Loved from Middle East to Calif., lentils are at home on palates around the world

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Want to start an instant culinary debate? Just mention lentils to chefs of different ethnic backgrounds. Lentils, nutritious and inexpensive little disk-shaped legumes with a somewhat neutral taste, are the basis of a vast array of international dishes. From Turkey to India, France to California -- lentils have top billing in soups, salads, loaves, patties and pilafs. The possibilities seem endless.

Lentilmania is nothing new. In fact, many food historians trace its culinary roots back 8,000 years to the Middle East. Waverley Root notes in his history and dictionary of foods of the world, "Food" (1980), lentils "were one of the first foods to be brought under cultivation, a theory substantiated by findings at Qalat Jarmo, in what is now northeastern Iraq." Carbon dating places the finds at about 6750 B.C.; findings at Halicar, Turkey, are placed about 5500 B.C.

The first three recipes are from Zov Karamardian's Bistro-Bakery in Tustin, Calif.

Lentil and Rice Pilaf Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 1/2 cups brown lentils

1 cup raw long-grain rice

3 cups chicken or vegetable broth

2 large onions, cut in half, peeled and sliced

1/2 cup olive oil

4 tablespoons butter

salt and pepper to taste

Cook lentils in 4 cups of boiling water until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain. Place lentils in large saucepan; add rice and broth. Bring to a boil and immediately lower to a simmer; simmer until all liquid has evaporated and rice is tender.

In a skillet, saute onions in olive oil until dark golden brown. Add butter and heat to melt the butter.

Taste pilaf; add salt and pepper as needed. Pour onions over pilaf and serve immediately.

Golden Lentil Soup Makes 10 to 12 servings

1 cup golden (or red, they turn golden when cooked) lentils, rinsed well

1/4 cup long-grain rice

8 cups water, divided use

1 1/2 carrots, diced

1 large yellow onion, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

1 to 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

6 cups vegetable broth

ground cumin, to taste

salt, to taste

optional garnish: small sprigs of Italian parsley

In a large pot or Dutch oven, combine lentils, rice and 4 cups of water. Boil gently about 15 minutes. In a skillet, saute carrots, onion and celery in oil for 7 minutes or until onions are transparent; add to lentil mixture, combining well. Add broth, remaining 4 cups of water and seasonings. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and simmer about 20 minutes.

Season to taste with salt.

Soup can be prepared 2 days before serving and refrigerated, airtight. Reheat slowly, stirring to prevent scorching. Serve warm.

Zov's Lentil Salad Makes 8 to 10 servings

1 cup of raw green lentils

2 cups of boiling water

3 celery stalks, trimmed and chopped

1 bell pepper, cored, seeded and chopped

1 carrot, peeled and chopped

1 small red onion, chopped

1 green onion, chopped

1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro or fresh basil

optional: sauteed fresh mushrooms

juice of 3 to 4 lemons

extra-virgin olive oil, to taste

salt and pepper to taste

Do not soak lentils. Using a large saucepan or Dutch oven, cook lentils in boiling water until tender, about 10 minutes. Rinse in cold water and drain. In a separate saucepan, blanch celery, bell pepper and carrot until cooked tender-crisp. Combine lentils, blanched vegetables, red onion, green onion, parsley, cilantro (or basil); toss lightly. Add lemon juice and toss. Add olive oil to

taste. Season with salt and pepper.

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In India, dals are universally popular. This spicy dish is made with lentils (or other legumes), tomatoes, onions and various seasonings that vary greatly from region to region. Dal refers to any of almost 60 varieties of dried legumes, including peas, mung beans and of course, lentils.

Urad Dal (whole) requires soaking and a long, slow cooking. For faster versions, try moong dal, which uses mung beans, doesn't require soaking and cooks in about 15 minutes when split and washed (skinned) or 45 minutes when whole.

This recipe, from the Royal Khyber in Newport Beach, Calif., can be made in advance and gently reheated says owner Arun Puri, who adds, "You can use the kind of lentil you find at the local supermarket if you want."

