Thursday, May 20, 2010

Red Lentils: A 10,000 year old legume

When the legendary hunter Esau returned home to the family tent, famished from a day spent tracking game, he insisted on eating a bowl of lentils, not meat. "Let me swallow that red, some of that red stuff..." he said to his brother Jacob, who then gave him the lentils he was cooking. (Yes, there's much more to that story; you can look it up).

A valuable source of protein and other essential nutrients, lentils have been cultivated in the Near East since the Neolithic Era (circa 9500 BCE) making them one of the earliest crops domesticated by humans. In South Asia, home to a large vegetarian culture, lentils of many varieties are a daily staple for millions. Their versatility and satisfying flavor have created a remarkable culinary tradition from which every home chef can draw inspiration.

Red lentils are small and split into halves, making them among the easiest legumes to prepare as they require less than a half hour to cook. Once you learn this basic lentil recipe, create your own variations by incorporating your favorite spices and herbs. Dried red lentils will keep well in your pantry, ready for impromptu meals using any seasonal vegetables you have on hand. There is no need to pre-soak the lentils, but do pick them over and wash them before continuing preparation.

Red Lentil Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
2/3 cup leek or onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 dried red chile peppers, crumbled
2/3 cup cilantro or Italian parsley, chopped
1 rib celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 bay leaf
2 medium sweet potatoes, diced
2 cups red lentils
5 - 6 cups fresh water
1 - 2 tablespoons white miso paste (or sea salt to taste)
1 teaspoon Hungarian paprika
1 tablespoon fresh or dried marjoram or oregano
2 small zucchinis, thinly sliced
juice of one large lemon

In a thick bottomed soup pot, saute leek, garlic and chile peppers in olive oil until fragrant. Add cilantro, celery and carrot, and continue to saute a few more minutes on a medium flame; if needed add a bit more olive oil. Add bay leaf, sweet potatoes, lentils and water. Stir well, cover soup and bring to a gentle simmer. Stir occasionally and allow to cook on a low flame for 20- 30 minutes, adding more water if soup is too thick. When lentils are soft, remove about a cupful from the pot, place in a bowl and stir in miso, paprika and marjoram. Return miso mixture to the pot. Add zucchini slices, cover, and allow soup to rest for a few minutes on a very low flame without bubbling until zucchini is tender. Stir in lemon juice and serve in warm soup bowls garnished with lemon slices, chopped cilantro and more chile pepper.