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TODAY

Friday, November 22

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Airbags

I talk about food. A lot. Probably more than I should. But it is one of my favorite topics to talk about with people. When politics and religion are not part of polite subject matter, I can usually get someone fired up to talk about food. I have yet to meet someone who doesn't have a favorite dish. And when I do, I'm sure I'll talk about how little interest they have in food instead of how much interest they have in food. Which means, I can talk to anyone about food.

So it breaks my heart a bit when I hear someone say, "I just can't cook. I can't even boil water. I give up and throw it in the microwave." Earlier in my life, I would probably end the conversation there and look for someone else to talk with, probably about food. But now that I'm older and a little less judgmental, I realize that what I'm hearing is someone describe their fear. And I think it is often a fear of "doing it wrong," or of wasting food and time, or of not liking what you worked to create. So I prod with, "I'm sure you can cook something. Macaroni and cheese? Spaghetti? Something!" And frequently I hear "Barely." or "Not really, it's always mushy or crunchy. Or I forget about it and it burns. So I eat a lot of take-out."

And I have no doubt that these people really feel like they can't cook. But the stubborn chef within me cringes still and wants them to try. Just once. Do it for me. It's not really fair to expect people to develop the interest in food that i have, but my urge is still there. As I had a conversation like this recently, I kept thinking to myself that there has to be something that is hard to overcook or undercook. I wanted something with a lot of leeway, room for error, wiggle-room.

While having this conversation with a young woman recently, she inadvertently gave me the perfect answer. She described to me how a friend was staying over and had filled her refrigerator with vegetables and cabinets with dried goods. "Lentils. What am I supposed to do with lentils? Bags of them."

And while she questioned their value, a small bell of clarity rang in my head. Lentils! They cook quickly, and if you overcook them, you still get something pleasing. Lentils provide a continuum of textures and flavors, not a narrow window of acceptability like pasta or rice. And since she's a vegetarian, this high-fiber, high-protein food can pack the nutritional wallop she needs.

So while she tentatively asked questions about what cookbook to get (The Joy of Cooking gets my highest recommendations), she also seemed willing to give this cooking from ingredients thing a shot.

Lentils have been around for 10,000-13,000 years, and if they could be cooked by people who didn't even have a written language over open fires in homemade vessels, then I think the average American with a temperature-controlled stove and a decent pan should be able to at least replicate what our ancestors were eating.

Throughout most of history, this legume has been refused a seat at the tables of the wealthy because they have been so inexpensive. Gram for gram, lentils pack more protein than beef, they're high in fiber, low in fat, and high in iron and many other minerals and vitamins. But unlike other legumes, these beans don't need to soak overnight and cook for a long time. A quick rinse and then boiling over a medium-high heat for 10-25 minutes is all it takes. The older the bean, the less moisture it contains, which means the longer it takes to cook.

The hard part about cooking lentils is that they suck up flavorings like a kid with Slurpee. Which means that you'll have to add more spices to lentils than you think you'll really need so you can keep them from tasting bland. But the flip side is that it is hard to over-season them. This is not a dish where an extra half-teaspoon of cumin is going to make it unbearable.

And since it just happens to be soup weather (oh summer, how I miss you already), lentils are perfect for this time of year If you've been afraid of cooking, then this is the perfect time to learn. The best part about the recipes that follow is that they all require less than seven ingredients, take 45 minutes or less to make, are vegetarian (but meat can easily be added if you carnivore that way), and are easy. Yes, really. I'm going to assume you have a saucepan, a spoon for stirring, a knife and a cutting board. That really is all the hardware you're going to need. If you're the forgetful type, I suggest you check to see if your microwave has a timer-only setting. If it doesn't, I suggest you pop into a home or kitchen store and plunk down the $5 for a timer, or figure out how to use the one on your cell phone. Now you don't have to worry about forgetting to stir things because an annoying timer will remind you.

