A few weeks ago, while trying to tell a friend about the different types of lentils, I realized that I wasn't as well informed about them as I'd thought I was. So I did some research.
People have been eating lentils since the early Stone Age, though many Canadians have been slow to catch on. However, since farmers in Saskatchewan began growing lentils in 1969, that province has become the world's largest exporter of green lentils.
The first lentil dish that I remember tasting was a delicious lentil soup, in a Lebanese restaurant. Made with green lentils, it differs from Egyptian-style lentil soup, which is prepared with red lentils.
Lentils are seeds. There are dozens, perhaps more, varieties of lentils, and though they differ in size and colour, they all have a similar shape, like a lens. They are dried before being consumed and are usually identified by colour.
The bagged lentils found grouped with the dried beans and split peas in the supermarket are called green lentils, or alternately brown lentils, Indian brown lentils or German lentils. These are also sold canned and ready to use. They are used in soups, stews, and side dishes, and hold their shape if not overcooked.
Red lentils are easy to find in bulk food stores, and the international section of grocery stores. They are closer to salmon pink than bright red in colour, and turn a golden colour when cooked. They cook quickly, becoming very soft and losing their shape; this makes them good for use in purees and soups.
Many people consider the French green or Puy lentil to have the best flavour and texture of all lentils. Originally grown in the volcanic soils of le Puy en Valey area in the Auvergne region of France, Puy-type lentils are now grown in North America (including Saskatchewan) and Italy too. They remain firm when cooked, and have a rich flavour, making them especially good in salads. I have not been able to find this type of lentils in the Charlottetown area, but mention them because they are described as the best.
Besides being nutritionally dense foods containing protein, fibre and folate, and having a low glycemic index, lentils are versatile, relatively inexpensive, and quick cooking.
The first step ipreparing them is to pick them over, removing any stones or debris, and rinsing in cold water. Then, instead of soaking them overnight as you would dried beans, you can cook lentils immediately.
The following soup could be pureed, using a regular or a hand blender, before serving if preferred.
North African Red Lentil Soup
Adapted from Katzen, Molly: Get Cooking :150 Simple Recipes to Get You Started in the Kitchen, HarperCollins Publishers,
New York, 2009
500 g (2 cups) red lentils
2 L (8 cups) water
25 mL (2 tbsp) olive oil
1 medium red or yellow onion, chopped
1 large carrot, diced
10 mL (2 tsp) ground cumin
15 mL (1 tbsp) minced garlic (about 3 good-sized cloves)
7 mL (1 1/2 tsp) salt
freshly ground black pepper
lime wedges, for garnish
Combine the lentils and water in a soup pot or a Dutch oven. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat all the way down to the lowest possible setting. Partially cover, and simmer gently for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the lentils are completely soft.
Meanwhile, place a large 25 - 30 cm (10- to 12-inch) skillet over medium heat. After about a minute, add the olive oil and whirl to coat the pan. Add the onion, carrot, cumin, garlic and 5 mL (1 tsp) of the salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, or until the onion is golden and very soft and the carrot is tender.
Transfer the onion mixture to the cooked lentils, and add the remaining 2 mL (1/2 tsp) of salt. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat all the way down to the lowest possible setting.
Partially cover, and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, or until the flavours are well blended.
Grind in a generous amount of black pepper (about 10 or more turns) and stir to blend. Serve hot, with a lime wedge on the side.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Here is a soup made with green lentils, flavoured with vegetables, herbs and smoked sausage.
Smoky Sausage Lentil Soup
From Lindsay, Anne:
Lighthearted Everyday Cooking, Macmillan of Canada,
15 mL (1 tbsp) olive oil
1 onion, chopped
4 celery stalks, sliced
170 g (6 oz) smoked sausage, such as kielbasa, coarsely chopped
1 L (4 cups) chicken or vegetable stock
1 L (4 cups) water
500 mL (2 cups) green lentils
1 strip (8 cm/3 inches long) orange rind
5 mL (1 tsp) crumbled dried marjoram
5 mL (1 tsp) crumbled dried savoury
3 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 potatoes, peeled and diced
salt and pepper
In heavy saucepan, heat oil over medium heat; add onion and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add celery and sausage; cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add stock, water, lentils, orange rind, marjoram, and savoury; bring to boil. Reduce heat, cover partially and simmer 30 minutes.
Add carrots and potatoes; cover partially and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 35 minutes or until lentils are tender. Discard orange rind. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Makes 6 main-course servings.
Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.