I don’t remember eating lentils as a kid. Even lentil soup — on many tables this week as it’s such a pantry-friendly meal — came to me in adulthood, albeit from a much-loved friend and oddly enough during a hot week at the beach on the Outer Banks. If I ate it earlier, I have no memory of the meal and more’s the pity. The “Lentil” I knew was the Lentil of Caldecott Award- winning author Robert McCloskey (MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS) fame since I’m a lifelong avid reader and also trained and worked as a school librarian at one time in my life.
(Synopsis) Young Lentil wants to learn to sing, but no matter how hard he tries he can’t sing on key. He can’t even pucker his lips to whistle! So Lentil learns to play the harmonica instead and beautifully carries his tune through the winding streets of Alto, Ohio. Lentil masters his craft just as the beloved Colonel Carter returns to town and the Alto residents decide to plan a special celebration. But Old Sneep, the grouchiest man in town, doesn’t want anyone celebrating Colonel Carter’s homecoming. When Old Sneep stops the welcoming parade in its tracks, Lentil’s music turns out to be just what Alto needs.amazon.com
100 BOOKS TO READ WHILE STAYING HOME (Adults)
HOW TO READ FOR FREE DURING…. (Kids)
The first lentil soup I recall — can that be right? — was that of my dear friend, the late great Helen Aldrich and while I immediately fell in love with it as a fast beach house dinner cooked up to feed a houseful of hungry friends and family, it’s perhaps still my favorite.
below: much-loved friends Helen and her husband, Jim Aldrich–-both have crossed the river
That tasty bowl is definitely Dave’s (the hub) top winner in spite of many other lentil and lentil soup culinary successes. I might not have gotten it exactly right from Helen and it has morphed as years have gone by, but you can read up about that here. Helen’s and now my soup is a mean melange of bulk pork breakfast sausage, lentils, vegetables, and broth. It’s infinitely adaptable to what you have on hand and will fill the biggest tummy at the table. Children can easily make that soup and have a dependable inexpensive meal in their back pocket for life. #justaddcornbread
below: Helen’s and my soup
While kitchen workhorse lentils aren’t a completely blank slate, they’re more versatile than your garden variety lentil soup…
…would lead you to believe. A song of praise also includes melodies such as: they cost little, come in several colors, last a long, long time on the shelf, are awfully healthful and comforting in good and bad times, are amenable to many cuisines or dishes, taste luscious leftover, and stretch to feed a cast of thousands–well, nearly. In these days of creative “what’s in the cupboard?” meals, this humble pulse earns its high awards for all of those reasons, but also because lentils can be dressed up for a main event. See here:
above: I’ve even made lentil risotto and topped it with grilled salmon for a party or two.
below: one of More Time’s Lentil Salads
Think about this: if you have leftover lentil salad (in which case you are rich indeed), you can make my stunning vegetarian meal below for breakfast–or lunch or dinner. (It’s my goal in life to be able to make nearly anything into breakfast.)
Or how about — I made the summery main dish lentil salad below with grilled salmon and the late food writer Molly O’Neill’s Lemon-Thyme Vinaigrette, which could also be done with canned or smoked salmon, tofu, cheese, or _____________.
As a superfood, they are rich in protein — without the fat or cholesterol of animal sources — and provide B vitamins, magnesium, iron and zinc. In fact, lentils have the second highest protein content of all legumes, after soybeans. Because they are so high in protein, lentils are often a meat substitute in vegetarian diets. Pair them with a whole grain, such as brown rice, and you have a complete vegetarian protein source, meaning all the essential amino acids are present.
The soluble fiber in lentils helps lower cholesterol and may benefit those at risk for heart disease and diabetes. Lentils are also an excellent source of folate, a vitamin that helps the body build new cells. It is an especially important nutrient for women who are either pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
In India, where roughly half of the world’s lentils are consumed, cultivation dates back to 2500 B.C. Today, more than 50 different varieties are grown. Nearly every traditional Indian meal includes at least one lentil dish, and they are an important source of nutrients for millions of vegetarians on the subcontinent.
above: npr.org/Julie O’Hara
TUMMY DISTRESS? Soaking dry beans and/or eating beans and lentils with rice (they make a complete protein that way, too) will help–as will easing into eating them daily. Try every other day for a while and see if that helps. Don’t give up! Some folks say to cook them with garlic and or ginger to avoid gas. Not sure if it’s true, but certain cooks avoid canned beans, thinking they’re more gassy than their dry counterparts. You may find that some beans give you less trouble than others, so keep trying new varieties.
