At This Time of Year, a Lentil in Every Pot

By Sedgwick, Stephanie Witt | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 10, 2008 | Go to article overview

At This Time of Year, a Lentil in Every Pot


Sedgwick, Stephanie Witt, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


By midwinter, I've given up on planning meals around seasonal produce. All the fresh vegetables I see have traveled some distance to arrive at my market.

For salads and soups, I choose ingredients that are always in season -- in my pantry. My latest favorite is lentils, an ancient food that has as much appeal for me as it had for cooks thousands of years ago.

The lentil has more than longevity to recommend it. An excellent source of protein, fiber and minerals, it is a legume that can be cooked with speed and ease (unlike its bean cousins). Lentils require no soaking to soften their skins, and, depending on the variety, they can go from dried to delicious in 15 to 45 minutes.

I admit I'm a late convert. When I was growing up, chickpeas were the only legumes I was served at home. Even then, they already had been transformed into the hummus and falafel brought in from my parents' favorite Middle Eastern eatery. So I didn't learn how to cook them. Compared with those who grew up in bean-loving cultures, I had a lot of catching up to do.

"When I was a baby -- and not just me, but all babies in India -- some of my first foods were pigeon peas mashed with rice into a paste," says executive chef Vikram Sunderam, a Mumbai-London transplant who runs the kitchen at Rasika in Washington, D.C.

To him, my situation was unimaginable. "It's hard to sit down to a meal in India and not see a lentil, a split pea or a bean," he says.

At his modern Indian restaurant, Sunderam mashes white lentils for dahi pakodi chaat: soft, round dumplings served with yogurt and a date-tamarind chutney. His dal shorba is a fine example of the complex flavor that can arise from a soup of water, spices, herbs and vegetables. Sometimes, cooking off the menu for his own amusement, the chef uses mung beans to make passirattu: irresistibly good, thin, green pancakes with crisp, browned edges traditionally made in southern India.

The bean-filled world of Southwestern cooking has broadened my appreciation of legumes, too; these days, I'm always looking for ways to use them in soups, stews and salads.

I keep lentils on hand for when I want to make something fast. I make warm lentil and potato salads in a classic French style, delicious with my own vinaigrette or one that's store-bought. Sometimes I serve the salads alongside roast chicken or pork chops, but they are hearty enough to be a main course. My Italian-style lentil soup with pancetta takes about an hour to prepare and capitalizes on lentils' affinity for smoked and highly seasoned meats.

Those most commonly found at the grocery store are brown lentils, perhaps so called because their grayish-green color turns brownish- gray in cooking. I cook them, partially covered, for 20 to 25 minutes in a few inches of water; I save the salt as a finishing touch to keep the lentils' skins from getting tough, although some cooks add salt halfway through cooking for a flavor boost.

French green lentils (called du Puy), more widely available these days, are quite small and tend to stay firm when cooked, which makes them an ideal salad ingredient. Red lentils, found at ethnic markets, generally are smaller and cook a bit faster. They turn deep yellow when cooked and look great in soups and salads.

I've yet to experiment with white, black, pink or yellow lentils, but with the promise of many midwinters ahead, I plan to add them to my inventory.

Warm Lentil-Potato Salad With Roasted Garlic Vinaigrette

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Lentils and potatoes make a classic French pairing in this salad that can be served alongside roast meats, ham or sausages, or served as an easy main course. Fresh herbs, instead of dried, can be used in greater amounts when available. From Stephanie Witt Sedgwick.

For the salad:

8 ounces dried brown lentils (about 1 1/2 cups)

1 pound russet or baking potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch cubes

Chopped parsley, for garnish (optional)

For the dressing

1 tablespoon roasted garlic (see note)

3 tablespoons sherry vinegar (may substitute vinegar of your choice)

1 teaspoon dried herbs, such as tarragon, chives or parsley

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup mild olive or vegetable oil

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the salad: Rinse and drain the lentils; sort through them to discard any debris. …

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