Lentils

Lentils

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
3 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

As with so many of the world’s subsistence foods, lentils have received bad press through the ages. Sneered at by the wealthy, and moaned about by the poor, who have so often depended upon them as their staple diet, they are also considered dull and bland and worse still, suffer a disturbing reputation for causing flatulence.

And yet, despite all this, people have been stolidly munching away on lentils for many thousands of years. Their place of origin is believed to be somewhere in the Middle East, and archaeologists have found evidence of their cultivation as early as the seventh century BC, in sites ranging from Iraq, Turkey and Egypt to China.

The reason for the lentil’s unpopularity really has little to do with its taste, but rather its relentless availability. Through long dark winters when other fresh vegetables were lacking, families could always rely upon their store of lentils for the cooking pot. Similarly, when meat is scarce – as indeed it has been for most of the world’s population since the beginning of time – lentils and other pulses have always been cheap and easy to grow.

Furthermore, in the world of pulses, lentils are second only to soya beans for their high protein content and when combined with other grains, cereals or nuts they provide us with nearly all our necessary daily proteins. Lentils are also high in fibre and a variety of minerals, low in fat – and very politically correct!

The combining of various plant foods to boost the protein value of a dish is a common practice throughout the Middle East. Lentil and rice dishes feature everywhere: the Lebanese have their mjaddarah (lentils and rice), while the Egyptians call a similar dish megadarra. In Iran they enjoy addas polow, a creamy lentil-rice dish enlivened with chopped dates and raisins. In India they pour dhal on rice and scoop it up with flat breads. Lentil soups around the Arab world also usually include cracked wheat, noodles or rice.

Although many people think lentils are dull and flavourless, it is this same soothing blandness which makes them the perfect vehicle for herbs, spices and other aromatics. Think of spicy Indian dhal and Moroccan harira soup, or lentil and spinach soup, all tangy with lemon, and a favourite all around the Middle East. Gently braised with a piece of smoked bacon, in the northern European tradition, lentils are deliciously earthy and comforting and act as the perfect foil to rich smoked meats and sausages.

Selecting and storing lentils

Most lentils are readily available from supermarkets, health food stores and Middle Eastern and Indian specialist stores. They can be divided into three broad colour groups: brown/green, red and the grey Puy lentils from France. These latter lentils are available from smart delicatessens and specialist food stores.

There are several different varieties of brown and green lentils (often also called ‘Continental lentils’) which taste very similar and can be used more or less interchangeably. They are large, whole and unskinned, so keep their shape and texture when cooked.

Red lentils are also sold as Egyptian lentils. They are small, skinned and split, so cook down rapidly to a soft purée and are best used for soups and dips.

Puy lentils are currently the darlings of the foodie world. These tiny blue-grey lentils have become ultra-fashionable, as they have an excellent flavour and, though small, maintain their shape and texture well. They are ideal for salads or as a simple lentil braise to accompany meaty sausages or smoked pork dishes.

As with all pulses, store lentils in an airtight container in a cool, dark cupboard. They will keep well for about a year, but will begin to age and deteriorate from then, losing their shape and texture on cooking.

Using lentils

Most of the pre-packaged varieties of lentil have been thoroughly washed and checked over for grit and gravel. If you buy them loose, though, you should certainly give them a good wash in several changes of water and check them carefully.

Unlike many other pulses, lentils don’t need to be soaked. After washing and draining they should be cooked in plenty of stock or plain water. The cooking time for lentils will vary depending on their type and on the dish – for example, in salads they need to be tender but still retain their shape, whereas for soups and purées they can be cooked down to a creamy mush.

Recipes in this Chapter

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