Cooking with Brown Lentils: More to Love than You May Realize

You may think brown lentils are something served for dinner on the boring train. And in all honesty, so did I for many years. I put them into vegetable soup when I didnít have any other beans to use, and would occasionally toss them in with a pot of rice for an on-the-fly pilaf. Other than that, they really didnít see much use.

Then I started exploring the various cuisines that incorporate lentils on a regular basis. Thatís about when I wrote the Lentil Love article on Wise Bread a few years back. It features lentil recipes from around the world that even meat eaters can get a bit excited about. But that article dealt with all different types of lentils. What I really wanted to do next was a food feature specifically on brown lentils. At less than a dollar a pound dried, and half that once cooked, the price just canít be beat. So whether youíre sprouting your lentils or searching for ways to include them more regularly at meal time, this articleís for you.

BROWN LENTIL RECIPES WORTH WRITING HOME ABOUT

Looking for brown lentil soup you can actually get excited about?

When it comes to vegetarian dinner options, brown lentil soup may not bring very many people to the table. At least at first glance. But as Iíve learned time and time again with lentils of all types, it really is ALL about the seasonings. If African food floats your boat, then youíll want to check out the Post Punk Kitchenís spicy Ethiopian tomato and lentil stew. It does require a relatively long list of spices, but most of them are pretty common. So if youíre someone who likes to cook on a regular basis, youíll likely have most of them on hand. For a more Malaysian or Thai inspired meal, this mussaman-flavored lentil and pumpkin soup sure sounds like a winner to me. Iím a huge fan of mussaman curry anyway, so my arm doesnít have to be twisted to try out the flavor with a fresh set of base ingredients. Iím sure there are many other brown lentil soup recipes out there that many of you would find palpable. These were just the two that rose to the top of my short list.

Brown lentils make an excellent vegetarian ground beef.

A while back, I was craving tacos. Since we were out of TVP, I started thinking about alternative ways to enjoy veggie tacos. When the thought first arose to try brown lentils instead of ground beef, I thought I might be a little nuts. But a quick internet search revealed that other people were trying this idea out as well, some of them with great success. I tried my first batch of lentil tacos, and we havenít looked back. Basically, I cooked the lentils plain in water and added tomato sauce and taco seasoning toward the end when most of the water had been absorbed or cooked off. Thatís it. We loved them, and the taco seasoning was flavorful enough to let the lentils take center stage.

Since then, weíve tried lentil sloppy Joes as well, and found them to be equally tasty. Let me tell you, nobody was more surprised than I was to find that lentil tacos were something I could actually embrace. Nobody. But if youíre thinking about dipping your toes into whole-food, vegetarian ground beef waters, then these are a great place to start. Since they are quite literally cheaper than dirt, you can affordably experiment with different flavor add-ins and branch out when you feel ready. Try your hand at lentil lasagna, brown lentil chili, vegan meatballs or basic lentil burgers.

There are several different textures you can use when creating vegan ground beef from lentils.

For the lentil sloppy Joes and tacos, I just used plain cooked lentils seasoned the way I would normally season and sauce ground beef for those two recipes. A friend who made the tacos based on my suggestion mashed them up a bit so they didnít appear like the lentils they actually were. For some people, this texture just doesnít work.†

If you or someone in your family falls into this category, donít worry. There are several solutions at your disposal. One of the easiest is soaking and grinding your lentils in a food processor first. The Accidental Vegetarian details how to do this, and uses the fewest number of ingredients to achieve an end result that is directly comparable to ground beef, at least as far as texture is concerned. Sheís even got photos of each, so you can get a hands-on view for yourself. The folks at Vegan Peace feature a version of dinner crumbles that incorporates bulgur wheat along with the brown lentils to provide a ground beef substitute that is a bit more . . . well, crumbly.

Lentil salad makes a power-packed lunch option or dinner side.

While I love pasta salad as much as the next woman, thereís only so much processed flour any of us need in our daily diets. So Iíve been experimenting more with lentil salad recently, and like what Iíve found. This roasted beet root and feta salad with lentils brings superior nutrition to the style table, and incorporates beets in a sophisticated manner worthy of a dinner party. A mango and cucumber lentil salad with a light vinaigrette makes for a healthy lunch, and the crock pot crowd will likely love these slow cooker Mexican lentils served with fresh greens, vegetables and rice as in impromptu taco salad for dinner.

Lentil loaf can actually resemble its real-meat counterpart if you do your homework.

