Friday, January 10, 2014

Long Live Lentils

Beluga Lentil "Caviar" on Potato Blini.
(Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
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.

Continue reading here.

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