Friday, April 16, 2010

How Lentils Could Save Planet Earth, Part I

Lentils. Daal (or dal or dahl). Sambar (or sambhar). Lentil soup. Lentil curry. Lentils and veggies. Over rice. Nice.

Lentils are seeds, of course, like all good pulses, and are shaped like little lenses. In fact, their genus is lens. Lens culinaris. Culinary lenses. Probably the earliest plant actually to be planted for cultivation purposes—the dawn of human agriculture—lentils make a huge contribution to the human diet with their 26% protein content (bested only by soybeans for sheer plant-protein-fortitude).

Lentils come in an eye-catching array of colors: green, orange, yellow, black, brown, red, white. And sizes—from teeny lenses to pea-sized lenses.

What I notice when I work with lentils is how fast they cook, compared to other beans (20 to 30 minutes for smaller lentils, more for larger ones). So, if you are serving rice and lentils, start them both at the same time, and you will be eating sooner than if you went out and bought Chinese take-out. Vegetarians love lentils—and with good reason—if you serve lentils along with a grain dish, between the two, you'll be getting complete protein, with all essential amino acids. Wow.

Some folks, like my husband (who has a tendency to explosive digestive issues), express concern about the inherent, um, fart-causing aspect of lentils and other beans. Well, it turns out there is a trick: soak lentils in water prior to cooking, and then discard the water. You will be pouring a good percentage of the fart-factor down the drain—and your whole household will be happier for it (unless that sort of thing amuses you—but probably best to reserve explosive digestive displays for say, camping trips, where the air is fresh).

Oh, yeah. Did I mention vitamins, minerals, and fiber? Lentils pack heaping doses of these too. It's even thought that regularly eating lentils can lower your risk of heart disease, and help balance your blood sugar. And don't forget—lentils are inexpensive. If you are a starving student, buy rice, lentils, and veggies and you will stretch your dollars to the maximum, while still eating well (and saving on doctor bills that your well-fed compatriots will later have from being part of the fast-food nation).

Drought-tolerant and grown simply everywhere, lentils are adept at feeding the world. Lentils could save the Earth and the people inhabiting same. Need any more reasons to start adding lentils to your family's diet? Nah—just some cooking ideas, please!

Here's a great list from Indian Foods Co. of spices and seasonings to use with lentils:

Cumin Seeds

Red Chillies

Mustard seeds

Ghee or oil for base of seasonings

Ginger Paste a must in most dals

Garlic Paste is sometimes used in dals

Coconut shreds (optional)

Tamarind or lime juice or fresh tomatoes or amchur powder to flavor the dal sour

Jaggery, maple syrup, brown sugar or palm sugar to flavor the dal sweet (optional)

Sambhar Powder to make the popular southIndian dal called sambhar

Garbanzo spice package to make the popular North Indian beans called Channa

A good rule of thumb is to use four cups of water for every cup of lentils and to cook for somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes (again, cook longer for larger lentils). Do not add salt until AFTER the lentils are already cooked. This is also true of all dried beans. Salt impedes the absorption of water during cooking. Save salt and salty seasonings until the end. (Sambar seasoning usually does not contain salt, so you can add that whenever you like).

You can buy a nice sambar powder at any Asian or Indian grocery store, with a recipe on the back. Sambar is a tangy, piquant, and irresistible lentil stew—but you will need tamarind paste to make it correctly (while cooking, just scoop off the white bubble layer that appears on top). You can always treat lentils like curry, and start with sauteing onions in butter or olive oil, adding garlic and grated ginger root, cooking the lentils in enough water (lentils are thirsty!), and then adding the usual suspects of turmeric, cumin, and coriander to flavor it "curry."

But honestly, you could also keep it simple: saute chopped onions in olive oil or butter, cook lentils in enough water, and then add a couple of cups of chopped veggies: eggplant, carrots, green beans, zucchini, tomatoes, spinach, etc. Add salt to taste, and serve. If you want to play around, throw in some Cajun spice or Tabasco. It goes without saying to use your imagination and play around. Lentils are forgiving. Even if they are cooked to death, they merely resemble pea soup, and are still good to eat. And good to save your health and the planet.

Please send in your favorite lentil discoveries to me (Tumerica).

An incredibly scrumptious curried lentil dish