We were dining at Foraged, the local restaurant in Station North, and I was enjoying a mushroom soup. As I was slurping away, I detected something else in the soup contrasting with the mushrooms. It was lentils, and I had to smile, because this overlooked little legume is a favorite of mine. Chef Jerry Pellegrino agrees with me, lentils are such a useful and versatile ingredient.
First off, the lentil is a legume and it is closely related to peas and peanuts, all of which have seeds contained in pods. The lentil itself takes its name from its lens-like shape: little flat disks with a slight bulge in the center. You can buy them either whole or split. Lentils happen to be very nutritious, high in fiber and protein, low in fat and carbs and gluten free. Just two countries, Canada and India produce well over half of the world's lentils. Prior to hydrating lentils, pick over them to remove any little stones or debris that may have been packaged. One thing in common that lentils have with dried beans is that it is best to soak them overnight to get them ready for cooking. If you're not thinking that far ahead, 8 to 12 hours will do. So soak them in the morning and cook with them at night. You can hasten the process by simmering the raw lentils in hot water.
Although there are hundreds of sub-varieties, there are five main kinds, arranged by color. Recipes are not one-size fits all, so choose your variety carefully. First are the brown lentils, which range in color from dark tan to almost black. These are very common in stores and easy to find. They have a warm, earthy taste to them and are the fastest to cook: only about 20-30 minutes. They will soften when cooked.
Green lentils range in color from olive drab to bright pea green. These require the longest time to cook, up to one hour. However they do hold their shape
and can be used as a supporting ingredient in salads.
Red lentils are a little harder to find, but worth the effort. They range in color from gold to deep red. They take up to 45 minutes to cook, and importantly, they do become mushy afterwards. So you might expect to find them in soups stews and curries.
Black lentils also known as Beluga lentils (as in caviar) are small and dramatically black. Similar in taste to black beans, the little black lentils cook in about 25 minutes.
Finally, the French Green lentils, also known as Le Puy lentils are the most gastronomically revered with a refined peppery taste. Primarily grown and found in Europe, you shouldn't hesitate to stock up on some if you come across them. There are also many Indian varieties, known as "dal" which are to numerous to mention in one show. The Indian recipes show how well lentils work with a wide variety of spices from mild to peppery. Lentils earn their keep either as a stand-alone side dish or as an ingredient in more complicated recipes. You can substitute lentils for beans in a myriad of recipes. A lentil and Italian sausage stew comes to mind. So does a chicken stew with lentils, onions and red peppers. Cold salads featuring lentils are popular. You can mix in chopped fruit and green herbs such as mint and cilantro.
Here's a nice simple way to cook them. Start by soaking two cups of green lentils for about 20 minutes in hot water. In a large, deep sauce pan, sauté chopped onion, minced celery and shredded carrot in olive oil. When the onions become translucent, add a tablespoon of minced garlic. Stir and then take off the heat. After you have picked over your soaked lentils, drain them. Add about two cups of chicken broth to the sautéed vegetables and then toss in your soaked lentils. Bring the whole pot to the boil and then reduce heat and let it simmer covered for at least a half hour. Garnish with chopped parsley or cilantro and serve.