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Sep 02, 2014
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Lovely Lentils Layer On Flavor
By Pat Eby | Photo by Carmen Troesser
Posted On: 01/03/2011   

Put simply, lentils are legumes, protein-heavy powerhouses of good nutrition. They’re also sponges for layering flavors and so quick-cooking you can fix hearty salads, soups and main dishes any time you’ve got a spare hour. The brown lentils I grew up eating in the German-style sausage soups my grandmother cooked remain the most common in the U.S., but world-wide, lentils make for colorful eating.

Black lentils, small as a peppercorn, glisten like caviar when cooked and retain their irregular shape, hence their nickname, black belugas. Delicate red lentils cook down to a golden color with a meaty consistency. Puy lentils, aka French green lentils, hold their shape and are greener cooked than they are dried, which makes for delightful salads and sides. Brown lentils, large and small, simmer to a stewy, mushy comfort food, but using different spices and flavorings than Grandmother made cooking brown lentils an adventure.

Recipes for lentils, also called pulses or dals, proliferate in Indian, African and Middle Eastern cookbooks, which makes for fun reading and good taste experiments. But if you want to taste the wild side of lentils without cooking them yourself, try locally made Ah! Zeefa black lentil dips in mild, medium and hot. “I first made Ah! Zeefa for a festival and fundraiser for the Ethopian Evangelical Church; it sold out,” said owner Sine Berhanu. “People called the church and wanted more.” Whole Foods came knocking in 2007, and Berhanu added Ah! Zeefa to her existing product line of lentil soup mixes, spice blends and buckwheat breakfast cereals. Today, you’ll also find the dips at Local Harvest, Sappington Farmers’ Market, Golden Grocer and The Natural Way.

But don’t stop with the dips. Try the Lentils Divine soup mixes in nine flavors ranging from Heavenly Hot, a spicy homage to Berhanu’s Ethiopean roots, to the mild and fragrant St. Louis Savory. The black lentil soups, perfectly spiced, go from stovetop to table in under 30 minutes. Berhanu sells organic black beluga lentils in 8-ounce packages, too. “Lentils always come two in a pod,” she said. “They dry in the fields and they’re harvested mechanically, with a combine.”

Which might explain why every lentil recipe starts with some version of, “Sort through the lentils to remove debris and small stones.” Even high-quality lentils need a once-over, so when you try these lovelies, don’t skip that first step. Be sure to cook across all the colors, too. I was surprised how different each lentil tasted and finished.

A lentil soup cooked from Paul Prudhomme’s Fork in the Road cookbook was lush: Large brown lentils spiced with white, black and cayenne pepper, sweetened with apple juice, and livened up with tamari and the last-minute addition of carrots, parsnips, diced zucchini and yellow squash.

I blended several recipes to create a Puy lentil salad, which also uses fregula, a roasted Sardinian pasta for a hearty main-dish salad. An Indian-style chicken dish with red lentils and rice was fragrant with fresh ginger, toasted ground cumin seeds, serrano chiles, garam masala and cayenne, a wonderful wintry dish.

Venture beyond your grandmother’s lovely German lentil soup with sausage ladled over spaetzle and you’ll see, like I did, another side to this versatile legume.

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