Urad Dal Makes 5 servings

2/3 cup urad dal or substitute lentils available at supermarket

salt to taste

3 1/2 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger

3 1/2 teaspoons finely minced garlic

4 1/2 ounces chopped fresh tomatoes or tomato puree

1 teaspoon chili powder or minced green serrano chilies with seeds

1/4 cup vegetable or olive oil

garnish: chopped fresh cilantro

Wash lentils (urad) in running water. Place in pot and cover by 2 inches with cold water; soak overnight. Soaking isn't necessary for other varieties of lentils.

Drain lentils and place in large saucepan or Dutch oven. Add salt and 6 1/4 cups water. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to a slow simmer. Simmer until the lentils are cooked and two-thirds of the liquid has evaporated: This takes about 3 hours. Do not disturb the lentils until they soften.

Mash lentils slightly against the sides of the pan with a wooden spoon. Add ginger, garlic, tomatoes, chilies and oil. Stir and cook for 45 minutes. Adjust seasoning, add cilantro and stir to combine.

' Serve with cooked rice.

Cream of Lentil Soup with Celery Root Flan Makes 5 servings

4 ounces small green lentils

1 stalk celery, trimmed and roughly chopped

1 carrot, peeled, trimmed and roughly chopped

1 onion, chopped

2 slices bacon

1 clove garlic, minced

bouquet garni (1 bay leaf, a sprig of fresh thyme and a sprig of fresh basil)

1 pint chicken broth or water

1 cup whipping cream

optional: 1 sprig chervil

salt and pepper to taste

FLAN:

1/4 of a medium celery root (celeriac), peeled, cubed and dTC blanched until tender in boiling water, drained

1 egg

1/2 cup cream

salt and pepper to taste

butter for greasing molds

Place lentils in a bowl or pot. Cover by 2 inches with water. Allow to soak overnight.

In a Dutch oven, cook celery, carrot, onion, garlic and bacon on medium heat until vegetables are softened and bacon is crisp. Drain lentils and add to vegetable mixture. Add bouquet garni and simmer for 1 hour.

Puree in blender and pass through a fine strainer. Add cream and check seasoning. Keep warm.

Heat oven to 250 degrees.

Prepare the flan. Puree cooked celery root, egg and cream in a blender until smooth. Pass through a fine strainer. Correct seasoning.

Grease 5 small timbales or molds with butter. Pour mixture into molds. Place molds in a baking pan. Pour simmering water in the pan so that it comes halfway up the sides of the molds. Place in a heated 250-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until mixture is firm in center.

Unmold warm flan in center of shallow soup bowl. Garnish with a sprig of fresh chervil (if available). Ladle warm lentil soup around the flan. Serve immediately.

B2 -- From Restaurant Antoine, Sutton Place Hotel

Lentil Salad Makes 6 servings

1 1/2 cups small French lentils

1 small carrot, diced 1/8 inch

1/2 small onion, diced 1/8 inch

1 bay leaf

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 medium red bell pepper

1 medium green bell pepper

1 teaspoon mint

3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

3 tablespoons cilantro

3 tablespoons thyme

pepper to taste

vinaigrette

6 ounces crumbled feta cheese

For vinaigrette, combine juice of 1 lemon, grated peel of 1 small lime, 1 clove garlic (minced), 1/4 teaspoon salt, pinch of cayenne pepper, pinch of paprika and 7 ounces extra-virgin olive oil

Rinse lentils and cover them generously with water in a large pot. Bring to a boil and add carrot, onion, bay leaf, garlic and salt. Lower heat and simmer until lentils are tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Drain and save stock for a soup. Broil seeded, chopped peppers on a baking sheet about 7 from the broiler element until skin is charred. Wrap in aluminum foil for 5 minutes. Combine peppers with lentil mixture in large bowl. Pour on vinaigrette and toss. Add herbs and toss. Crumble the cheese on top and serve.

A1 -- From The Last Mango, Newport Beach, Calif.

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