I am about to kick of the New Year with the probably most underrated legume of all times. Actually it is one of the most underrated food items of all time (except probably in India). Lentils! It is the one food that I used to hate as a kid and I love as an adult. As a kid all legumes were by far the worst food I could ever have. They were always served as a substitute to meat, especially during lent before Christmas, Easter or Dormition of the Theotokos (Assumption of Mary in the Roman Catholic Religion). They were usually (and by usually I mean 100% of the times) served in a soup form with tomato, garlic and the optional vinegar that very well suits them. I still, however, didn’t like them because they were highly associated with the dreadful lent that meant one thing: no meat. And I am a generation Y kid. Born in the era of the fast-food globalization, the abundance of meat and wealth that spread all across Europe including Greece. And it is a shame. A big shame, because lentils are as reach in protein as meat. And of course a lot more healthy than meat.
When I made the hummus we talked extensively for the historical and anthropological significance of legumes. One legume, however, stand out from the legume crowd: the lentil. Lentils’ major advantage comes from their shape. It is thin flat disk that gives very high surface to mass ratio. This ratio is important for cooking: the mass is cooked from the heat that comes through the outer available surface. Take for example a steak. It is thin, flat, and evenly thick. This allow the even cooking of the meat. If the steak is thicker it will require more time, and by the time the inside is done the outside is overcooked. Same for the legumes, beans, chickpeas and the likes have a big mass and a small surface area. This makes cooking very complicated. On top of that the skin adds another layer of complication. The legumes in general absorb water from the hilum, the small opening from where the sprout will come out. The starch in the legumes will absorb the water and swell almost twice their size. If the outer skin is not soft it will crack and the legume will explode. That’s why the presoaking is important. It will soften the skin and the legumes will hold their shape. Lentils do to share that. The high surface to mass ratio results in more skin per starch and less cooking time. The lentils therefore will hold their lens type shape even without the presoaking. The lens like shape inspired the name of the lens by the way. This is even more noticeable in greek where the name of lentils are called fakes (φακές) and the lens is called fakos (φακός).
You will probably notice that the pictures are not from my kitchen. This was shoot in January 2011 at my house in Crete. I just found the time to post it.
Nutritionally lentils are very important. They are high in fiber, low in fat, good sources of magnesium and iron and do not contain they very complex polysaccharides that makes legumes hard to digest. 100 g of lentils contain: 30 grams of fiber, 26 grams of protein, 2 grams of sugars and an only 1.1 grams of fat. All this in a convenient package of only 353 Kcal. And this is not all. The proteins in lentils include two of the nine essential amino acids, the isoleucine and lysine. The amino acids are the building blocks of the proteins and nine of them are called essential because our body cannot synthesize them, we should take them directly with food. Lentils are an essential source of inexpensive protein in many parts of the world, especially in West Asia and the Indian subcontinent, which have large vegetarian populations. It is no wonder that the lentils became so important in human history. It is one of the earliest crops domesticated somewhere in Mesopotamia more than 8,000 years ago. It grows easy, it keeps in the dried form for very long and requires very little in terms of maintenance. The long history of cultivating lentils resulted in a large variety of lentils: green, red (popular in India under the name dal), Italian, Spanish, Greek and French that as every other french product is under protected designation of origin. Today we will just deal with the good old green lentils that can be found in dry form in every megamart of the modern world.
It looks like a lot of ingredients but we will break them into to pieces:
1) All purpose lentils (named like that for purpose that will be evident later)
- 1 pounds of lentils
- 1 onion
- 1 bell pepper
- 1 glove of garlic
- Tomato sauce
- Cyprus loukaniko or another smoked sausage (optional but sooo good)
- Bell pepper
- Tomato paste
- Smoked Paprika
- Olive oil
Pour the lentils in a pan to sort out any non-lentil items.
Carefully start from one side of the pan and work your way to the other side scanning them almost one by one. This is important. Lentils are an agricultural product that is machine harvested and sorted and little stones and plant debris can make it through the sorting and packaging facility. Don’t skip this step.
Once this is done add them in a pot.
Follow that with water. No need to be hot or boiling water. I just used the kettle as a delivery device.
Take a small tea pouch and add in there some whole pepper corns. To be honest you don’t have to use this, you can just use some cheese cloth or even add them in the pot directly. You just have to fish them out one by one once cooked.
For an herbal note I like some rosemary as well.
And the pouch is ready.
Get it into the pot with a quarter onion.
Add a bay leaf or two.
Half a carrot will be nice too.
Add a clove of garlic.
Add some salt and start the boil.
While this is cooking we can prepare the dressing of the lentil soup. Take the onion and cut off the root.
Split it half.
Do a radial cut.
And cut to dice.
Nice and fine.
You can follow the same technique with the carrot. Cut a carrot in half.
