Although the modern vegetarian diet can take advantage of many processed “meat substitutes” with the texture and taste of meat, I find it much more rewarding to utilize earth’s natural bounty of vegetable protein, which is plentiful and diverse.
Vegetarian diets in most every culture rely on legumes, particularly lentils, as a mainstay protein source. Why lentils? Because lentils are affordable and available almost everywhere; they are tolerant to drought and grown throughout the world. About 30% of their calories are from protein, plus they are rich in dietary fiber, folate, vitamin B1 and minerals.
Lentils have been part of the human diet since Neolithic times and one of the first crops domesticated in the Near East. Archaeological evidence shows they were eaten 9,500 to 13,000 years ago. Lentil colors range from yellow to red-orange to green, brown and black. They vary in size and are sold in many forms, with or without the skins, whole or split. Indian Tadka Dal, Ethiopian Mesir Wat, and Lebanese Mujaddara are just a few of the sumptuous meals that take advantage of the ubiquitous lentil.
Cooking with Lentils
My husband and I are long time vegetarians. Mark, the more prolific chef, draws from a wide variety of vegetable protein sources for his gourmet creations. I, on the other hand, am forever drawn to lentils. I love the fact that they are quick and easy to cook – unlike most legumes, lentils rarely require pre-soaking and can cook to perfection in under an hour. I also tend toward simpler recipes that use easy-to-find ingredients. Several years ago I came across such a recipe for a hearty lentil stew which I adapted to include my own favorite spices. This dish has become a much-requested winter favorite in our home and I’m excited to share my take on the recipe here.
Spicy Sloppy Lentils
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 1 large green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
- 1/2 tablespoon ground cayenne pepper (hot red pepper)
- 1/2 tablespoon ground paprika
- 1-1/2 cups dried brown or red lentils, picked over and rinsed
- 1 14.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 3 cups water
- 2 tablespoons tamari or other soy sauce
- 1/2 tablespoon English mustard powder, mixed with enough water to make a paste (If you like your food truly spicy, use Colman’s English Mustard – it really packs a punch!)
- 1 tablespoon molasses
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a medium-size skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and bell pepper, cover, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the cayenne and paprika, stirring to coat. Transfer the onion mixture to a 3 1/2- to 4-quart stew pot or Dutch oven. Add the lentils, tomatoes, water, tamari, mustard, molasses, salt, and pepper to taste and stir to combine. Cover, bring to a slow boil, then cook on low heat for about an hour, adding a bit of water as needed. Simmer until the lentils are well cooked and the seasonings melded.
Serve over rice or with thickly sliced bread. Serves 4-6 people, depending on how hungry they are.
With winter well on the way, I know I will soon be getting many requests for this warm and hearty meal. I hope you’ll give it a try and share your own favorite lentil recipes.
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