FLEXIBLE IS THIS MEAL’S MIDDLE NAME
After the pretty lentil meals above, you might be wondering about the one for today — an easy FRIDAY FISH offering as, despite all that’s going on, we are still in Lent if you follow that tradition. Rather than an admittedly delicious and perky-spicy lentil soup or a fancy-schmancy party dish, I’m thinking about a homey sort of all-in-one easy skillet meal for tonight. Think lots of flexibility here. You can throw this together in no time using a wide variety of fresh, frozen, or even canned vegetables. (If using potatoes, sweet potatoes, or winter squash, dice and pre cook for a few minutes in the microwave or in boiling water.) Start with ham or bacon–or just olive oil. (If using bacon, cook 2 diced pieces until browned and remove, make rest of dish — adding bacon back at very end.) Be sure to skip the ham/bacon if you’re fasting from meat on Fridays in Lent. It could be doubled to feed more people or to assure leftovers. While stirring in a can of tuna is the easy way out, you might also use leftover shredded pork, diced ham, shredded chicken, shrimp, cooked beef, tofu, cheese, or leave as is. You can easily swap out the spices to match your version or heat it up with crushed red pepper or hot sauce. Liquids, too, are changeable–any broth will do (watch salt if using canned broth) and even water with wine or a little simple beer will work. A 15-ounce can of chopped tomatoes with juice will fill in for maybe 1 1/2 cups of broth, too. Tomato juice or V-8 are other options. No lentils? Rice will do, though it’ll cook more quickly and require less liquid—think 1 cup white rice to 2 cups liquid — though perhaps a smidge more might be required as the meal is cooked in a skillet and the broth will evaporate more quickly than in a saucepan. (Think a sort of rice pilaf.) Garnishes are fun to switch: use sliced scallions, citrus zest, any chopped or grated cheese, fresh parsley, dill, cilantro, or chives, diced tomatoes or red onion — or just a quick grind of black pepper over all for good luck. I do think something fresh/and or briny (olives, capers, pickled jalapeños, peperoncini) will make the most difference taste and texture-wise, but skip it if you don’t have it.
The main thing will be keeping the proportions of lentils, vegetables, and liquids close to that of the recipe so that the lentils cook through. Use 1 cup dry lentils, 3 cups fresh chopped vegetables, and 4 cups liquid plus seasonings and tuna. If the lentils are not done in the time allotted, you may need to add more liquid to the pan. If they split, they’re overcooked, but will still eat fine!
No meat or fish for you? Skip that animal protein and serve these lentils with brown rice or barley. However you make it, try this:
Skillet Lentils and Tuna for Dinner
- 12-inch deep skillet
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ¼ cup diced ham or smoked pork-can use diced bacon—cook and remove, add back in at end–optional
- Small onion, diced
- Large carrot, peeled, and diced
- 2 stalks celery, trimmed, and diced
- ¼ cup sweet bell pepper – any color, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ teaspoon EACH kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
- Pinch crushed red pepper
- 1 teaspoon EACH dried thyme and oregano
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup brown lentils rinsed and drained
- 1 7- ounce can tuna, drained and flaked
- Garnish: diced cucumber, tomato sweet peppers or scallions, feta cheese, lemon zest, chopped or whole kalamata olives or capers or sliced peperoncini — all, any, others, or none
- In a deep 12-inch skillet, warm the oil over medium-high heat. Stir in ham and let cook a minute or two, stirring—if using. Tip in onion, carrot, celery, peppers, and garlic; stir. Season with salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, thyme, and oregano and sauté for 5-8 minutes, stirring often, until vegetables are softened.
- Pour in broth, water, and lentils; raise heat and bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to simmer, cooking another 25-35 minutes or until lentils are tender and liquid is almost absorbed. (If lentils and vegetables are done and there’s still too much broth, remove lid, raise heat and cook down a few minutes until thickened, but not dry.) Stir in tuna and let heat for a minute or two. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold with choice of garnishes, if desired.
Once more, and unbeknownst to me, lentils grow not far from me in Colorado, but Montana is the queen of U.S. production.
STUFF TO READ:
“Growing Lentils in Montana” NDSU.EDU
“Lentils Finally Gain a Place at the Table” BALTIMORE SUN
“Lentils: A Legume for the Ages” NPR/Julie O’Hara
“Lentils: Nutrition….” HEALTHLINE.COM
“26 Creative Lentil Recipes…” BON APPETIT
“36 Best Easy Pantry Recipes” GOOD HOUSEKEEPING
“Poetry” LEARNING FOR ADULTS, Poetry Foundation
“Learn to Draw” ART IS FUN
Making the best use of leftovers can be a fun, tag-you’re-it game. The new meal is often tastier than the original! (Do you like turkey sandwiches, turkey soup or leftover cold pumpkin pie better than Thanksgiving dinner?) Our Sunday brunch frittata (open-faced omelet) fed us well with half left for Monday morning! A batch of biscuits completed the meal.
So what’s in our frittata? 4 eggs, a splash of milk, a piece or two of leftover bacon, one small sausage patty chopped up, sliced roasted potatoes from Tuesday night’s chicken dinner, fresh butternut squash I had left after making an INSTANT POT full of Butternut Squash Risotto Saturday, onions, a few shriveling cherry tomatoes, garlic, cheese, salt, pepper, and dried thyme. We garnished it with fresh chives from our window.
below: chives I’ve kept in and out of the house for years (Notice the dandelion growing in the pot–it’ll go in my salad in another few days when it’s a tad bigger.)
You’re on my mind as I practice my breathing, walk on the treadmill, read, have a glass of wine, talk dinner with Dave, and watch my gardens begin to sprout. Be well and look ahead, my friends. Spring’s coming.