What's brown, and green, and black and yellow and pink?
What's high in fiber, protein, potassium and folate?
What has the same antioxidants found in tea, fruits, red wine and cocoa beans?
What's low on the glycemic index?
What's fast and cheap, and available absolutely everywhere?
Lentils, of course.
Shaped like a lens, which is the origin of the name, lentils are a legume, perhaps one of the oldest known agricultural products. Lentils were found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2400 BC, and perhaps were grown in the gardens of Babylon around 800 BC. In modern times, the primary producers are India and Canada, with additional production in the Mideast and the Palouse region of the northwest United States.
Apart from their unquestioned status as a "superfood", lentils offer one great advantage to cooks. They do not need a pre-soak. Just rinse them, pick through to remove any little stones, and start cooking your favorite lentil soup, stew, salad, pasta, and burgers.
Lentils will keep forever in a sealed bag or jar. The color does fade over time, but the flavor holds. As with all pulses, the older they are, the longer they take to cook.
By the way, thirty-plus years ago, Robert McCloskey, author of Make Way for Ducklings, wrote a book called Lentil. It's about a little boy who learns to play the harmonica -- and not a legume in sight.
Spiced lentils with squash and raisins
Turn any leftovers into a wonderful soup with the addition of chicken stock or water. This is one of the few instances when either lemon zest or minced preserved lemon rind can be used to enhance the flavor of the dish; most often, you really can’t substitute for preserved lemons. Serves 6-8, with couscous.
1-1/4 cups brown lentils
3/4 cup canned chopped tomato
1 onion, finely chopped
3 cups water (plus more if needed)
3 Tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced or grated
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
2 tsp harissa, or more to taste (or 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper)
1 tsp paprika
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1/2 tsp sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp black pepper, or more to taste
1 lb butternut squash, peeled, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup raisins
1/2 preserved lemon, pith removed, rind chopped OR grated zest of one lemon
Juice of one lemon, as needed
Honey or agave nectar, as needed
4 tsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Rinse the lentils in a sieve. Place in a Dutch oven with tomatoes, onion, and 3 cups water. Cover and bring to a simmer over low heat, and cook for 10 minutes.
In the meantime, in a small nonstick frying pan, heat the oil over low heat. Add garlic, sauté for 15 seconds, then add cumin, turmeric, harissa, paprika, tomato paste and sugar, and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes until it forms a dark, aromatic paste. Add mixture to the lentils, along with salt and pepper.
After the lentils have cooked for 15 minutes total, add the squash and raisins, plus an additional cup of water. Continue cooking for 15 minutes. Add the preserved lemon and half of the parsley. Cook until lentils and squash are done. Taste and adjust seasoning with fresh lemon juice, honey, salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with remaining parsley, and serve over couscous.
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