06 January 2011

Red Lentils

Red lentils are like this magical bean. Why? They cook in about twenty minutes or so, and you don't need to soak them. They're also loaded with fibre, protein, and a respectable bit of iron. They’re also fairly low in calories (around 170 if you start with 1/4 cup of dry red lentils, which is a decent serving portion). And they /cook in 20 minutes or so, without soaking/. Please keep that in mind.

This means that during those weeknights that you’re running late, there’s really no excuse to call for delivery of bad junk food (or, for that matter, good junk food; it all costs a fortune). I live up in Washington Heights/Inwood, where vegan options in restaurants are fairly limited. It’s why when we do order delivery, it’s from this Chinese place that does every kind of mock meat you could think of, and then some. The food is not greasy at all, and when you ask for tofu, they don’t mess about. They give you some serious tofu load.

However, dinner for two can easily run $20. Ouch. Throw in tax and tip, and you’re talking around $25. Mind you, they’re extremely nice people. When I call up, the lady knows that I’m going to ask for vegan food, and knows my address. This year, however, I have resolved to stock my pantry with staples that I can whip up in a hurry, even if I’m running a bit late from work (since I work at Chow, it takes about 45 minutes, door to door, to get home).

I always have garlic and onions in the house. This is non-negotiable. In the rare times that I don’t, the bodega downstairs carries it. Even though it’s four flights of stairs down, I can deal with it. I also always have a few kilos of red lentils in my cupboard. Why? Because there are many a time when I get home, and am too tired to really do any cooking, but I don’t want to call in for delivery and spend a fortune.

Most places that you go, you can get red lentils for anywhere between $1 and $2 per pound, depending on which neighbourhood you buy from. If I’m in Jackson Heights, or in certain areas of Brookyln that cater to Middle Eastern folk, I can snag red lentils for around a dollar a pound, give or take. Anywhere else, and you’ll be veering towards the two dollar per pound range.

At the end of the day, however, it’s well worth the expense. If you’re looking to feed six people, you can easily do it for under $10 with red lentils on your side. A pound of decent onions should run you about $0.50, if you’re not shopping in the really expensive stores. Garlic is pretty cheap too. A tin of diced tomatoes would be about (if you’re spending a lot) $1. A pound of the red lentils (max) would be $2. All said and done, you haven’t even broken a fiver. Snag some bread, and you’re out another $2, give or take. If you’re in the mood, grab a lemon, some lettuce, a cucumber, and a bit of parsley, cilantro, or whatever other fresh herb you like. All told, you’ve got a good fair bit of food.

Combine the cucumber (sliced), lettuce (washed and shredded), herbs (washed, and chopped fine) together in a large bowl. Smash a clove of garlic, and mince it up finely. Add the juice and zest of the lemon to the garlic. Sprinkle on a bit of salt and pepper, and you’ve got a lovely low fat dressing.

Take a nonstick pot, and throw in a few drops of oil. Add a diced onion, a few cloves of smashed garlic (don’t bother chopping them; the flavour will be more mild) and cook over medium high heat until the garlic and onions are softened. You don’t need to bother browning them, because that takes too long. Throw in your red lentils, tomatoes, and just enough water to come up about half an index finger’s length above the red lentils. Set it to cook over medium high heat with a lid on, until it comes to the boil. Drop the heat to medium low, and clean up after yourself. If you rub the bread with a clove of garlic, then drizzle on a few drops of oil to the outside, then toast it under the broiler for 30 seconds to a minute (just before serving), you’ll get a lovely garlicky bread.

Once the red lentil stew does come to a boil, set a timer for 20 minutes. Then go off and relax for a bit, while dinner comes together. By the time the red lentils are cooked, you’d have had time for a quick freshen up in the washroom, and a bit of time to clear off your table.

Taste your red lentils to check for seasoning, and add salt and pepper as necessary. Remember that tinned tomatoes have a bit of salt in them already, so it’s best to wait for it to finish cooking before fussing with any more salt.

This is also a good base from which to build different soups. It takes up other aromatics (that you’d add with the garlic and onion) with the greatest of ease. Peppers, chiles, celery, carrots, whatever you have. When the lentils are cooked, you can add any variety of frozen or fresh vegetables you have. The point is that it’s very easy to put together, and should be one of the first things you really get comfortable with cooking, because it’s so forgiving. That’s the reason I didn’t provide specific amounts: you’re meant to customise this to your needs and liking.