Sunday, January 19, 2003

Serve it this week: Lentils

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

History: Man has been eating lentils for more than 8,000 years, according to food historian Waverly Root. The tiny legume, which is the dried, shelled-out seed of a bushy plant, was one of the first vegetables to be cultivated, originating probably in what is now northeastern Iraq. And although lentils have always been relatively cheap and plentiful, they have suffered from a bad reputation. Ancient Romans considered lentils "plebian'' fare, and during the Middle Ages, Europeans thought they were difficult to digest. Despite that, lentils have long been a staple in much of the Middle East and India. Jesuit missionaries introduced lentils to Iroquois Indians during the settlement of the continent, but Americans have traditionally been less fond of them than the rest of the world.

Buy: The main varieties include the delicate green French lentils and the more common grayish-brown European lentils. The reddish-orange Egyptian or red lentil is smaller and more round and without a seed covering. Yellow lentils look similar and are more difficult to find. None of these varieties are used fresh. Lentils are dried after harvesting.

Store: Keep lentils in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to a year.

Prepare: Lentils require no soaking before cooking. Rinse and pick over lentils to remove stones or other debris. Cover with water, stock or other liquid and simmer slowly until tender. Salt and acidic ingredients such as tomatoes can slow cooking, so add them after lentils are nearly done. Lentils can be cooked and served as a side dish, in soups, salads and stews. Dal is a spicy Indian side dish made with pureed lentils.

Good for you: As a dried vegetable, lentils may be second only to soy beans in the amount of protein they provide.("Poor man's meat" is an apt description.) Lentils are also a good source of fiber, complex carbohydrates, iron, thiamin and other minerals.

Lentil Soup with Pork Sausages

1/4 pound smoked bacon, coarsely chopped

1 leek, rinsed well and minced finely

1 carrot, minced finely

1 onion, minced finely

1 celery rib, minced finely

1 teaspoon ground cumin

4 whole cloves

1 pound lentils (preferably green)

2 imported bay leaves

Salt and black pepper, to taste

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

4 small smoked pork sausages (about 1 pound)

In large stockpot over medium high heat, saute bacon until lightly browned. Add minced vegetables, cumin and cloves, and saute until all are browned. Add lentils, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Stir in 2 1/2 quarts water and simmer, covered, until lentils are cooked through, about 40 minutes.

In saute pan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add sausages and brown on all sides, being careful not to pierce them. Add water to cover, cooking until sausages are cooked through, about 30 minutes. To serve soup, drain sausages and slice into small rounds. Divide sliced sausage among warmed soup bowls. Spoon hot soup over all. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Bistro Cooking (Workman; $13.95)

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Serve it this week: Lentils