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Learning to Love Lentils, One Dish at a Time

Ulrike's Frankfurter and Lentil Soup. (MCT)

Ulrike's Frankfurter and Lentil Soup. (MCT)

How old are lentils? Here’s one clue: People who say lentils are shaped like lenses have the reference backwards. Turns out that the world’s first lenses got that name because they were shaped, yes, like lentils. The lentils came first. Way first.

Lentils are Pompeii old. Ezekiel old. Ancient Sumeria old. Stone Age old.

Before there were virtually any other legumes, there were lentils, offering up protein and iron and an earthy, nutty flavor to anyone smart enough to boil some water and cook them. Their appeal endures: They’re a staple of Indian cooking, they’re featured in one of the national dishes of Egypt, and if you were in Italy or Brazil or Chile on New Year’s Day you probably ate lentils in some form as a symbol of prosperity (they also resemble coins, not just lenses). Still, it’s all too easy to take them for granted. We’ll always have lentils, won’t we?

In America, where their cookery is relatively young, there seem to be several phases of lentil awareness: 1) The soup/stew phase, a.k.a. the Moosewood phase, in which chilis and burgers and loaves abound. 2) The French phase, a.k.a. the salad phase, in which we learn how to pronounce “du Puy.” 3) The dal phase, a.k.a. Indian-food-is-so-much-more-than-curries phase. 4) The anything-goes phase, a.k.a. the true-lentil-enlightenment phase, in which we start to ask: What can’t lentils do?

I’m squarely at the beginning of Phase 4. As a relatively new vegetarian, I’ve been realizing that lentils can — nay, should — be nothing short of a dietary staple. Let’s quickly review the reasons: They’re nutritious. They’re inexpensive. They’re quick-cooking. (All together now: No soaking!) But what I’m realizing is that, possibly best of all, they’re more versatile than I had ever imagined.

That last realization has been gradual, overtaking me as I’ve perused one vegetarian cookbook after another over the past several months and, more recently, tried recipe upon recipe for lentils. I’ve fried them into little nutlike snacks, coaxed them into a soothing mash, stuffed them into tacos, turned them into a caviar facsimile, pureed them into gravy, paired them with mozzarella in a warm salad, even transformed them into a credible take on Bolognese sauce. Could the same range be accomplished by, say, a mere chickpea, as much as I love those? Never.

One difference is, there’s not just one lentil. That might make them intimidating to some cooks (and if you look at the dal section of a stocked Indian market, you will see why), but I consider that a plus. On one end of the spectrum are the split red and yellow lentils, so common in dals, which disintegrate when you cook them and might be the best gateway lentil of all. “You sprinkle a handful in a soup, and nobody knows,” says Kathy Hester, author of The Great Vegan Bean Book (Fair Winds Press, 2013). “You can add some to whatever you’re cooking, and it enriches it, makes it a little thicker.”

On the other end? Small black beluga lentils, so named because they look like beluga caviar, keep their shape and a slightly firm texture when cooked. Their name/appearance is what prompted authors Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence of The Southern Vegetarian (Thomas Nelson, 2013) to simmer them with dried seaweed to approximate caviar and to put them on creme-fraiche-topped blini, which I stuffed myself with on New Year’s Eve. Those delicate little French blue-green du Puy lentils similarly hold up well, making them grand for salads warm and cold.

In between are the big brown or green lentils, which can go either way, getting soft enough to mash if you want or staying firmer if you stop short. Their heft makes them useful for sauces, and for vegetarians that often means sauces that in their traditional form include ground beef or pork.

Because lentils are one of the best plant-based sources of protein on the planet, their ability to play the part of meat can’t be overstated. “Indeed, the phrase so often applied to the lentil, ‘the poor man’s meat,’ is only derogatory if you put the emphasis on ‘poor man’s’ instead of on ‘meat,’ ” writes Waverly Root in Food, his 1980 tome. “This may well have been meant as a compliment by the first users of the phrase.”

Burks, whose book also uses lentils in tacos and to make a riff on bourguignon, says it’s all about the texture. “Those soft but toothy little rounds of lentils really do speak the same language as a ground beef,” he says. “We’re not into meat analogues, those weird fake chickens or what have you. We don’t cook with them. But what we try and do is take something that exists naturally — i.e., a lentil — and draw the connection to something people would eat and wouldn’t mind having swapped out.”

If there is a queen of lentils, at least an American one, surely it would be Mollie Katzen, creator of that iconic (at least to vegetarians) lentil-walnut burger recipe in The Moosewood Cookbook of 1977 and so many more. In her latest book, The Heart of the Plate (Houghton Mifflin, 2013), Katzen revisits the burger idea, combining lentils with caramelized onions and brown rice. But perhaps more intriguingly, she takes inspiration from a Burmese salad that includes fried split yellow peas and applies the same technique — frying — to lentils, creating an addictive out-of-hand snack or topping. She also cooks lentils in the same pot as Chinese forbidden (black) rice, topping it all with mushrooms and white beans.

“Some of the best cooks I know do very little to lentils,” she tells me. “Just cook simply with aromatic vegetables, and dress with really good olive oil, salt and pepper.” That’s not too far from what Sarah Copeland does for a winter salad of lentils and torn shreds of fresh mozzarella in her new book, Feast (Chronicle Books, 2013).

Katzen recently had a swoon-worthy experience with a dish that included smoked lentils at the restaurant Camino in Oakland, Calif., near where she lives. The cooks had put the pot near an open fire and let the smoke infuse them. “I love the taste of accidental smoke and lentils,” she says, “like when you forget them in the pan and they scorch a little bit.” (Sure enough, Burks and Lawrence add smoke from various sources, but not from scorching the pan, to their lentil taco filling.)

Some of Katzen’s favorite treatments involve the marriage of lentils and onions. “I think there’s a love affair between them,” she says, and as soon as I made her “cozy mash” of red lentils (which turn golden) stirred into long-cooked onions, I knew what she meant. She swooned over the Camino dish, but I melted as completely as a cup of red lentils when I tasted hers.

It seems reminiscent of dal, albeit without the Indian spices. Instead, the sweet onions, a little balsamic vinegar and a pinch of cayenne pepper add a round, mysterious flavor. Cozy indeed. And — dare I say? —enlightened.