Luscious Lentils – 4 Great Recipes for Hearty Vegetarian MealsLinda Gabris April 1, 2022
If you’re wanting to trim or eliminate meat from your family’s diet, consider lentils as a perfect protein-rich substitute to stock up the pantry shelves with. Not only are they a super healthy choice for making delicious meatless meals but they are exceptionally versatile, easy on the budget, and do not need a whole lot of fuss or muss for preparing.
Lentils are closely related to peas and legumes (belonging to the vetch family) and are often grouped as pulses. The plants are grown especially for their seeds which, like peas, are contained in pods. They get their botanical name, lens culinaris, for being shaped like the lens of an eye.
Evidence has shown that the lentil, believed to be native to Southwestern Asia and Northern Syria, is one of the oldest cultivated legumes in the world. Seeds have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2400 BC. The prized seeds were mentioned in The Bible (Genesis), which tells the story of Esau who gave up his birthright for a dish of lentils. They can also be traced to ancient Greece where lentils were used as both food and medicine.
There are many varieties of lentils with the most common types being red, green, yellow and brown. They range in size from a seed bead to a pencil eraser. Unlike peas that are eaten fresh as well as dried, lentils are not eaten fresh, but rather dried upon harvesting and sold whole or split in halves. Whole lentils take a bit longer to cook but hold their shape better than those that are split in two. They are also sold dried in bulk, or in cans cooked and ready for use.
Red lentils are the sweetest and fastest cooking member of the family. Yellow lentils are smaller than yellow split peas and somewhat milder in flavour and aroma. Mild tasting brown lentils, sometimes known as Egyptian because they can be traced back to ancient tombs, are the most widely cultivated type, thus the cheapest and easiest to come by. Green, known as Puy or French lentils named after their place of origin, are meatiest of all varieties and have the most distinguished flavour. They are usually a bit more costly than red or brown lentils but are still a great bargain when weighing in at food value per scoop!
Beluga and white are two of the most exotic types of lentils, often harder to come by than other types. Glistening beluga lentils resemble beluga caviar when cooked, thus their name. They are sweet, tender and make wonderful, decorative topping for other dishes, especially eggs, fish and seafood. White lentils have a smooth texture and mild taste and are usually used in salads and fillings. They are both worth hunting down for a special table treat.
Although similar to lentils and often grouped amongst them, dried split yellow and green peas are not true lentils but can be used interchangeably in most recipes and are equally nutritious and delicious. Until recent years, dried split peas were more common than lentils in most rural North American kitchens as they were easier to come by. Today, lentils along with dried split green and yellow peas can be found in most supermarkets.
In India, where lentils are a culinary mainstay and consumed more than anywhere else in the world, they are the main source of protein and are collectively known as dhal. Because dhals — meaning lentils in a puréed state — are so delicious and versatile, recipes for these spicy dishes are growing in popularity here making lentils a number one New World food choice for those who are health conscious and enjoy great eating.
Lentils are easy to digest and are nowhere near as gas-producing as other types of legumes such as white or navy beans. They are a good source of cholesterol-lowering fibre and are noted for helping to manage blood sugar disorders since their high fibre content prevents blood sugar levels from rising rapidly after consumption.
Like other legumes, lentils are rich in protein, carbohydrates, calcium, phosphorous, iron, and B vitamins. Adding fibre-rich lentils to the diet is reported to help prevent digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and constipation.
Ongoing studies around the world have indicated that vegetable protein such as that derived from lentils contributes to better health and reduces the incidence of degenerative disease, because it minimizes the saturated fat load that a more typical meat-heavy diet carries.
Research also shows that eating lentils prevents heart disease as they contain significant amounts of folate (a known heart helper) and magnesium (reputed as helping to keep arteries flowing freely). In addition to being good for blood, stomach and heart, lentils and dried split peas are proven energy boosters, helping to replenish iron. My grandmother, a relied upon herbalist in the Muskoka backwoods where I grew up, has it noted in her old doctoring journals that pease porridge (a thick pudding made out of dried split peas) is good treatment for iron deficiencies and poor blood and useful treatment for monthly cramping. In olden days, such purées were also used as poultices for drawing infection out of wounds.
