The humble lentil has been used in the Middle East for thousands of years. Its importance in the region’s food is highlighted in the Torah’s famous story of the lentil pottage for which Esau sold his birthright to Jacob.
Today many cooks use lentils often due to the recommendations of nutritionists to include vegetarian sources of protein in meals. Susie Fishbein, author of Kosher by Design Cooking Coach, notes that “lentils are a healthy legume that is low in fat, high in protein and fiber, and cooks quickly.”
Lentils are the basis of a time-honored Egyptian dish known as koshari, a sort of enhanced version of majadra (Middle Eastern rice with lentils). I recently had traditional koshari at Al Omda Café, an Egyptian restaurant in Anaheim, California. It was composed of a lentil and rice pilaf layered with macaroni, enriched with a spicy tomato sauce and garnished with fried onions.
Lentil and rice pilaf is popular in Greece too. Rosemary Barron, author of Flavors of Greece, perfumes her pilaf with crushed coriander seeds, allspice and bay leaves, flavors it with onions and carrots sauteed in olive oil, and finishes it with a few spoonfuls of sweet-and-sour sauce made of honey, red wine vinegar and olive oil. Some make a pilaf of lentils and orzo (riceshaped pasta) and stir in a sauce of sauteed onion and tomatoes.
During this season, a hearty, warming lentil soup appears on many tables. Normally lentil soup is made with Italian sausage, wrote John Penza in Sicilian Vegetarian Cooking.
Instead he adds porcini mushrooms to give the soup a meaty flavor.
When Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen, authors of Cooking from an Italian Garden, make zuppa di lenticchie, or Italian lentil soup, they flavor it with chopped onions, carrots and celery sauteed in oil and butter, as well as rosemary, garlic and tomatoes.
Some might use only olive oil to saute the vegetables, or omit the oil to make the soup leaner. Anne Casale, author of Lean Italian Meatless Meals, starts her fat-free lentil soup by simmering leeks, carrots and celery in a small amount of vegetable broth, to “release a more intense flavor to the soup than simply boiling the whole mixture together.”
To make a colorful lentil and beet salad, Fishbein flavors the liquid for cooking the lentils with fresh thyme sprigs, garlic cloves, a celery rib and a carrot. She combines the cooked lentils with cubes of freshly cooked beets, thin slices of red onion, olive oil, red wine vinegar and fresh tarragon, and serves the salad on a bed of arugula. (See recipe below.) Pointing out the versatility of the lentil and beet mixture, Fishbein recommends cooking extra lentils and beets in order to turn the leftovers into easy veggie burgers. To make them, she coarsely chops cooked lentils, cooked beets and cooked brown rice in a food processor with garlic cloves and onion chunks. She enriches the mixture with tahini and seasons it with dried thyme, dry mustard, ground fennel seeds and oregano. After mixing in bread crumbs, she forms the mixture into patties and sautees them in canola oil.
Greeks make lentils into appetizer purees called salatas. Barron makes her olive and lentil salata from cooked lentils, oil-cured black olives, capers, anchovies, garlic, Greek oregano, lemon juice and olive oil.
The same principle is used to make lentil chopped liver. I like mine flavored with walnuts and sauteed onions. (See recipe below).
LENTIL CHOPPED LIVER
This spread is based on a recipe I received from Nechama Alpert of Haifa, a reader of this column. Alpert uses only 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil and a full cup of walnuts and makes her stock from bouillon cubes or powder. I increase the oil a bit to make the onions easier to saute. Usually I have a jar of vegetable cooking liquid in my refrigerator and I use this broth as vegetable stock.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
❖ 1 cup brown or green lentils
❖ 2 cups vegetable stock
❖ 1 Tbsp. vegetable oil or olive oil
❖ 1 large onion, chopped
❖ 3⁄4 cup walnuts
❖ Salt and freshly ground pepper Spread lentils on a plate, pick through them carefully, rinse and drain them.
Combine lentils and stock in a medium saucepan. Cover and cook for about 30 minutes or until tender; during cooking add a little hot water if necessary so pan will not become dry, but for best flavor do not add too much so lentils don’t become soupy. When lentils are tender, drain off excess liquid.
Heat oil in a heavy nonstick skillet.
Add onion and saute over medium-low heat about 5 minutes or until translucent. If pan becomes too dry, add 1 or 2 Tbsp. water so onions don’t burn.
Puree lentils, onion and walnuts in a food processor to the consistency you prefer, either smooth or slightly chunky.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Refrigerate 2 or 3 hours before serving.
LENTIL AND BEET SALAD
This recipe is from Kosher by Design Cooking Coach. Author Susie Fishbein reminds readers that lentils should be rinsed before cooking and checked for any stones or debris, and that “bigger or older lentils need more cooking time.” Due to their earthy character, Fishbein recommends cooking lentils with strong flavorings. You can make the salad the night before and spoon it over the arugula at serving time.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
❖ 2 1⁄2 tsp. fine sea salt, divided
❖ 4 red beets, washed, roots trimmed and discarded
❖ 1 cup puy or green lentils, rinsed
❖ 2 sprigs fresh thyme
❖ 2 cloves fresh garlic
❖ 1 rib celery, root end trimmed
❖ 1 carrot, peeled, ends trimmed and discarded
❖ 2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling on arugula
❖ 1⁄2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, divided
❖ 1 small red onion, peeled, halved and very thinly sliced
❖ 1⁄4 cup red wine vinegar
❖ Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh tarragon, finely chopped (1 tsp.)
❖ 4 cups baby arugula, divided
❖ Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh parsley, finely chopped (1 Tbsp.)
Fill a large pot halfway with water.
Add 1 tsp. salt. Add the beets. Bring to a boil, cover, turn down to medium heat and cook for 45 minutes, until the tip of a knife can easily pierce a beet.
Place the lentils in a medium pot with 2 cups water. Add the thyme, garlic, celery and carrot. Bring to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes. Check the water level toward the end of the 20 minutes and add more water, 1⁄4 cup at a time, if lentils are not soft to the bite. (They should still hold their shape.) When the lentils are done, turn off the heat.
Discard the thyme, garlic, celery and carrot. Drain off any excess water. Add the olive oil, 1⁄2 tsp. salt and 1⁄4 tsp. black pepper to the lentils. Stir and set aside.
Place the onion slices in a large bowl.
Drain the beets. Let them cool until you can handle them. Grasping the beet with paper towels to color-protect your hands, peel off and discard the skin from each beet. Trim off the ends and any remaining skin. Cut each beef in half and then into 1-cm. (1⁄2-inch) cubes.
Add to the onion.
Drizzle with the vinegar and sprinkle with 3⁄4 tsp. salt and remaining 1⁄4 tsp. black pepper. Sprinkle on the tarragon. Mix well.
Allow to stand so the flavors can meld.
Place the arugula in a mixing bowl.
Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with remaining 1⁄4 tsp. salt. Arrange a 3-cup layer of baby arugula in the bottom of a large serving bowl or platter. Top with the beets, creating a well in the center.
Fill with the lentils. Garnish with chopped parsley. Top with a mound of the remaining arugula.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.