In praise of lentils
As a vegan, I’m often asked, “What do you eat?” One of my staples is lentils – a food I had barely eaten before becoming vegan, but something I couldn’t now live without. Lentils are high in protein and carbohydrates, and a good source of iron, fibre, B vitamins and zinc. They make a natural substitute for meat – high on the list of the questions is, “How do you get enough protein?” so I smugly reply that there is as much protein in the humble lentil as there is in a steak.
Trying to emulate meat in my cooking is not something I really do – if I’m not going to eat meat, I’m not going to eat something pretending to be meat. Tofu and soy are not on my shopping list. But lentils are great at providing a meaty texture if I so desire – especially useful if I’m cooking for non-vegans. Red lentils have a similar texture to shredded chicken, brown lentils make a great substitute for mince, and Puy lentils have a fabulous gamey flavour. Such is the similarity to meat textures, I have been known to question chefs who insist the dish prepared for me is in fact vegan; I’ve even questioned my own cooking, knowing full well animal products have come no where near!
My lentil shelf (yes, I have a lentil shelf) has five types of lentil: red, green, brown, speckled (Puy) and yellow. There’s definitely room for more.
I also have a few beans on my lentil shelf, but dried beans (though cheaper than canned) require forethought (soaking overnight) and energy (lots of boiling time). Living on a boat makes me very precious about overusing my gas stove. Lentils don’t require soaking which means you can buy the dried (cheaper) version and still add them to dishes with very little planning. Typical cooking time: 15 to 35 minutes.
Red lentils cook really quickly and are a great addition to soups and curries. They are good for bulking up a dish and their colour doesn’t fade with cooking. I often use them in carrot soup and always in a dhal.
Brown lentils are my favourite chilli-sans-carne staple. They hold their shape when cooked, and the colour and texture is close enough to the meat mince in my mum’s recipe that I’m sure she wouldn’t mind. They take longer than red (being the whole version of red lentils) so need to be added to the mix fairly early on. I add them to a Bolognese-style dish at the same time as all other liquid, giving a good thirty minutes on the boil in order to soften.
Green lentils are flatter than brown and retain something of their shape when cooked. They tend to lose their colour (though they never start off green – more a dull beige). They are good in stews and salads.
Puy lentils are a revelation. They are just great on their own, which is not true of other lentils. A whole plate of Puy lentils and a dash of soy sauce is just as nutritious and delicious as a steak. OK, only a vegan would say that, but… it’s a good meal. Chuck a few oven-roasted veg in there and some sautéed spinach and you have yourself a gourmet meal. I often add them (pre-cooked) to salads and stir-fries.
Yellow lentils are a new addition to my lentil shelf. They are more a split pea than a lentil, which means they take longer to cook and have the firmest texture of all the lentils. They also look a lot like I’ve poured several cans of sweetcorn into my stew. Tastes great, though, and really gives the dish an extra dimension in flavour and texture.
I used to eat meat three times a day. Now it’s lentils. All praise to the lentil.