Thursday, December 12, 2013

Lentils, The Other Other Other Protein

Do me a favor.  Picture lentils in your mind's eye.

Let me guess: you've got an image of bland, grey-green little disks that sometimes make it into soups, usually along mushy, overcooked root veggies.

At least, that was my experience of lentils up until the last few years.  Sort of a tasteless not-quite-a-pea.  Turns out what I knew were French lentils.  I was missing out on an entire rainbow of other flavors and colors.  It wasn't until a night about two years ago when a friend of ours brought yellow lentils for an impromptu potluck that I found out how wrong I'd been.  Over dinner she and Doc got chatting about how they grew up eating lentils frequently as kids.  Their conversation about all these new choices captivated me.  I felt like I'd been given a "get out of eating chicken everyday free" card.  I was so excited I looked up a recipe for masoor dal (red lentils) the very next day.

These days between lentils and beans we've got probably around close to twenty choices in our house for legume-based meals.  The one I'm sharing today is my go-to, the most basic lentil recipe that I fall back on when I want to throw together a no-brainer vegetarian dinner.  The beauty of this dish is that it's astoundingly forgiving.  I rarely measure the spices.  I frequently throw extra veggies in just to see what will happen.  Each time it comes out a little different, and I think that's a big part of the reason we have it nearly once a week.  My favorite combo with this particular base recipe is a generous handful of  spinach and some sautéed mushrooms.

If you're googling other recipes for lentils, try looking for "dal."  That should really help bring back a lot of results.

Scroll to the bottom for the busy cook's version of the recipe, as usual.

Basic Spiced Lentils

Total Real Time:  An hour, plus or minus around 20 minutes so long as you make the tempering at the same time as the lentils are cooking.  Otherwise add 20-30 minutes to make the onion+spice mix.

Weirdest Spice:  mustard seeds.

As I mentioned above, we have a lot of choices:
Less than 1/3 of our collection.

I like a combo that I call "Halloween dal."

Not just for major holidays.

What you see there are, by name, masoor dal (red lentils) and urad dal (black gram lentils).

Aside:  In case you're wondering at this point what the heck the difference between a lentil and a bean is, let me tell you that Doc and I have already had a fight about it.  I had asked him to clarify the word "dal" for me, but he insisted that lentils and beans are the same.  Google says the difference is the shape.  So I'm going with Google on this one.  To me they are on a continuum based on both size and shape.  I can absolutely identify the legumes to the left (below) as red lentils.  To the far right are garbanzo beans/chickpeas.  In between are val dal (in English given the hilariously silly name lablab beans) and channa dal (supposedly also chickpeas according to every source I can find, but we all know that's baloney because the thing to the right of that are the real chickpeas). The lablab beans are lentil-shaped but bean-sized.  The channa dal are nearly as small as lentils but bean-shaped. So I dunno.  Whatever, I give up.

From left to right: red lentils, lablab beans, lies, & chickpeas.

Getting back to the recipe, I took half a cup each of red and black gram lentils and rinsed them very, very well under hot water.  With dried beans it's best to soak them for a day or so to help them loosen up and get less gassy (true story), but for lentils they're so small you can just cook 'em all in one go.  So maybe that's the difference.

Clean at last!

What we're going for here is to cook these to death.  Really, they're going to turn into tasty, tasty protein mush.  In order to do that it's important to get the ratio of liquid:lentils right.  3:1 works well in my experience, though I keep an eye and add more liquid as needed.  Too much and you're going to have a soggy mess, too little and it's not going to cook.  You can use water if you like.  I used some leftover vegetable stock I need to use up.  Whatever you do, resist the temptation to add salt.  Salt will work against you here and make any kind of dried bean/lentil take much longer to cook.  Even the sodium in the stock I used probably added cooking time.  I've seen a lot of recipes add tomatoes, garlic, or turmeric at this point.  The acid in the tomatoes will also increase your cook time, though, and I find that if I add anything at this point I have a harder time getting the flavors to mesh with the add-ins later.

Set and not-quite-forget: stir every 5-10 to prevent burning/sticking.

