The world’s oldest cultivated legume, lentils have sustained the morale and well-being of nations from Ireland to India and beyond for aeons. Stuffed with fibre, they’re a cheap source of protein, along with some potassium and vitamin B and minerals. Added to which, they cook quickly, most particularly the red ones, so are economical with fuel. With sources for sustainable, animal-kind food diminishing, and the quality of the nourishment from our field-grown produce diminishing too, we should turn more to legumes and pulses for our food.
There are four general kinds of lentil - red, yellow, green and brown. The two former are most common to the kitchens of the Indian subcontinent. Stewed with garlic, ginger, and various spices and flavourings, red and yellow lentils are transformed into an abundance of different dhals, scooped up with chapatis or naan and eaten with a variety of vegetable curries or as a side dish to meat.
Green and brown lentils are the more common lentils in European cuisine, although in Britain, yellow lentils made from split peas (so more correctly ‘peas’), are a quintessential part of the ham hock-and-lentil winter soup inspired by ‘snert’, the ham and dried green peas soup traditional in the Netherlands. In both these soups, it’s acceptable, though not authentic, to substitute the dried peas with lentils they resemble.
Green lentils hold their shape better than red or yellow lentils and have a more pronounced, earthy, flavour that doesn’t need spicing up, only propping up with a ‘mirepoix’ flavour foundation. This makes them more generally able to stand up to becoming a salad without turning into mush and become side dishes with a bit of bite.
Green lentils are cultivated widely across Europe, Asia and North Africa. But the very best of them, and almost blue in colour, are the smaller Lentilles de Puy, grown in France. These are so respected, they have their own Protected Designation of Origin, used to confirm that only these lentils carrying the label come from the prefecture of Le Puy in the Auvergne region. They’ve been grown there for over 2000 years. It’s the area’s volcanic soil that is said to give them their unique peppery flavour.
(Before you reach to write to the editor, yes, there also exists the black lentil, named Beluga after the caviare. But while it, too, is highly revered and equally ancient, it isn’t in fact a lentil at all. It’s an urad bean, grown in South Asia. It’s sold whole, but when it’s split, it’s known as the white lentil after its creamy interior.)
Back to the Lentilles de Puys: they marry so well with so many soothing anti-winter dishes, you should stock up with boxes of them. Sausages are twice as good with a stew of Lentilles de Puy. Pork, roasted or grilled as chops, are undressed without a dish of them alongside.
The secret is in what you cook them with, to elevate their glory. The list should include a mirepoix of onion, garlic, carrots and celery, all neatly and finely diced. It might include lardons for added smokiness, into whose fat you soften the previous ingredients. A bay leaf and a good strong stock is then added to cover the lentils, which are stewed over a gentle heat with a saucepan lid on a slant, (more liquid added if they are drying out), until they are cooked through. Then, before serving as a side dish, throw in a small glass of Cognac and stir. For a warm winter salad, omit the Cognac and make a mustardy vinaigrette, then pile the lentils onto a platter lined with leaves of lettuce or mache.
If you remove half of lentils and blitz them to a puree then pour them back into the pan with the whole lentils - adding more stock or water if it needs a little thinning - and you have made a satisfying soup you can dress with garlicky croutons.
If you add left-over lentils to a quantity of mashed potato, roll them into balls and then into a little flour or breadcrumbs and gently fry them, you’ve made a croquette that British grandmothers might have called a rissole.
Lentils - the foundation of a cuddly winter.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the November 2020 edition of The Bugle.