As far as colds and influenzas go, nothing opens a stuffy head and breaks up congestion like inhaling soothing stream from a bowl of lentil soup. I usually feel better within the first couple spoonfuls.
So for good health and enlightened dining, lighten up with lentils. Try the recipes below for warm and filling early spring meals that are marvelously delicious and I can assure you, nobody will be asking, “where’s the beef?”
HOMEMADE VEGGIE STOCK
I keep a plastic container in the fridge to catch all of my vegetable scraps in. When I have enough celery leaves and outer stalks, onion ends, carrot and parsnip scrapings, pepper seeds, turnip butts, outer cabbage leaves, leek tops and what-not, along with trimmings and stems of fresh herbs, I put them in enough water to cover and simmer until every last drop of goodness has been extracted. The mixture is then cooled and strained, and seasoned with salt and pepper. It can be frozen for future use by putting in ice cube trays and freezing, then dumping out into freezer bags for storage. Only rule of thumb is to scour veggies well before saving the scraps for cooking.
This mouthwatering dip can be served with crackers or pita or any bread suitable for dipping, or as a vegetable dunk for carrot, celery or other sticks and stalks.
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 finely chopped onion
- 3 garlic cloves, minced (or less to suit taste)
- Few slices of pickled ginger or some fresh ginger, peeled and grated
- 1 Tbsp cumin
- 1 tsp each of ground coriander, cardamom, turmeric and curry powder
- Pinch each of cloves and black pepper
- 1 cup uncooked red lentils, washed under cold running water
- 1-1/2 cups vegetable stock, homemade or from cubes (see easy recipe below for homemade stock)
Here’s my favorite recipe for what my family fondly calls “mom’s meatless meat loaf.” It is delightful supper loaf that goes very nicely with steamed carrots and a poached egg, or a side salad and steamed broccoli.
- 1-1/2 cups of green or brown lentils, or dried split green or yellow peas
- 2-1/4 cups water
- 3 cloves minced garlic
- 6 slices of whole wheat bread, cut into small cubes and dried slightly in the oven to remove excess moisture. For finer textured loaf, use bread or cracker crumbs instead of cubes
- 2 eggs
- 1 large minced onion
- 1/2 tsp seasoned salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 Tbsp spicy ketchup
- Additional 2 tablespoons fine bread crumbs or finely crushed cracker crumbs
Make this hearty soup from any lentil or split pea and it’ll be equally delicious. Serve with a thick slab of rye bread and you’ve got a supper that’s warm and filling. But the best thing about this soup is that it can be as versatile as the veggies in your crisper — no two pots are ever the same.
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 large onion, cut into thin wedges
- 3 minced garlic cloves (more or less to suit taste)
- 6 cups water
- 2 tsp seasoned salt
- 1 tsp black pepper
- Pinch of basil
- 2 cups lentils or dried split peas
- Veggies — Lots or little of any or all of the following cut into soup-sized pieces: celery, carrots, parsnip, cabbage, turnip, leeks, potatoes, tomatoes or anything else in the crisper that you fancy
Here is a traditional East Indian recipe for a spicy Dhal. In its country of origin, a dhal such as this would be served with rice as a main course but it is also good with a simmered grain such as barley or alongside mashed potatoes to help bear the heat which can be adjusted to suit your tolerance.
- 1 cup brown, yellow or green lentils
- 2 cups water
- 1 Tbsp coconut or olive oil
- 1/2 tsp black mustard seeds
- 2-3 small hot peppers, jalapeno, chili or hot banana with seeds removed
- 1 minced onion
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp East Indian curry powder (or that which is sweet and robust)
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 5 cardamom pods, seeds removed and crushed fine with pestle and mortar
- Pinch each of ground cinnamon and cloves
- Juice of half a lemon
- 1 tsp sugar
- Salt to taste
Linda Gabris is an avid cook who enjoys sharing her grandmother’s old recipes and medicinal preparations as they were recorded in the handwritten journals passed down to her. Linda also enjoys gardening and foraging for edible wild foods. Over the years, she has taught cooking courses in Prince George, B.C., with a focus on healthy eating, food preparation, and International cuisine.