Get that bad boy boiling, then turn it down to a simmer and cover it.  How long the lentils take to break down depends on a number of factors, including size and age of the legume and how much salt/acid are in your liquid.  I find an hour, give or take, is about the time it takes to get them mushy.

After 45 minutes.  Close, but not quite there yet.

About 40 minutes into the lentils cooking I start the "tempering," or flavoring that's going to go into the lentils.  This is, in essence, onions+tomatoes+spices, or in other words pretty much every other curry base ever.

In a skillet, add about 2 tsp - 1 Tbs of your Oil of Choice.  I used ghee (clarified butter) here.
Not exactly butter, not exactly oil.  Definitely made of fat, though, that much is clear.

Aside:  It took me a while to adjust to ghee.  It's got a... pungent smell.  It will also help you yourself to smell more pungent.  So, y'know, use with caution.  Part of what freaked me out about it is that the English name "clarified butter" didn't totally sink in.  I couldn't figure out why in my fridge it was solid but in the pan it liquified.  The stuff made me uneasy until it all clicked.  Just chalk that one up to the blonde hair, eh?

This was a freshly-opened jar.  Usually I have to chip it out with a butter knife.

Anyway, once it melts and start to shimmer, it's time to add mustard seeds and cumin seeds & let them heat up for a few seconds:

Note: these are neither cumin powder or mustard powder.

Yet Another Aside:  Just as we discussed earlier how cumin seeds are not cumin powder, mustard seeds are not mustard powder.  They are not interchangeable here.  If you don't have these, leave them out rather than substituting at this stage.  You can sub in cumin powder later when the coriander powder goes in, if you want, but leave mustard powder out of this.

To the left: mustard powder & its byproducts.  To the right: mustard seeds.  Note the color difference.

Okay, so once your seeds are heated up -- less than a minute on medium-high should do it before you hear them begin to sizzle -- add about 1-2 finely minced onions.  For 1 cup of lentils + 3 cups of liquid, two onions was about right, keeping in mind that I freeze about 3/4 of just about everything I make.  Adjust for yourself accordingly.

I sautéed the onions on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes.  In the mean time I chopped up a green chili.

Pleeeeeeeease note the gloves.

Tip for All Ability Levels:  Let me tell you a quick story.   Once upon a time I thought I didn't need to use gloves when cutting mild peppers (excluding bell peppers).  I figured hey, it's mild, it's not one of those blister-your-face peppers, so what's the danger in using my bare hands?  And then one day I seeded and chopped up some very mild green chilis and spent the next seven agonizing hours thinking my hands had actually caught fire.  Next to the time the novocaine wore off when I was getting my wisdom teeth out, this was one of the single most excruciating things I have ever experienced.  Not heavy-duty painkillers, not antihistamines, not tears nor five hours with my hands in a bucket of ice water could tame it.  Every time I'd dip my hands into the ice water I honestly expected them to make a sizzling noise.  So please, for all our sakes, even if you think it's "only" a mild pepper, grab some disposable gloves.  I use nitrile gloves from the hardware store.  They're cheap, and the relief it'll buy you is so, so worth it.  Just be careful when taking them off, it does no good to get all the oil from the peppers on your gloves and then touch the outside of the glove with your bare fingers.

Then again, if you don't like spicy food then it's a moo point.  Just leave the chili peppers out.

So now you've got your onions, seeds, and minced chili pepper.  Go ahead an add in a teaspoon each of our old friends, ginger and garlic pastes.  (Aren't you super glad you have a bunch on hand?)

Seriously, is there anything that these don't go in?

Stir that all up together and let it cook, stirring occasionally, for another 5 minutes or so.  Next up is adding spices.  First half a teaspoon of turmeric.

Careful, this stuff stains every single thing it touches.  You, your spoon, your counter, your tupperware...

Then chili powder, to taste.  I added about a teaspoon, maybe a little more.

I love it when my sinuses are on fire.

And finally about 1.5 -2 teaspoons of coriander powder.

Plus cumin here, if you skipped the cumin seeds.

Alright, so now you've got something that's getting closer and closer to a paste by the minute.  Give the spices about 1-2 minutes to cook, adding a tiny splash of water if the paste is too dry.  That'll help keep the spices from burning.