We'll start off with Tomato and Lentil Soup, then move on to Spinach and Lentil Soup, Olive and Citrusy Lentil Salad, and Drunken Lentils with Shallots.

Tomato and Lentil Soup
1 cup of lentils
1 can (15 ounces) of diced tomatoes (you can always get cans of tomatoes that have added herbs or jalapeƱos for extra flavor with no extra work)
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
1 teaspoon of Hungarian paprka or garam masala
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
salt and pepper to taste

Pour your lentils into a flat dish and pick through them to see if there are any stones or bits of twig. It's rare that you'll find anything, but the one time you don't look will be the one time you find them while you're eating. Place a saucepan over medium heat and add the lentils to the pan. Open the tomatoes and pour over the lentils. Fill the can with cold water and add that to the pan as well. Sprinkle the cumin, paprika and garlic powder over the lentils and stir to combine. Cover with a lid and let it cook for about 30-45 minutes. The acid from the tomato will slow the absorption of liquid into the lentils which is what increases the cooking time on this dish. Don't add any salt or pepper till the lentils are cooked through and you're ready to serve. Once your pot comes to a boil (this should take less than 10 minutes), you'll want to reduce your heat to low. I suggest you set your timer to stir every 7 minutes. All you have to do is give the pan a quick stir to make sure that the lentils aren't sticking to the bottom. You'll know the lentils are finished when you can bite into them without noticing any crunch. If you think a softer lentil is more to your liking, it's OK to add another 1/4 can of water and keep cooking. Once the lentils are cooked through, taste and add salt and pepper and serve with a piece of cornbread, or some naan, or even some toasted pita bread cut into wedges.

A chopped up pre-cooked bit of sausage would make this soup heartier.
Makes 2-3 servings.

Spinach and Lentil Soup
Spinach, chard, escarole or any other similar green will go great in this dish.

1 can of vegetable or chicken broth
1 shitake mushroom, chopped in tiny pieces
1/2 cup of lentils
2 large handfuls of fresh spinach leaves or other leafy green (about 1 cup packed tightly)
1/4 teaspoon of ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
1 teaspoon of dried coriander or cumin
salt and pepper to taste (I know, this makes this nine ingredients, not seven. Whatever.)

Place a saucepan over medium heat. Add the broth and one can of water. While it starts to come to a boil, pick through the lentils to remove any that seem bad, or to find any stones. Add the lentils to the pan and let it come to a boil again with the lid on it. Once it starts to boil, but before the pot boils over, reduce the heat to low and cook for about 20 minutes before adding the spices and the spinach. You'll know it's time when you bite into a lentil and the outside is soft, but the inside is still dense or crunchy. While the lentils cook, rinse your greens really well and shake them to remove them of any excess water. Remove the stems if they're large leaves and tear or cut the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Once the lentils seem almost done, add in the spinach, mushroom, ginger, garlic and coriander. Cover it and let it return to a simmer and cook for 5-10 minutes more. You want the lentils to be just cooked through. Add in a handful of chopped, leftover chicken.
Makes 2 servings.

Olive and Citrusy Lentil Salad
3 cups of water
1 cup of dried lentils
1 clove of garlic
1 carrot chopped
1 teaspoon of dried thyme or oregano
1/4 cup of chopped green or black olives
1 chopped tomato
1 chopped scallion, optional

Add the water to a saucepan and place it over medium-high heat. While that begins to heat up, sort through the lentils to remove anything unwanted. Once they're clean, add them to the water along with the clove of garlic (just smash it with the bottom of a glass and peel off the papery skin), the chopped carrot, and the thyme or oregano. Let this cook over medium-low heat while covered for 15-20 minutes, or until the lentils are cooked through. Set your timer for 5 minute increments if necessary to remember to stir it occasionally. Once the lentils are tender, drain off the excess liquid and put the lentils in a large bowl. Chop up the olives, tomato and scallion and sprinkle them over the lentils. Make up the basic lemon dressing below and pour it over the lentils, stir to coat, and serve warm or cold.
Makes 2 servings.

