Lentils are easy. People have been eating lentils for about 10,000 years. Your cave ancestors cooked lentils with no modern conveniences. This means that you, even in the most ill-equipped kitchen, can master lentils.
The lentil is the perfect legume. You don't have to soak them overnight, you don't need to cook them for hours, and they taste good with a few simple ingredients. On top of all that, they're good for you, they're sustainable and thus good for the planet, and they're inexpensive.
Lentils come in different colors, such as black, dark green and most commonly brown. They all cook pretty much the same way with one exception. Split or hulled lentils - usually red or yellow- cook in half the time and turn to a porridge-like mush. I'm focusing on whole lentils, for which there are only a handful of cooking rules.
- Always start by picking them over. I pour them onto a white towel, about a cup at a time and spread them into a single layer so that I can pick out any foreign objects - usually small stones.
- Next, put them into a colander and rinse well.
- When you begin cooking don't add any salt to the liquid. Legumes soak up water through a tiny hole at one end, and salt impedes the soaking up process. Salt them when they're tender and nearly done cooking.
Lentils cook a lot like rice. I use about two parts liquid for one cup of lentils. I sometimes need to add a little extra water near the end of cooking if they're not tender and looking a bit dry.
I almost always start a lentil dish by sautéing onions and garlic. If I'm using other vegetables I add them to the pot a few minutes later. I had a few slices of prosciutto on hand when I made the no-recipe lentils for this post, so I minced it and put it in the pot a minute before adding the water. Once the vegetables are caramelized I add liquid (water or stock) and the lentils. I bring the pot to a boil and immediately turn it to low and let the lentils simmer until tender. Sometimes they're ready in 20 - 25 minutes, sometimes it takes 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper once they're tender
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If the lentils are tender and there's still a lot of tasty liquid left in the pot I transfer them to a bowl with a slotted spoon and reduce liquid until there's just a small amount left, which I toss with the cooked lentils.
You can dress your lentils with a dollop of yogurt, a spritz of lemon juice, or chopped fresh herbs. If you want to get fancy you can even make a tasty and meatless Lentils Bourguignon. Add a salad and some pita or other flatbread and you've got a simple feast.
Andy Broder is the chef/owner of AndyFood, A Culinary Studio.