I didn't add any water here, but if it were any drier I would have.

Next up, add about 2-3 diced tomatoes.  We're not going for a sauce here so much as a flavoring, so go lighter on tomatoes than you would if you were making a curry base.

Mix that all up and let it simmer together for about another 10 minutes.  You can add in some hing if you like it, but let me tell you that the English word for hing is asafetida, which pretty much captures my feelings about the flavor of it.  (Go ahead, say asafetida out loud, with particular emphasis on the first, third, and fourth syllables.)  I haven't been able to grab a pinch that is small enough where the whole dish isn't totally overwhelmed by it.  But if that's your thing, then go for it.

Fifty grams will last me roughly five millennia.

When the tomatoes begin to break down you're pretty much good to go.  Add in a teaspoon of garam masala at this point and give it another 1-2 minutes to cook in.  The thing you've just made in the skillet is called "tempering," and you're going to use it to flavor the lentils.

This is adequately gooey.

Now, don't ask me why this is, but it appears that out there are two very opinionated opposing camps.  Some swear that the One True Way to do this is to add the tempering to the lentils.  Others suggest it is barely a step above savagery to do anything other than add the lentils to the tempering.  My thoughts on this are that the skillet is easier to lift than the saucepan, so I do it the first way.  I won't judge you if you do it differently.  It takes all kinds to make the world go 'round.

Possibly the most controversial thing I've done so far on this blog so far.

Notice how gluey the lentils look in that picture above.  That's what you're shooting for.  If there's too much liquid you might have something thinner than that, but you're looking for the lentils to kind of melt into each other.  If your lentils aren't done by the time the tempering is done, just turn the skillet down to low and let it sit, giving it a stir now and then.  It won't hurt anything to hang out on your stove for a while.

Mix the tempering into the lentils, and there's your basic recipe!  Add salt to taste.

Tastes better than it looks, I promise.

Usually at this point is when I add in a generous handful of spinach.  I love the green color it adds.  Do whatever floats ya.

Tadaaaa.  I acknowledge it doesn't look delicious, but it is.

Up Next:  Either pumpkin-molasses cookies or egg curry, depending on which mood strikes me first.

The Abbreviated Recipe
Ingredient List
1 cup lentils of your choice (suggested: a combo of yellow, red, or black)
3 cups water or stock
2-3 tsp oil of choice (suggested: olive oil or ghee)
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp mustard seeds
1-2 minced onions
1 minced chili pepper (optional)
1 tsp ginger paste
1 tsp garlic paste
0.5 tsp turmeric paste
1 tsp chili powder (optional, to taste)
1.5 - 2 tsp coriander powder
scant pinch asafetida (optional)
2-3 chopped tomatoes
1 tsp garam masala
salt (to taste)

  1. Rinse lentils in a fine mesh strainer with hot water until the water runs clear.
  2. Place the lentils with water or stock in a large saucepan on high heat.  When the liquid boils, turn the heat down to low and cover.  
  3. Simmer the lentils roughly 1 hour, stirring frequently to prevent burning. The lentils are done when they have broken down into a thick consistency.  Add more liquid if needed.
  4. While the lentils are cooking, heat oil in a skillet on medium heat.  When the oil is hot, add cumin and mustard seeds.  Heat until sizzling, about 30-60 seconds.
  5. Add in onions & chili pepper.  Stir-fry for 5 minutes.
  6. Add in ginger & garlic pastes.  Stir-fry another 5 minutes or so.
  7. Add turmeric, chili powder, & coriander powder.  Stir-fry 1-2 minutes, adding a splash of water if paste is dry to prevent spices from burning.  Add asafetida if desired.
  8. Add tomatoes, turning the heat down slightly to a low medium.  Stirring occasionally, heat the mixture for 10 minutes or until the tomatoes have begun to soften and break down.
  9. Add garam masala.  Cook another 2-3 minutes.  
  10. If lentils aren't completely cooked at this time, turn the skillet heat down to low and cover, stirring the onion-tomato mixture (called tempering) occasionally to prevent burning.
  11. When the lentils are cooked, add the tempering and stir to mix.  Add salt to taste.  

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