Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Fingers on The Pulse: recipes and Ideas on Lentils

Oxfam have recently launched a campaign "Enough Food for Everyone IF" to persuade governments to act on world hunger. To support this campaign go to:

*  *  *  *  *  *

Lentils, those ubiquitous legumes found in the culinary heritage of many cuisines  around the globe were brought to my attention recently by a friend posting a request on Facebook. He was asking for lentil based recipes.  Ah, so he must be a vegetarian you might assume. A recent convert in need of plant matter that can replace the protein previously found in dead animal flesh. Or maybe a student, or someone hit in the wallet by our ongoing financial crisis, in need of a more economical means of calorie intake? Certainly lentils are an attractive prospect in either of these cases. However, these versatile pulses should not be limited as a meat substitute. In fact lentils often make great partners in meat dishes, with an especial affinity with bacon.  This call for recipes was fuelled by circumstances of a more demanding nature. My Facebook friend, currently working for Unicef in New York, has previous experience of working in Syria, a country devastated by civil war. The question here is how will the country feed itself? Both in its current state of conflict and in the aftermath of war.

It is no surprise to me that this question raises thoughts of lentils. Indeed for any mention of the lentil immediately invokes memories of my time in India. Obviously, India’s propensity towards vegetarianism plays a great part in the amount of lentils grown and consumed in that predominantly Hindu country. But lentils have a greater significance than culinary or spiritual choice. For many, these proteinous vegetables are relied on for simple survival. During field research across India, I came across many families whose diet from day to day consists of little more than lentils cooked in water (often of dubious quality) with chapati (or rhoti as these basic flatbreads are more commonly known in India) if surviving in a wheat growing region or a small portion of rice where paddy fields dominate.

For me, lunch in India would often consist of a more substantial dahl, such as Dahl Maa Ki, the “mother of dahls” made with rich black lentils and a good helping of butter. For a westerner, easily affordable fare as delicious as it is nutritious. But sadly out of the reach of many people who live next to the fields where the black lentils are grown. We should certainly not rely on the lentils capability to sustain life minimal support from other foodstuffs, but see it as an incredibly versatile accompaniment  to many other ingredients. But where there is need to find solutions to provide a range of nutrients with very limited resources, the lentil emerges as a superfood to rival all others.

Is there any ingredient that encapsulates such a range of the nutritional spectrum as the humble lentil? It’s a vegetable, and so has all the nutrients we typically associate with our veg – vitamins, fibre, anti-oxidents. But then these simple pulses are also a source of protein, with some carbohydrate content to boot. They also happen to be a very useful crop for farmers and horticulturalists – as legumes, they have a wonderful habit of returning much needed nitrogen to the soil.

The usefulness of lentils doesn’t stop there. They are usually very inexpensive, the French Puy lentil being the notable exception there, in their dried form they keep for ages and they are very simple to cook. Unlike dried beans, lentils do not need to be soaked overnight. The packet instructions on all the dried lentils I buy seem to be consistent – boil rapidly at full power for ten minutes, then reduce to a simmer for twenty minutes. This works for me and most of the recipes here are based on this principle. One word of caution, though, about packet instructions. In my experience the amount of water recommended is woefully inadequate. I use about a litre and a half (nearly three pints) of water to 50 grammes (2 oz) of lentils, and even then it’s a good idea to have a kettle boiled ready for back up and to keep an eye on the pan.

On the subject of pans, for many of my lentil dishes I use a saute pan. If you’re not familiar with such a utensil, this is similar to a frying pan (or skillet) but wider, heavier and deeper than the average frying pan and comes with a lid. My saute pan is 12 inches in diameter (30 cms) and just over two inches (5cms) deep. If you don’t have one, then a large saucepan will usually work, or a flat bottomed wok (if it has a lid) or a flameproof casserole dish.

A word on herbs. In the recipes here I have often listed thyme or rosemary. You can substitute with dried herbs, especially oregano, remembering to use half the quantity of dried herbs compared to fresh. However, the best herb to use in most lentil dishes is savoury. I have listed rosemary or thyme in the recipes because savoury is strangely difficult to buy. But it is easy to grow. It’s a great herb for many dishes involving pulses not only for the flavour, but it also has anti flatulence properties as well!

One very useful tip when cooking any pulses, such as lentils. Don’t add any salt until the very last minute. Cooking them in salted water toughens them up a little.

So, here are my recipes that are based around the lentil. Inspired by the colder climate, a comforting soup and two stews; one that provides an alternative to meat in a recipe that I originally created for meatballs, one that makes use of the complimentary qualities of lentils and bacon. Inspired by India, I have included recipes and ideas for Dahl and Dhansak.

The quantities given here are for dishes that serve two people. Cooking for four, six or more can be simply done by doubling, trebling, etc. all the ingredients.

