The packaging for any variety of lentils, whether brown, red, pink or green, will probably tell you to boil the little legumes in water until they’re soft. Follow these instructions to the letter, though, and you’re in for a disappointing dish. Plain lentils do have a pleasant, mild taste, but are naturally pretty flavorless and benefit immensely from liberal seasoning. With a choice blend of complementary ingredients, a few selections from the herb and spice rack and the right techniques, lentils can be transformed into a multitude of tasty and satisfying meals.
Lentils are an excellent soup ingredient, whether used as the main ingredient with a few others just for seasoning, or added by the handful to thicken and enrich a soup dominated by other flavors. The simplest approach to lentil soups is to combine all the necessary ingredients at the outset, simmer until everything is cooked, then optionally blend until smooth before serving. Seasonings, such as fresh or dried herbs, garlic and spices, go into the pot at the same time as the lentils; any chopped vegetables you like; and liquid, which should be something flavorful like chicken, vegetable or beef broth, perhaps with some white wine added. A classic lentil soup might include a ham bone, chopped bacon or smoked sausage.
Seasoned Lentils for a Salad
Cooked lentils, once cooled to room temperature or refrigerated, turn a salad into a filling meal or satisfying side dish. French green lentils, or Puy lentils, tend to hold their shape better than other varieties when cooked, which makes them a good choice for a salad. Mixing lentils with a dressing of your choice after they are cooked and cooled makes seasoning them incredibly easy. A store-bought or homemade vinaigrette complements a cold lentil salad with crunchy carrots, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes and corn. Try a warm lentil salad with bacon, spinach and crumbled feta, seasoned with lemon juice or balsamic vinegar and olive oil and served with a poached egg on top. A Lebanese lentil salad called Salata Adas combines plain, cooked lentils with a dressing of olive oil, garlic, lemon, cumin and allspice, finished with chopped fresh mint and parsley.
Dals, Dahls and Daals
All dried legumes, including lentils, peas and beans, are called dal (or dahl or daal) in India, as are the thick, hearty stew-type dishes made from them. The traditional way to prepare an Indian dal is to cook lentils with just a little salt and turmeric, then enrich them with a combination of hot oil and spices called a tarka, baghaar or chownk. Dal is a forgiving dish that rewards experimentation, but if you desire authenticity or are unsure about what spices to use and in what proportions, follow a recipe. Whole spices typically used to season dals include mustard, cumin, fennel and fenugreek seeds, along with dried chilies. Onion, garlic, ginger and tomatoes, all cooked with the spices, are often included. Use a wooden spoon, whisk or potato masher to incorporate the seasonings into the lentils while making them smooth.
Simply Seasoned Sides
To serve lentils as a tasty side dish, add some simple seasonings to complement the other components of the meal. A scoop of seasoned, cooked lentils in the middle of a plate makes an attractive bed for a piece of fish or meat. Drizzle a sauce around the plate to turn something very simple into a special meal. Season lentils while they cook, in a similar way to making soup, by using broth or wine as the cooking liquid and adding herbs as they cook, or add seasonings to already-cooked lentils, as if you are making a salad or dal. Try lemon, garlic and black pepper for a classic flavor combination. Include lemon zest as well as juice for a more intense lemony flavor.