Thursday, January 04, 2007


Even the humble lentil requires a little thought in preparation. Do you cook them with flavouring vegetables, or do you add the vegetables at the end? Do you simmer them in plenty of water, or in just as much as they will absorb?

On the first point, I have come round to the view that cooking the vegetables apart is best. I soften diced onion, carrot and celery with chopped garlic in olive oil until they are golden, and tip them into the lentils for just a five-minute merging. Vegetables go null if boiled for too long.

Making a salad, I simmer lentils and drain them. That way, I can make sure that they retain distinct shapes rather than turning to mush, and I can lose as much water as possible before adding oil and vinegar.

Stewing lentils, I prefer the absorption method. Recipe books tend to advise you to cover the lentils with water and simmer them for half an hour, implying that after that time the water will have been absorbed and the lentils will be tender; but of course it never works as neatly as that. You have to tend to them every so often. Rinse them in a sieve, put them in a saucepan, and cover them with water with about 1 cm to spare. Bring to the boil, turn down the flame, and cover the pan. Check after 10 minutes: the water may well have vanished. Pour in just enough more (I use hot water from a kettle, but you could add cold, turning up the heat until the lentils simmer again) to be level with the topmost lentils. Cover the pan again. And so on, until the lentils are tender.

I do as the recipes advise, and wait until this stage to add salt -- my experiments with dried beans suggest that this is a sensible procedure. But I might have flavoured the cooking water with a bay leaf, and/or a whole garlic clove or two, and/or an onion. Now I add the oil-softened vegetables, along with chopped parsley if I have it, and a good deal of pepper. I allow the ingredients to get to know each other -- Fergus Henderson's phrase -- for five minutes longer.

I am talking here about green (Puy, if you're lucky) lentils, or brown ones. The grey/brown ones are less interesting. Red ones, which soon go mushy, are best for dhals and soups.

The other day, I cooked the lentils in advance. They carried on absorbing liquid as they cooled. By the time I warmed them up again, they had a perfect consistency.


Mark said...

The Italian combination of plump, peppery sausages and lentils is one of my favourites - think I will try your tip of doing the veg seperately and allowing them to "get to know each other" when the lentils are almost done as this makes a lot more sense.

The pumpkin, fennel and puy lentil soup (more like a thick stew really!) from Verdura: Vegetables Italian Style by Viana La Place is also delicious - the recipe is also in The Books for Cooks collection (Best of Books 1,2 & 3 edition)

WillSkid said...

I like doing something with Puy lentils, which is to cook them (so they're al dente) pretty much as Nick suggests (the water perhaps flavoured with garlic and a bay leaf). Then mix them with some good-quality plum or vine tomatoes that you have roasted incredibly slowly in the oven (ie gas mark 1/2) for four or so hours: this really concentrates their flavour. You then make a dressing by deglazing the roasting dish that the tomatoes have cooked in with balsamic vinegar. Then add olive oil, salt and pepper and mix with the lentils and tomatoes. Add chopped parsely and, if necessary, more salt and pepper and a bit more balsamic. Very delicious.
One thing I have never really perfected, though, is dhal...