Hosting a meal for a vegetarian or vegan, or thinking of going meatless yourself? Lentils make an amazing high-protein substitute for meat in almost any dish. Their soft cooked texture means they bind perfectly into patties or balls, but you can also use them to thicken up soups, stews, casseroles and other dishes. Because they have a neutral flavor, they're also easy to add to the seasonings and spices of almost any meal.
Not All Lentils Are Created Equal
Although most lentils can be used as a meat substitute, some varieties work better than others. Petite golden, green, ivory, brown and marrone lentils work well because they hold their shape when cooking, do not turn mushy and take a relatively short time to cook. These varieties also have a milder flavor that adapts well to a variety of seasonings. To substitute, use one cup of dried, uncooked lentils per pound of ground meat. One cup of dry lentils makes approximately 2 to 2 1/2 cups of cooked lentils.
Preparing Perfect Lentils
Unlike other beans or legumes, lentils do not need to be soaked before cooking. Place the lentils in a colander and sift through them to discard any small stones or pieces of rock. Rinse the lentils thoroughly to remove any debris. Each type of lentil will require a different cooking time, usually 10 to 30 minutes. The standard cooking ratio is about 3 cups of water to one cup of lentil. Although lentils tend to be the easiest to digest of the legumes, placing them in already boiling water to cook breaks down the acids further and makes them even more digestible.
Meat-Free Tex Mex
To create a meatless filling for tacos and burritos, boil brown or marrone lentils in water, according to package directions for 20 minutes or until tender. When the lentils are cooked, add spices such as cumin, paprika, chili powder, salt and pepper. Add finely minced garlic and a tablespoon of tomato paste. You can use the mixture as is or puree half of the mixture in a blender and then mix it with the whole lentils for a creamier consistency. Use the lentils as you would ground beef in tacos or burritos.
Soups and Stews
When adding lentils to soups or stews as a meat replacement, ivory or golden lentils are a good choice. They will retain their shape when cooked for a longer period. In addition to lentil soup, you can add them to minestrone and other bean soups. They are also the main ingredient in dal or dahl, an Indian stew flavored with turmeric and ginger and served with fragrant basmati rice.
Lentils can be used as a base for tasty burgers. Cook lentils until tender. Mix in spices such as cumin, oregano, salt and pepper and a bit of olive oil. Puree half of the lentils in a food processor and then blend in to the whole lentils. Add finely chopped onions and finely chopped nuts such as walnuts or pine. Refrigerate the mixture for 20 minutes for easier handling. Once chilled, form into patties and then cook in a pan in olive oil until golden, about five minutes on each side.
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Candi Canncel is a writer covering food and drinks, travel and lifestyle. Her work has appeared on Food and Wine Travel, Craft Gossip, Belltown Local and other publications. She also teaches cooking classes and hosts food/wine seminars.