Thursday, January 26, 2012

New Year, New You - Healthy Ingredient #2: Lentils!

Red, Green & Black Lentils
Ah, lentils! I've been a fan of this legendary legume since enjoying my Grandmother's homemade lentil soup as a child. Having sampled them in many incarnations since, I have to say their inherent earthiness and delightful texture always keep me coming back for more. I especially find myself drawn to lentils during the Winter months when they can effectively double as both a comfort food and a health food. What's not to love about that?

Illustration of the lentil plant, 1855
Much like quinoa (Healthy Ingredient #1), lentils were introduced to the human diet a long, long time ago, approximately 9,500 - 13,000 years to be exact. They were actually the first domesticated crop in the Near East. Lentils are presently available in many different colors, shapes and sizes. Whether it's the hearty, peppery French green lentils (lentilles du Puy) or the delicate, colorful red lentils, there is definitely one to suit your taste. Also, lentils are sold in a variety of forms including with or without skins, whole or split. 

Culturally speaking, lentils have turned up in some well-known yet very diverse sources including the Hebrew Bible as well as Grimm's well-known fairy tale, Cinderella. In Italy, it is a tradition to eat lentils on New Year's Eve to symbolize hope for a prosperous year ahead.

Nutritionally, lentils have the third highest protein level of any legume following soybeans and hemp, and are also a rich and inexpensive source of iron, fiber, folate, vitamin B1 and minerals. They are very popular in many vegetarian cultures around the world especially those in Asia, the Mediterranean and West Asia. In these regions lentils are usually mixed with rice or other ingredients to round out a meal. In Europe and the Americas, it is common for lentils to be made into a soup and combined with meat such as chicken or pork. I guess you could say lentils are the Philip Seymour Hoffman of the legume world, pretty unassuming at first glance yet they play some pretty amazing supporting roles!

I happened across this recipe for Lentils with Red Wine and Herbs in the January issue of Food and Wine Magazine. It was contributed by Sophie Dahl, granddaughter of famed British author Roald Dahl, and appears in her cookbook Miss Dahl's Voluptuous Delights. In the book, she fondly refers to it as Paris Mash since she would make it regularly while visiting her friend in Paris. Dahl uses very little meat in her cooking and focuses instead on fish, vegetables and whole grains; however, like her grandfather with his penchant for Burgundy, borscht and dark chocolate, she is no fan of deprivation! Dahl advocates using small amounts of 'voluptuous delights' in her cooking including crème fraîche, butter and cream. She definitely sounds like my kind of girl! 

When making this recipe, French green lentils work best since they hold their shape really well during cooking. For the red wine, I used a 2010 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Morgon but any light- to medium-bodied red wine would work just fine. If you were planning on serving this dish with a protein, I would opt for a leaner cut of red meat. The smoky, earthy flavor of the lentils begs for something a bit heavier than fish or white meat chicken. I hope you enjoy this recipe, it is currently on regular rotation at my house!

Lentils with Red Wine and Herbs
from Food and Wine Magazine, courtesy of Sophie Dahl
1 1/2 cups French green lentils (12 ounces)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small red onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup dry red wine
1 packed cup baby spinach (2 ounces)
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 tablespoon crème fraîche
4 lightly packed cups mâche (2 ounces) or arugula
1/4 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped cilantro 

Freshly ground pepper

In a large saucepan, cover the lentils with 2 inches of water and bring to a boil. Season with salt and simmer over moderate heat until tender, 40 minutes. Drain the lentils.

Heat the olive oil in a large, deep skillet. Add the red onion and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the lentils and the wine and simmer until the wine has been absorbed, about 5 minutes. Add the spinach and stock and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach is wilted, about 5 minutes. Stir in the crème fraîche. Add the mâche, parsley and cilantro and cook until barely wilted, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm.
Serves 4 
Notes: One serving = 291 cal, 44 gm carb, 5 gm fat, 1 gm sat fat, 18 gm protein,11 gm fiber

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