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Lentils a delicious, versatile legume

By Karen Bjornland
Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Remember the magic beans in “Jack and the Beanstalk”? When Jack’s mom threw them out the window, a vegetable stalk the size of a sequoia appeared in their backyard.

At my house, the magic bean is the lentil. Tiny and round, the lentil is truly miraculous. It’s packed with protein and unlike many other members of the legume family, it requires no soaking and cooks up quickly.

Red, green, yellow and brown. The bean comes in different colors, too.

Humans have been lapping up lentils for 10,000 years, archaeologists tell us. And in India, cooked up in dal or other dishes, they are an essential source of protein for vegetarians.

I’ve got two lentil recipes that I make over and over. I’ve also shared them with my family and friends. Both are vegetarian, which makes them perfect for Lent.

Lentils could also be on your menu if you sign up with Meatless Monday, the international campaign to improve human health and the health of the planet. In the United Kingdom, Paul McCartney is leading the charge, and you can read all about it and snag some new recipes at www.meatfreemondays.com.

But back to my old recipes.

Idaho Chili, a thick soup made with lentils, potatoes and garbanzo beans, was clipped from an unknown newspaper more than 20 years ago. The recipe was created by Nancy Byal, a writer for Better Homes and Gardens magazine. It’s Scotch-taped in one of the old spiral notebooks where I post food ideas after I test them or encounter them at restaurants, while traveling or snooping around other people’s kitchens.

Lentils? Garbanzos? You’re probably thinking that your family won’t eat them. But try this one on them. Even people who won’t eat cold garbanzos on a green salad — for example, my own husband, Mr. Picky — will gobble up this bean dish. Mr. Picky, who loves chili with meat, actually asks me to make “that other chili.”

I discovered the second recipe, for Red Lentil Soup, a couple of years ago on www.101cookbooks.com, the blog of Heidi Swanson, a San Francisco-based photographer and cookbook author. With a few adjustments, I’ve claimed it as my own. I make it all the time and not just at home. Because it’s easy, with seven simple ingredients, it’s one of my “traveling recipes” that go along when I’m visiting family.

You might try serving this soup to the people in your life who turn up their noses at split pea soup. Red Lentil Soup is creamier than pea soup, and more visually appealing, as the red lentils melt into a golden gruel touched with garlic.

Red Lentil Soup


2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1⁄2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
6 cups vegetable broth or water
1 1⁄3 cup red lentils, rinsed
1⁄2 cup brown rice, rinsed
Salt to taste or optional, depending on saltiness of broth

In soup pot, mix the oil, onions and red pepper flakes and cook until the onions brown and caramelize a little.
Add the broth or water, bring to a boil, then mix in the lentils and rice.
Simmer for about 30 minutes, until the rice is tender and the lentils are soft and mushy.
Sprinkle in a pinch of salt and taste. Add more salt if needed.
When serving, soup can be topped with bits of feta cheese or chopped Kalamata olives.
Serves 4.

Idaho Chili


1 bottle (32 ounces) of tomato juice (four cups)
2 cups water
2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 can of garbanzo beans
1 cup brown lentils
1 large onion, chopped
2 carrots, diced
2 tablespoons chili powder
2 vegetable bouillon cubes or 2 tablespoons Bragg's Liquid Aminos
1 teaspoon dried basil
1⁄2 teaspoon garlic powder
Shredded cheese (optional)

In big pot, stir together all ingredients except cheese. Bring to boiling, then reduce heat and simmer, with cover on, for about 30 minutes, or until lentils are tender.
Top with cheese when serving if desired. Serves six.

 
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