use lentils for making refried beans the next time you are planning a Mexican feast. Cook one cup of brown lentils until they are tender but not mushy. In a skillet, saute minced onion, garlic and jalapeno peppers. Add the lentils to the skillet and toss with the aromatics. Season the lentils with salt, cumin, coriander and black pepper and cook for a few more minutes. Garnish with fresh cilantro and enjoy the fiesta.
Prepare for your next big workout by fueling up with this Lentil-Kale Vegan Risotto that is made with pearled barley instead of rice. Add lentils to your next stir-fry. This Turnips with Caramelized Onions and Toasted Lentils dish is a trifecta of health and taste with its fresh turnips, turnip greens and yellow lentils.
Wow, if you thought lentils were old-fashioned and boring, think again. There is a reason these little powerhouses have been around since ancient times. Have fun exploring all the delicious ways to cook with lentils.
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