Sunday, November 21, 2010

Elevating the Lowly Lentil

I did not grow up eating a lot of lentils because my mother doesn’t care for them. It actually wasn’t until I was in my early twenties that I even tried them, but when I finally did, it was love at first taste. I’ve always been a healthy eater, so it was probably as much a philosophical love as a gustatory one. Lentils are packed with protein, fiber and vitamin B, and have an intriguing earthy flavor. They also take on other flavors quite well, making them somewhat of a chameleon in the kitchen.

Green and Red lentils make lovely soup as they break down and become creamy while cooking, and I love the bright color and rich flavor of a hearty red lentil soup. But it is the French Green Lentil, or Le Puy Lentils for the region in France they come from, that I really love. These lentils look more brown than green, and are probably one of the most boring looking ingredients, cooked or raw. But for something that looks like little pebbles, these lentils are surprisingly versatile and delicious. Unlike their more colorful counterparts, they hold their shape when cooking, so they can serve as a base for other ingredients. The classic dish of salmon over lentils is one of my favorite meals.

Despite their versatility and nutritional benefits, you don't see a lot of lentil main courses featured in food magazines or restaurant menus. I think it is time for the hard-working lentil to get some recognition in its own right. They don’t really need another protein for flavor since they can take on whatever flavor you are in the mood for. They're cheap and they cook relatively quickly so they're great for a weeknight dinner on a budget.

Today, the weather was cool but the sun was shining, the best kind of fall weather. I wanted a hearty dish that wasn’t heavy to match that cool but sunny weather. Lentils fit the bill perfectly. I sautéed some carrots, onion and celery with baking spices, smoked paprika and chili powder. Cinnamon added an earthy sweetness, while the paprika added a nice smokiness, and the chili gave a subtle heat. I stirred in some ribbons of collard greens for some color and for a nutritional boost. It turned out to be a perfect one-pot meal. I’ll happily let Lentils move beyond side dish to steal the show from now on.

Lentils and Collard Greens

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium carrots, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
½ onion, chopped
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon chili powder
½ teaspoon smoked paprika
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup white wine
1 cup French Green Lentils
3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1 pound collard greens, stems removed, cut into ½ inch ribbons
Salt and Pepper

Heat a saucepan over medium heat. Add olive oil, and sauté carrot, celery and onion, stirring to coat with oil. Add cinnamon, chili, paprika and nutmeg, and stir to coat. Cook veggies until onions are translucent and spices are very fragrant, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook for one minute.

Deglaze pan with white wine, and cook until wine is reduced by half. Stir in lentils, then add stock and bring to a boil. When liquid is boiling, reduce heat to a simmer, stir in collard greens, and cover. Simmer for 40 minutes, or until lentils are tender. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

There may be some liquid remaining, but if you have any leftovers don’t strain this off, as it absorbs as everything cools and allows this dish to reheat well.

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