I resisted lentil loaf for many years. So for those rolling your eyes at this point in the article, Iíve been exactly where you are. That being said, after my recent success with lentil tacos, Iím feeling pretty darn confident that smoky lentil loaf with mushroom gravy is going to be on our family dinner horizon as soon as the weather cools down this fall. This cranberry-walnut lentil loaf from Emeril himself looks suitable for a holiday meal, and the Savvy Vegetarian features a vegetable and lentil loaf that has me craving mashed potatoes and gravy as I type. For those looking to go completely vegan on the lentil loaf scene, Oh She Glows has solved the crumbling problem by pureeing a portion of her lentils before mixing all of her lentil loaf ingredients together.

Have you ever considered having lentils for breakfast?

To tell you the truth, the closest Iíve ever come to having lentils for breakfast is the fava bean dish called ful medames popular in Egypt and other parts of Arabia and Africa. And that likely doesnít count. Some of the brown lentil recipes I found while researching this article however, just might make me reconsider.

Lentil donuts, called medu vada are a tasty Indian breakfast treat made for dipping. If baked goods meet your expectations for breakfast, but youíd rather not have something deep fried on a regular basis, then you may want to give lentil muffins a try. These Saskatoon berry and lentil muffins look amazing, and the lentil breakfast muffins from Donít White Sugar Coat It remind me of spice cake. For those who prefer a more savory, Mediterranean-style morning meal, Simplicity by the sea has showcased a breakfast lentil hummus that looks relatively simple to make.

Lentil side dishes are an affordable way to put protein on the table.

They are especially effective once you have already made the preliminary transition of using meat as an accent or side dish only. By that time, you arenít as used to eating a large amount of meat as the main attraction for dinner each evening. And thatís a good thing, because lentils tend to fill you up much faster than a chicken breast ever could. At least thatís been my experience. So if I put too many on my plate, itís difficult to finish the entire meal.

A basic batch of barbecue lentils or honey-baked lentils, each achievable in the oven, can get the ball rolling in homes where more homespun fare is served on a regular basis. So if sautťed greens and cornbread are your normal dinner sides, these will likely work for you. If you like to experiment with international cuisines however, then these easy coconut brown lentils or fast and spicy Thai lentils might be a better fit. We tend to plan meals all across the spectrum, so we can make use of any of these recipes several times per month.

Try your hand at lentil pie.

Yes, lentil pie. Whether youíre going with an earthy-crunchy selection of sunflower seed kernel and lentil dinner pie from Vive le Vegan, or a phyllo-crusted goat cheese and lentil holiday pie for vegetarians, it is definitely possible to put something on the table thatís well suited to traditional menus. This makes for easier meal planning when you are in the initial stages of going vegan, and need to find items that pair well with other dinner sides you have grown up with. Lentil pie can also be quite hearty, and take on a variety of different flavors. From a rustic, potato-topped mushroom and lentil cottage pie to a savory, fruit and nut filled medieval lentil pie with a double pastry crust, your choices are limited only by your own mental taste buds and the spice combinations you create with them.

Lentil pies donít have to be prepared in family sizes alone, mind you. There are plenty of snack-sized lentil pie options as well. Two of my favorites are Ethiopian lentil sambusas and the bread-encased lentil pies you can find in the Middle East at smaller bakeries where the zatyr and spinach fatyr pies are sold. This list of Middle Eastern snack pies from Back Woods Home has recipes for several such pies, including the lentil-filled variety.

Brown lentil curry can also be a family hit.

Provided you pick the proper seasoning, you may be surprised at how well you like brown lentil curry. While you certainly have your share of recipes to choose from, two that caught my eye were this dry lentil and potato curry from The Snarky Chickpea, and Food.comís lentil and pineapple curry recipe. Both use brown lentils along with other extremely affordable ingredients to produce a flavorful dish that can be served as both a side and the main event.

In short, brown lentils arenít nearly as boring as Iíve believed them to be for most of my life. And their price is certainly worth getting excited about, whether you shop conventionally or opt for organic brown lentils instead. From Ethiopian pastries to savory European-style dinner pies and tacos to tasty breakfast muffins, there are many cheap food recipes you can prepare with these affordable tidbits. Do you have a favorite way to enjoy brown lentils, or have you seen them used creatively at your favorite restaurant? Be sure to participate in the comment section below.


Photo Credits: Lentil Salad photo by Two Helmets Cooking, Lentil Tacos by Capeside, Lentils in Sieve by Maggie Hoffman, Lentil Cakes by Rachel Tayse.

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