As a twentysomething, it’s easy to convince yourself that eating tasty, healthy food and doing it on the cheap is a pipe dream. Sometimes, it seems like another myth perpetuated by the same people who juggle professional success, an active romantic life, and a coterie of well-dressed, super-cool friends, while still finding time to hit the gym, read that new bestseller, and throw you a surprise birthday party. Whether you’re still navigating your college dining hall or relying on a steady diet of Hot Pockets in your post-grad years, cooking good food often seems like a fantasy.
If this sounds familiar, let me introduce you to your new best friend: lentils.
You’re probably wondering why I’m trying to sell you on what is, quite literally, a seed. I was a reluctant convert to the way of the lentil, and it’s certainly a humble foodstuff. It’s a member of the legume family, and a common ingredient in culinary endeavors around the world. Lentils are incredibly versatile, and there are many varieties that all hold unique properties (read: special powers) of their own.
But why should the busy twentysomething on a budget care about the lentil?
Well, for starters, they’re cheap. Let’s break down the finances for three types of lentils, found at my local co-op, and I’ll throw in some background information:
French lentils: These small, green lentils are frequently used in salads and soups because of their propensity to retain their shape longer than other, softer varieties of lentils. They taste a bit nutty. At my co-op, these run at $3.49 per pound.
Green lentils: Before you cry foul, not all green lentils are French lentils. These run at $2.19 per pound at my co-op, making them the most cost-effective lentil in my area. Like black lentils, another common variety, these retain their shape after cooking. Most black and green lentils will cook relatively quickly, in about thirty minutes.
Red lentils: My personal favorite, these lentils are sweeter than other varieties. These are best in stew-like concoctions, or in side dishes like dal. They typically lose their fiery color as they are cooked, often settling at a yellowish-orange. At my co-op, these come in at $3.99 per pound, but they’re totally worth the extra expense.
In addition to their cheapness and their tastiness, lentils are pretty damn good for you. They’re a great source of protein, making it an optimal staple of vegan and vegetarian diets. The caloric content of a single serving is low, and they’re frighteningly filling. They’re great for your metabolism, boasting high iron and fiber contents. Lentils are reported to aid in the lowering of cholesterol and weight less, largely due to their significant nutritional value and almost non-existent fat content.
Bonus: lentils don’t really go bad. It’s best to cook your lentils within the first six months, but dried lentils can sit on a shelf for up to a year with little issue. I’ve been working off the same bag of red lentils for nine months, and we’re very happy together.
So, let’s say that I’ve piqued your interest. You go to the grocery store, buy a bag of whatever lentils have tickled your fancy, and you dutifully head home to cook these critters. What do you do next?
I’ll admit that I’m a pretty haphazard chef, and much of my lentil knowledge has the quality of an oral history: colorful but often incomplete. But, some pointers:
Firstly: an average single serving of lentils is between ¼ and ½ a cup. The softer varieties, like the red lentils, typically double when cooked. For those varieties, less is more. Also, while some folks will tell you to soak the lentils prior to cooking, they can be cooked without soaking, basically making the lentil a superhero.
The golden rule of cooking lentils is to maintain a 2:1 ratio of water to lentils. Bring the water to a gentle boil, add your lentils, and let simmer. I typically monitor the lentils’ progress with a simple taste test. Like cooking rice and pasta, your lentils are done when they can be chewed with minimal crunch. Remember that while green and black lentils will retain their shape, red lentils fall apart as they absorb the water.
But that’s it. Boil water, plop lentils in, and wait until they’re soft. If you’re into multitasking, this is the perfect dinner routine. Think of the headway you’ll make into your Tumblr dashboard while your lentils are simmering away!
Now, you can totally just eat a plate full of lentils, and call it quits. No judgment from me. But you might want to spice it up, and lentils love spices! Season away, just make sure to do so after the lentils have fully cooked. You should especially avoid adding salt to the water, as it toughens the lentils and slows your cooking time down. When I’m feeling fancy, I often cook my lentils in vegetable broth instead of water, enhancing their flavor.
And lentils are great for any meal: fry up and egg and serve on a bed of black lentils for a tasty start to the day.
Lentils are incredibly tasty and versatile, even without the trappings of a complex recipe. You should explore lentils on your own, trying different varieties and figuring out where you can best incorporate lentils in your daily routine. But there’s a wealth of recipes available online that utilize the magical properties of lentils, so research to your heart’s content.
I bet you can’t believe that I have this much to say about a seed. But just give them a try – you’ll see.
Here’s a deceptively easy lentil recipe, perfect for the new aficionado looking to serve up some deliciousness. And with one simple substitution, it’s a great vegan dish!
Red Lentil Soup
cook time: about one hour
serving: five, depending on how hungry your friends are
(Note: I like a heavily seasoned soup, so reduce the proportions of spices if you’re looking for something with a little less kick.)
1 cup of red lentils
6 cups of water
2 tablespoons of curry powder
1 tablespoon of powdered ginger
1 tablespoon of cinnamon
2 teaspoons of salt
½ teaspoon of black pepper
2 tablespoons of butter or coconut oil or olive oil
1 can of coconut milk (fourteen ounces)
¼ cup of chopped cilantro
First, cook your lentils by bringing the six cups of water to a boil in a large pot and then adding your one cup of red lentils. Bring the heat down, letting the lentils simmer but not boil. For efficiency’s sake, cover the pot and let simmer for about thirty minutes, or until soft.
While your lentils are simmering, use a skillet to toast the two tablespoons of curry powder with the one tablespoon of powdered ginger. Add your two tablespoons of butter (or coconut oil or olive oil) to the spices, mix well, and then add to the pot of lentils. Add your one can of coconut milk, the two teaspoons of salt, and the half teaspoon of black pepper. Leave the lid off the pot and let everything simmer for about fifteen to twenty minutes.
If you want a weaker consistency for your soup, add more water. If you want a thicker consistency, let the mixture simmer longer. Stir in the one tablespoon of cinnamon.
Serve the soup topped with chopped cilantro.