Country Vegetable Soup

Not a hard and fast recipe – you can use any root vegetables such as turnip, celeriac, Jerusalem artichoke, etc. Pearl barley goes well with this, but takes longer than anything else here to cook, so you have to boil the pearl barley for half an hour first before adding the lentils. You can also use any dried pulses, such as split peas, chick peas, and any type of dried bean. But this is the most typical recipe that I use.

50 grammes (2 oz) Brown or Green Dried Lentils
2 large Carrots, sliced
2 main crop Potatoes, chopped into 1-2 inch cubes
Half a small Swede (US: Rutabaga), chopped into half inch (1 cm)cubes
2 Parsnips, sliced
1 medium sized Onion, roughly chopped
1 medium sized Leek, sliced
12 button Mushrooms, halved or quartered if large
3 sprigs of Thyme and/or Rosemary, leaves stripped from stalks and chopped.
Salt and pepper to taste.

Put the lentils in a large saucepan on a high heat with plenty of water. Boil rapidly for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Add all the other ingredients (except salt and pepper) and simmer, with the lid on, until the root vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.

With a slotted spoon, remove roughly half the vegetables and set aside.
Using a hand blender, blend the ingredients left in the pan until smooth.
Then return the set aside vegetables to the pan and stir together.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.

NB: when cooking pulses, such as lentils, only add salt at the very end as salt will make the lentils go tough.

Lentils and Bacon

On cold winter days, when you come home from the biting chill and freezing winds, what could be better than a nice comforting and warming stew. The only problem is that such stews and casseroles generally need long, slow cooking, over many hours, while what you need is something with that same comfort food feeling on the dining table as soon as possible.  This recipe takes a little over half an hour and still has that “stick to your ribs” sensation that will drive even the most bitter wind chill factor out of your system. Best enjoyed by a roaring fire while wearing your favourite old sweater.

50 grammes (2 oz) Brown or Green Dried Lentils
125 grammes (5 oz) Diced bacon
4 New Potatoes, halved lengthways
2 large Carrots, sliced
8 button Mushrooms, halved or quartered if large
1 medium sized Onion, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon Paprika
1 teaspoon Cumin
3 sprigs of Thyme and/or Rosemary, leaves stripped from stalks and chopped.
Salt and pepper to taste.

Put the lentils in a large saucepan on a high heat with plenty of water. Boil rapidly for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cover with a lid.

Meanwhile, in a saute pan, heat the oil and add the bacon and fry, uncovered, until coloured all over.

Push the bacon to one side in the pan and add the potatoes and brown on the cut sides.

Turn down to a low heat. Add the carrot, mushrooms and onion and cook for further 5 minutes, with a lid on the pan

Add the spices and herbs to the pan.

By his time the lentils will have had, at least, their ten minutes rapid boiling. Add the lentils  and their cooking liquid to the saute pan and simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked through.

Dahl Maa Ki

Dahl is the great staple of India. Many Indians, who may be described as the “poorest of the poor”, survive day after day on a diet of a simple dahl – lentils cooked until tender and served with either rice or rhoti, depending on whether they live in a paddy or wheat growing region. On a good day maybe another vegetable, such as a tomato or onion may be added. While this situation is reprehensible, and something that all humanity should be ashamed of, it does nevertheless demonstrate the life saving nutritional possibilities of the humble lentil.

For most of us, dhal needn’t be stripped down to the bearest essentials, but can still be a very low cost meal full of flavour. Ownership of a hand blender can make this a reasonably quick dish to conjure up. Soften a chopped onion in some oil, add the spices of your choice (you can use a favourite curry powder) then throw in some lentils (any dried lentils work for a simple dahl), cook according to packet instructions and blend to a smooth consistency. Season to taste with salt at the end.

For a taarka dahl, put some oil or ghee with some whole spices in a metal ladle and heat the ladle over a gas flame. Pour the hot, infused oil over the dahl.

Dahl Maa Ki, which means “mother of dahls”, is a more sumptious dish, but still simple and inexpensive. It should be made with black lentils (Urad Dahl), but if you can’t get these use the darkest brown or green lentils you can find. It works well with Puy lentils, but these are expensive, while most lentils are very good value for money indeed.

Vegetable oil or, to be really authentic, Ghee
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons, Garam Masala
1 cm (half inch) piece of fresh Ginger, finely grated
2 Garlic cloves, finely chopped or crushed
50 grammes (2 oz) Dried Black Lentils (Urad Dahl)
10 grammes Butter
Small bunch of Coriander (optional)

Warm the oil (or Ghee) in a large saucepan and cook the onion gently for 5 minutes, until softened, without browning.

Add the Garam Masala and Ginger and garlic andlet this cook for half a minute to release the aromas.

Then add the lentils and water, cook at full heat for 10 minutes, then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes.

Using a hand blender, blend until smooth. Then stir in the butter. Finish with coriander leaves.

“Poor Man’s” Dhansak.

