Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Humble and Delicious Lentil

As the official date of the first day of winter rapidly approaches, my thoughts and appetite turn to hearty, homey slow foods. Things like braised beef short ribs, vegetable soup, and stewed lentils are all on the top of my list during the colder months. I especially love lentils because they are so easy to prepare, can be saved in dried form for a long time, are cheap, and are full of protein and nutrients. Perhaps, best of all is the fact that they are so versatile and go great on their own, or can also be served as a side dish or cold in a salad as a first course. You can add them to soups to stretch it, or mix them in with cooked rice. I could go on and on with ways to use lentils, but I digress...

There are several different kinds of lentils. They come in most colors of the rainbow including yellow, red, green, and blue. Yellow and red ones are common in India where they go into a dish called Dal. However, I recommend Puy lentils, named for a town in France famous for its lentils. The Puy lentil is greenish blue and is especially prized because it tends to keep its shape and texture even when simmered for a very long time. You can pick up a bag of dried Puys for only a dollar or two depending on where you shop. Even if you eat lentils everyday, you probably won't go through a bag in a week's time. I can't think of any other food that will provide that amount of sustenance for the cost of a couple of dollars.

Perhaps my favorite way to cook lentils is low and slow in a crock pot. In fact, it's the first thing I cooked in my crock pot when I bought it a couple of years ago. I have served them at dinner parties to rave reviews. It's comforting to know that you can just let your side dish or first course simmer without any attendance in the crock pot while you go about your preparations for the other dishes, and there's no way you can screw it up! Lentils are virtually idiot-proof.

Try this easy method for satisfying and flavorful results. Start by sorting through the lentils to remove anything that looks suspect. Add homemade chicken stock, white wine, finely diced carrots and celery, minced onion and garlic, salt, pepper, bay leaf, bacon or salt pork, and a little curry to the lentils in the crock pot. Let them cook on low while you head off to work. When you get home, you'll be treated to a delicious smell. Stir in a pat of butter and let it melt into the bowl before you take your first comforting bite.

If you haven't tried cooking lentils before, give it a go. Your belly and your wallet will thank you, and I bet you'll be singing the praises of lentils in no time flat too. Bon appetit!

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