In the wild Abruzzo region of Italy, a rare variety of lentil grows in steep, narrow plots on the slopes of the Gran Sasso mountains. Watered by snow-fed streams and hand harvested by elderly farmers, the Santo Stefano lentil is so venerated it has its own festival. In France, the du Puy lentil, a variety brought over by the Romans some 2,000 years ago and known as “the caviar of lentils”, has been given an appellation origin contrôlée (AOC) status.
Australians are probably more prosaic about the lentil, but with inflation and bitter weather biting, the low spend-per-plate (a packet of supermarket lentils retails for around $2 for 375g, and when cooked they yield a price of just 18 cent per 200g serve) and gratifyingly long shelf life means it has a cost-to-comfort ratio that is difficult to top.
Though most of us are (often uncomfortably) aware of the lentil’s high fibre content, they’re also a nutritional tour de force, packed with protein, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc.
Varying in size and colour, from deep green to luminous orange, if you pick the right lentil for the job, they can play nicely with just about any flavour and comply with a wide range of cooking methods. Here’s how to make the most of these inexpensive overachievers.
Yellow lentils: for a warp-speed dal
“In India, dal is life,” says Jessi Singh, owner of Melbourne’s Bombay Yacht Club and Daughter in Law restaurants. Use moong dal – small yellow lentils – and you can have a dish ready in less than 10 minutes, Singh says. “Five if you use a pressure cooker.” He simmers the lentils gently on the stove with onion, ginger, garlic, tomato and beef (or vegetable) broth until they are soft, or puts the mix in a pressure cooker for when time is of the essence.
His tip for an even lower-effort, high-return cook: “Fry some cumin seeds in ghee and add to the lentils with a pinch of asafoetida” – available in some supermarkets and all Indian grocers from about $2.50 a packet. (While not traditional, ghee may be substituted with butter or neutral oils.) The “epic flavour bomb of a spice” tastes like onion and garlic, he says. Finish by seasoning with salt and pepper.
If you plan to eat the dal over rice, Singh suggests adding more stock or water. With roti, make a thicker, scoopable dal.
Red or orange lentils: for hearty soups
South Australia lentil farmer Anna Phasey tips small red lentils – known as “nippers” in Australia – as the best lentils for soup, since they require no soaking and are quick to cook.
They’re the star of the classic Indian British soup mulligatawny; but if time or an empty spice rack are an issue, Yotam Ottolenghi uses a readymade curry powder in his lentil-coconut soup.
While the robust spices of southern Asia pair so perfectly with lentils, so too do the flavours of North Africa. Thomasina Miers uses cumin, cloves, cinnamon and ginger in her Moroccan-spiced lentil soup. Add a squeeze of lemon for “a joyous sparkle”, she writes.
Brown lentils: for serving with meat
While lentils may have been adopted as a meaty mascot by vegetarians, they’re also often served with the real thing – as they’re perfect sponges for meat juices.
Singh likes them slow-cooked with lamb shanks. Ottolenghi adds dried apricots to his recipe for a little sweetness.
“It’s a very simple dish, made with a bit of pancetta, sautéed onion, carrot, celery and leek, brown lentils, a bay leaf, water, three or four crushed overripe tomatoes and a pasta like gnocchetti Sardi or small conchiglie (shells) cooked in the same pot at the end.”
Black or puy lentils: for salads
Whether served warm or cold, lentils are also perfect for upping the protein content in a salad.
“This is where you’d use black lentils,” says Shannon Martinez of Smith and Daughters. “They’re really good in salad because they hold their shape.”
Martinez likes to cook them with half an onion, a bay leaf and sprigs of thyme for flavouring, then adds to grilled zucchini, feta, almonds and mint. “Dress simply with red wine vinegar or olive oil and lemon,” she advises.
For a filling winter vegetable salad, try Miers’ roast celeriac, apple and lentil salad, which uses a chicory and mustard dressing.
Green or brown lentils: as a mince replacement
“Lentils are an awesome and super-healthy replacement for ground meat in bolognese sauce and ragu,” says Martinez.
“Go for green or brown for a ragu. You get a bit of texture but they’re not too firm, like black lentils.”
Martinez recommends parboiling the lentils first. “Otherwise you’ll need too much liquid in your ragu to cook them. Parboil until just undercooked, have your base for the ragu on the stove and then just put the partially cooked lentils in, so they can absorb the flavour.”
Rachel Roddy adds earthy mushrooms to her ragu, serving it over tagliatelle.
Versatile lentil mince can be used as a base in a multitude of other cuisines and applications too – from a shepherd’s pie to chilli, stuffed capsicum or croquettes. Sakia Sidey, AKA the Broke Vegan, bulks up her lentil “mince” with the grated stalks of broccoli and cauliflower, adding spices and a hot sauce and serving it in tacos with a coriander salsa, red onion pickle, jalapeños and lime.
Any lentils: as a meal-prep staple
Phasey’s tip is to cook a batch of lentils in water or stock at the beginning of the week, then rinse, drain and keep them in a container in the fridge to throw into dishes throughout the week; such as her lentil, beef and red ale stew or Moroccan-spiced lentils served on a sweet potato.
A parting tip from Percuoco when cooking lentils: never add salt until the end. Any sooner and the lentils will end up tough.