Dhansak, often served as a vegetable side dish in UK Indian restaurants, is a dish of Persian origin, and a favourite of the Parsees – followers of the Zoroastrian religion who fled Persia to avoid religious persecution and settled in India, especially Mumbai and Gujarat. For Parsses, Dhansak is a dish often reserved for special occassions and cooked with oppulent ingredients such as lamb marinated for several days, or even lobster.  The name comes from dhan, which means rice and sak, which means vegetables, and so it really should be served with rice.

My version is not of the oppulent type, though you can of course add meat, fish or seafood if you wish, including long tern marinated lamb. It is an economic recipe, and fairly simple to cook, but still full of flavour.

Tamarind is an essential ingredient for a true Dhansak but, as this is a “poor man’s” version, if you can’t get any tamarind, substitute a generous splash of Worcestershire sauce.

Half a butternut Squash, diced to 1 inch cubes (or you can use Pumpkin)
Vegetable oil
1 Red Pepper, halved lengthways
75 grammes (3 oz) of Dried Lentils – the greater the mixture of types and colour of lentil the better
1 medium Onion
2 cloves of Garlic, chopped
Teaspoon each of Garam Masala, grated fresh ginger, ground cumin, turmeric and fenugreek
Chilli powder to taste
1 tablespoon of Tomato puree (tomato paste)
! tablespoon of Lemon juice
25 grammes (1 oz) Tamarind paste
Salt and Black Pepper
Small bunch of Coriander (optional)

Steep the tamarind paste in 100 ml (3.5 fl oz) of boiling water for at least half an hour.

Pre-heat oven to 200 degrees C.

Place diced squash and red pepper (cut sides down) in a roasting tin, season with a little salt and drizzle with oil. Roast for 25 minutes.

Put the lentils in a large saucepan with plenty of boiling water on a high heat and boil rapidly for 10 minutes.

In another wide saucepan, saute pan, or  a flat bottomed wok, warm the remaining oil and gently cook, with the lid on the pan, the onion and carrot for 5 minutes, until the onion is translucent but not browned. For the final minute add the garlic and ginger.

Add the ground spices and allow the aromas to be released by cooking for 30 seconds before adding the tomato puree and lemon juice.

Stir into the pan the lentils, which have been rapidly boiled for 10 minutes, along with their cooking liquid. and the infused Tamarind water. Top up the water, if required, and simmer, covered, for a further 20 minutes.

Chop the roasted red pepper into pieces about half an inch (1 cm) square and stir the pepper and squash pieces into the lentil stew.

Season to taste

Finish with coriander leaves sprinkled on top.

Lentil “Meat” Balls

75 grammes (3 oz) of brown or green dried lentils.
2 cloves of crushed garlic
Leaves of 2 sprigs of thyme, chopped
2 teaspoons of dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons of allspice
2 teaspoons of paprika
Large pinch of salt

Cook lentils according to packet instructions (usually rapid boil in plenty of water for 10 minutes, then simmer for 20 minutes).

With a slotted spoon, remove half the lentils, then using a hand blender smooth the remaining lentils into a smooth paste.

Stir the reserved lentils into the lentil paste, along with garlic, herbs and spices, salt and soy sauce.

Roll the mixture in wet hands into balls about 1 inch (2.5 cms) in diameter.

Heat the oil in a wok. Test to make sure the oil is hot enough with a small piece of the meat ball mixture to make sure that the oil sizzles on contact.  Then fry the balls until nicely browned.

Meatball Stew

I devised this recipe for use with Swedish meatballs that can be bought ready cooked, however it also works with the lentil balls from the previous recipe. You can substitute the meat stock for the vegetable version from the recipe below.

This is a great “one pot wonder”.

Flat mushrooms are best, but button mushrooms also work well.

20 meatballs, already cooked
8 New Potatoes, sliced  into half inch (1cm) pieces
100 grammes (4 oz) of Mushrooms, chopped
1 medium sized Onion
2 medium sized carrots, sliced
2 cloves of Garlic, chopped
1 pint (half a litre) of chicken or beef stock
2 sprigs of Rosemary or Thyme, leaves stripped and chopped
Heaped teaspoon of Corn Flour (Corn Starch), “slaked” (blended in a little water to a smooth paste)

In a large saucepan, warm the oil and then add the potato mushrooms, onion and carrot. Cook for 5 minutes, adding the garlic for the last minute. 

Pour on the stock , add the herbs, and simmer gently, covered, until the potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

Put the meatballs in the stew to reheat.

Thicken with the slaked cornflour.

“Meaty” Vegetable Stock

1 tablespoon of Olive Oil
A handfull of Mushrooms, roughly chopped
A handfull of brown or green Dried Lentils
1 Onion, roughly chopped
1 Large carrot, roughly chopped
2 sticks of Celery
2 Bayleaves
Tablespoon of Dark Soy Sauce

Warm the Olive Oil in a large saucepan and cook the mushrooms for 5 minutes. Then add the lentils and a litre and a half ( two and a quarter pints) of water. Put all the other ingredients in the pan and simmer with a lid on for an hour. Then strain the stock through a sieve.