Basic Lemon Dressing
Juice from one lemon
1 tablespoon of olive oil
1/2 teaspoon of salt
several grinds of black pepper
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon of garlic powder

Place all of the ingredients in a bowl and stir together with a spoon. Taste and add more olive oil, salt or pepper if desired. This also goes great over fish, boiled potatoes, or as a salad dressing.

Drunken Lentils with Shallots
This dish proves that with just a few ingredients you can make a richly flavored dish that is frightfully simple.

4 shallots
1 1/2 cups of red wine
2 tablespoons of honey
1 cup of lentils
1 tablespoon of olive oil

Peel the shallots and slice them in thin rings. Place them in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the wine and the honey to the saucepan and stir to combine. In another saucepan, add 3 cups of water or vegetable broth over medium heat and cover. While this starts to come to a boil, sort through the lentils to remove any unwanted bits. Add the lentils to the water, cover and let it boil. Once it boils reduce the heat to medium-low and let it simmer. Set your timer to remind you to stir it and the shallot mixture every 3 minutes. It should only take the shallots about 6-7 minutes to cook through. Once the shallots are soft, turn off the heat and let it sit while the lentils finish cooking. Once the lentils are cooked through, drain off any remaining liquid. Add the olive oil to the shallot mixture and turn up the heat to high. Stir constantly for 1-2 minutes, or until the sauce just starts to bubble. Pour the lentils into a serving bowl and pour the shallot and wine sauce over the lentils. Stir to coat evenly and serve immediately. This goes great with a grilled mushroom cap, or even a steak if you're really feeling iron-deficient.
Makes 2-3 servings.

I hope that at least one of these dishes seems easy enough for a beginner cook to tackle. If you've been saying that you want to learn to cook, I really think there is no time like the present. The weather is cool enough that having a kitchen warmed by cooking is welcome, lentils are really cheap so if you screw up, just toss out the pan and order Thai food like you would have otherwise. Just don't be afraid to try. I know I threw away disappointing dishes quite a bit when I was first learning to cook, and occasionally I have an idea that sounds great, but ends up frozen in my deep freezer until I can figure out what to do with it. Making a cooking mistake isn't the end of the world, especially if you learn something or gain patience or interest in the process while making the mistake. And remember, even Martha Stewart has pizza delivery stored in her speed dial.

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Comments

Jason Guthartz / September 30, 2008 10:52 AM

just be careful about how you store your lentils:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cApVy4Ei6lo

Jamie / September 30, 2008 11:17 AM

What kind of lentils are you using for these recipes? French Green/Puy, Red, other?

Adam / October 1, 2008 3:08 PM

Don't forget about yellow lentils, red lentils, and the tiny French green lentils either. All wonderful.

GREAT recipes. Puts me in the mood to try all of them.

Alissa / October 2, 2008 12:40 PM

Cinnamon, you're amazing. I'm going to have to give at least one lentil recipe a try over the weekend. I'm leaning towards soup if it stays cold. Thanks for the help!

igo / October 2, 2008 7:40 PM

Thanks! I made the Tomato Lentil tonight. It is really good. I did add sausage but I think I could have done without. It definitely seems to make more than 2 or 3 servings!

Cinnamon / October 3, 2008 2:38 PM

Jason: Thanks for the giggle.

Jamie/Adam: I'm fortunate to have at least a dozen types of lentils at my disposal a short walk from my home. I think any lentil would work with any recipe above, but some people are only going to find red or yellow or green near them.

And if you're buying dal or dahl, they have the outer shell removed so they'll cook much faster.

Alissa, let me know how comes out.

igo: Without the sausage it would make less, but you're probably right that there are at least 4 servings in this recipe. I think I need smaller bowls.

 

About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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