Cut them in thin strips.
And stack them to cut them in little sticks. That is called Julienne in cooking. Mighty good in salads.
Dice the sticks into even smaller dices.
Similar process for the pepper. Cut the top …
and bottom part off. Don’t through them away. Add them in the boiling pot.
Make a vertical incision and lay it flat.
Same process to julienne…
and dice the pepper.
Do the same with the sausage. Of course if you want your lentils soup vegetarian skip the sausage. Use smoked paprika instead. Cut it in half.
Cut it in thin strips.
Cut the strips in smaller sticks.
Gather them up and dice.
Here the Mirepoix (with bell pepper instead of the celery that I am not a fan of) and the diced sausage. The sausage is purely optional. This one is from Cyprus and it is heavily and heavenly smoked. You can substitute it with any other smoked meat, smoked chili or skip it all together.
In another bowl use a microplane grater to grate the onion.
And the garlic.
By now the lentils should be done. Extract a sample for the doness test.
Take on in your fingers and squeeze it.
If it falls apart with small pressure it is done.
Proceed with extracting the flavor add-ons. The carrot.
The pouch of herbs and spices.
The bell pepper scraps.
The bay leaf.
And drain. Yes you could use a colander, but I am lazy. I just offset the lid and strain. This water that came out although it is not bad, is murky. Yes there are nutrients washed out from the lentils that should not be wasted, but there is so much more left in the lentil that this is not a crime. You can keep it if you want and use it later.
Now this is what I call A.P.L. All Purpose Lentils. Even like this they are amazing. Just add some finely chopped onion, olive oil, some fresh herbs, maybe some pomegranate and and you have yourself one of the best salads you ever tasted. Here however, we will proceed with the soup. The might lentil soup.
Here is our mise en place. French for putting in place.
Start by hitting the olive oil, over medium heat.
When the oil starts hissing and have a shimmering surface, add the sausage.
It will smoke a little, hiss a little but the end it will be great. Little brown crispy treats. As you can see the sausage produced a lot more fat. If you skip it, add more olive oil.
Just like this.
Now add the carrots, onion, pepper mixture and stir until it start getting caramelized.
Follow that with the tomato paste. Once the tomato paste is in there. Stir it around to cook it. Many people say that if you don’t do that it will taste bitter. No it will not. I remember as a kid to spread the paste over bread and eat it like Nutella. It is not bitter. Just when you cook it, you caramelize it and you bring out some of the natural sugars of the tomatoes. That’s all.
Now is time to add the lentils. All of them.
Add about a litter of water. This varies of how soupy you want your soup. If you have reserved the murky lentil water from the first cooking, you can add it here. But it’s too murky for my tasty. It browns the dish.
Add the grated onion and garlic.
Add some tomato sauce. I actually add some freshly grated tomato as well. The fresh tomato gives a deeper dimension to the food.
Throw in some fresh bay leafs.
And some pepper and smoked paprika.
Season with salt.
And let it simmer for 20 mins. Although the soup is cooked is not ready yet. We need to simmer it so some of the starch molecules will get out and make the soup a bit thicker. Give the soup some spine if you like.
Serve and enjoy. You can decorate with soup cream, yogurt, or my favorite feta cheese. But you know for the foods of the soul you don’t need fancy dressing and decorations. You only need some love. And a spoonful of this, will make your soul happy. And don’t forget, it is a very nutritious meal.Printable Recipe CardClose
1 pounds of lentils
1 bell pepper
7 clove of garlic
2 tsp peppercorns
2 Rosemary springs
2 bay leaf
2 cups tomato sauce
6 oz smoked sausage or other smoked meat (optional but sooo good)
2 tbs tomato paste
1/4 tsp smoked paprika
1/4 cup olive oil
- Check the lentils for stones and other foreign objects
- Wash them well
- Cut the onion, the carrot and the bell pepper in half.
- In a pot add the lentils, 2 tsp peppercorns, in spring of rosemary, the bay leaf, the split onion, the carrot and half the bell pepper and plenty of water.
- Boil for 30 minutes or until the lentils are fork tender.
- Mice the rest of the onion, garlic, bell pepper and carrots.
- Mince the smoked sausage (or any other smoked meat)
- Once the lentils are cooked strain them, reserve the liquid, and remove the onion, carrots, garlic bay leaf, peppercorns and rosemary.
- Add the olive oil in the pan and sauté the smoked sausage.
- Add the the onion, bell pepper and carrots.
- Saute the veggies for 5 mins to caramelize them.
- Add the tomato paste and cook it for a minute or two.
- Add the tomato sauce and some of the reserved lentil water.
- Cook for 20 minutes over low heat.
- Serve with feta cheese or yogurt.
- You can entire skip the meat to make it into vegan dish. Feel free to add any other vegetation you like: celery, cauliflower etc.