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Recessionista in the Kitchen: A Week of Lentils

Updated on November 20, 2012

Challenge Accepted!

Being broke is difficult enough without limiting your culinary options. Now, folks are broke for a lot of different reasons, and on a lot of different scales - this article is a salute to everyone who is self/under/unemployed, and doesn't assume any cooking experience whatsoever. If you can boil water, you and lentils will get along just fine and dandy.

The following is the culmination of a five-day tribute to one of the cheapest foods in the grocery store: lentils. If you want to follow along, and I encourage you to do so, the amount of lentils you'll want to start with will vary with the number of people in your household. All of my examples are made for two people, one of which has a seriously impressive appetite. We'll round up to three portions, with fingers crossed for leftovers. I'll note which recipes keep best as we go. I started with a one-kilo bag each of red and green lentils. Some fancy places have purple too, but since this is a frugality exercise, let's leave those be.

Incidentally, lentils will keep for 12 months easily if they're stored in a well-sealed container and kept in a cool dry place. If the really really big bags are more economical, feel free to stock up.

General Nutrition Information: this stuff is good for you

Your mamma would be so proud! Lentils are a good source of protein, iron, dietary soluble fiber, calcium, magnesium - and even vitamin C. They are cholesterol-free, for those of you concerned with such things, and very low in saturated fats. Diabetics and those so inclined will find them helpful in managing blood sugar. Preggos might be interested to know that lentils are a fantastic source of folic acid. And everyone with pretensions of immortality will be pleased to hear they're chock-a-block full of antioxidants. There has been some hype about lentils being especially good for your heart, so maybe you could stretch the metaphor and whip 'em out for Valentine's Day or anniversaries.

There's something for everybody! So go ahead and deep-fry them, right?

Start out slow (also known as "expectation management")

So you've told your roommates/spouse/kids that you're trying something new this week. Or not, depending on how well the people in question handle change... In any case, we'll start out slow to fight lentil burnout on Day 5. First up, plain ol' lentil curry. I'm making mine with red lentils, because I like my curry mushy. Green lentils work great too, but are more likely to come through the cooking process as distinct lentil pieces. With red lentils, you'll end up with delicious mush. Carry on.

What you need: an onion, some garlic, lentils (about 1 cup per anticipated mouth), whatever India-spices you have available, salt, pepper. Boiling water.

1. Put a little bit of oil in a pot; put the pot on a burner set to medium heat. Smush the garlic with the flat side of your knife (gets the juices out nicely) and then chop that sucker up. Dice the shit out of the onion. Cut it up into tiny little pieces. When your eyes are ready to fall out of your head, slide that whole mess into the oily pot and stir it around.

2. Go wash your face, hands - blow your nose.

3. If you have an electric kettle, bully for you! Fill 'er up and let 'er rip. While waiting for your kettle to come to a boil, throw your lentils in the pot and let them get started a little bit. Dump a good amount of water on top. I usually go for about 1 liter. You can always add more later if you want to fiddle with the consistency.

4. Cook the lentils at a low boil for a generous half hour, stirring when you feel like it. Add more water if it's boiling off too quickly. Towards the end of the cooking process, add your spices of choice - my favorites are spicy red pepper and curry powder, but if my husband is in charge he will just dump in a whole ton of turmeric. Whatever floats your boat - it's always good.

5. I like to serve it with yogurt, but most of the other people who eat at our house prefer to have it with bread.

What to do with leftovers: This will be good in the fridge for 4 days, but I wouldn't recommend freezing it. Depending on how much is left and what spices you've used, it could be transformed into soup, so that's what we'll make tomorrow!

Lentil Soup, Red and Green

Red lentil soup (blended, with a bit of yogurt)
Red lentil soup (blended, with a bit of yogurt) | Source
Green lentil soup
Green lentil soup | Source

Lentil Soup, or "transmuted leftovers"

There are about as many ways to make lentil soup as there are fish in the sea... (only a very slight exaggeration?). If you're working with leftovers from last night, then naturally you're constrained by the spices used previously. I generally magnify the onions and garlic (these will become rather muted once transmuted into soup, so it's best to refresh). You can also add a potato or some broccoli if you have a blender or like your soup chunky. But a stick blender is really worth its weight in precious metals if you're fond of subtlety in the kitchen.

Some things you might think about adding to your soup:

  • Ginger
  • Carrots
  • Tomato paste
  • Potato (acts as thickening agent)
  • Apple (ditto thickening)
  • Broccoli

Add everything, suitably chopped, to your leftovers in a suitably-sized pot (you judge suitability of size by how much soup you want to make). Add another half cup of lentils if there wasn't much left, and a little tiny bit of olive oil to make everything get along. Let it all cook together for about 5-10 minutes, and add hot/boiling water. Stir and reduce heat after it has come to a boil. You can turn it way down: as long as it's still lightly boiling, all is good. Cover (with space for the steam to get out) and go read a book for half an hour.

In half an hour or so, check on the soup. Add a little more water if necessary, and break out the blender if you've got one. Once everything is at your desired consistency, it's time to add any additional spices. Then you can cover it completely and take it off the heat. Your soup is ready to serve, or to be reheated when everyone is at the table. If you leave it uncovered and it cools, it may develop that rather unappealing "skin" - if it does, just snag it with a fork and toss it.

Made with red lentils - needs to be mushy

Red lentil fritters
Red lentil fritters | Source

Onwards and Upwards: Lentil Fritters

Guys, I make these All The Time. They're easy and amazing. And the best recipe, hands down, is Susan Voisin's ( I haven't changed a thing.

For the patties, put all this in a rice cooker or a deepish pan on low/med heat. Cook until rice is tender.

1 cup Red Bhutanese rice (brown rice should work too)
1/2 cup red lentils
3 1/2 cups water
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 large onion, finely diced
1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

Let it all cool and mush in a tablespoon of corn starch (gently). Make yer little patty balls (interesting shapes: fun!) and cook them in an oiled pan (Susan says sesame oil - we're not that picky). They should be all set in 3 or 4 minutes. If you'd rather do it all at once, you can put them in the oven at 350 degrees for about 40 minutes. No oil necessary if you use baking parchment stuff.

The sauce, which is excellent but *can* be replaced with good garlicy yogurt, is the following all pureed together:

1/4 cup toasted coconut
1 tablespoon ginger paste or 1 tsp. minced ginger
2 tablespoons chopped mint leaves
1/4 cup vegetable broth
2 tablespoons agave nectar (or other sweetener)
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 clove garlic

For garlicy yogurt, just peel and smash a couple cloves of garlic and stir into a cup or 2 of yogurt - thicker the better. Let it sit for a bit in the fridge and give it another good stir right before serving.

Afiyet olsun!

Italian lentil salad - green lentils with tomato and cucumber

Deeelish. | Source

Lentil Salad: best with green or purple lentils

I imagine your red lentils are tapped out at this point, so here's a recipe calling for the firmer sorts: green or purple, etc. Remember that for firmer green lentils, you want to cook them for 15 minutes with a little bit of oil in the cooking water.

So anyway, this is the easiest: cook up your lentils, let them cool, and add some combination of chopped purple onions, minced carrots, garlic, ginger, potatoes, tomatoes, chives... and for dressing, pretty much anything. I go for vinegar dressings, or citrusy ones, but I've seen it all done.

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Going Out on a High Note

Fridays: they always bring a little extra energy with them and their saucy weekend promises. So let's put that energy to good use! I'm double-dipping in Susan Voisin's crock pot of deliciousness, but for good reason.

Red Lentil Sambar from Vegan Fire and Spice!

Dun dun dun!

I'm including this in the week's collection also because it is a fine example of effective spicing. You really don't need all of them (what *is* sambar powder anyway?) so do play around to taste.

You will need some combination of the following:

1 cup red lentils
3 1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons cold-pressed canola oil (I go ahead and use regular old cooking oil, simple folk that I am)
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 hot green chiles, seeded and minced
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
2 teaspoons sambar powder
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon Garam Masala
1 cup chopped carrots
1 cup chopped cauliflower
1 cup green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup diced eggplant
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Bring lentils and water to a boil, then simmer covered for 30 minutes. Put aside but do not drain (Crucial!). In a skillet, heat the oil (medium heat) and add the mustard seeds - when they're doing their little dance, add the onions, garlic, chillies and ginger - cook until soft (approx. 5 minutes). Add the tomatoes and give them 2 minutes to cook, then add all the spices you've chosen, and any remaining veggies. Cover and simmer for 5 minutes.

Add this to the lentils. Let it all simmer together for another 5 minutes. Soakin' up the love.


Challenge Complete: Congratulations

You have managed a week of healthy, easy lentil delight. Perhaps what you've saved on your grocery bill can take you out to a movie. Unless you live in Manhattan, in which case your movies are outrageously expensive and you should get Netflix.

But I do hope that this exercise will encourage you to play around with the staples. Curiosity never killed no one, no matter what Mother Goose says.


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