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Dinner 911: Red Lentils to the Rescue

I returned home from our giant holiday trip with my own resolutions. Sure, I want to eat more mindfully (especially after the excesses of vacation) and to feed my family more vegetables (in spite of winter).

But along with those goals, I’ve set out in this first month of 2016 to cook even more intentionally with the food that I already have in the house.

It’s a simple premise: before heading to the store, I take stock of the cupboards, fridge and freezers and build meals around what dwells there. Then, I only buy the fresh ingredients needed to round things out.

On our first night at home, I did not have to look far to spy the persimmon-colored red lentils in a jar in the pantry. Funny when returning home how differently everything strikes the eye.

Lentils, of course! How many times have I overlooked them? Likely, it was no coincidence that beans and lentils are the foods of prosperity and luck for the new year.

Typically, when I’m hunting for a quick dinner, dried beans are not the go-to staple. But that’s one of the miracles of lentils. As Tamar Adler writes in An Everlasting Meal, “On the timescale of beans, lentils are instant.” (No coincidence, too, that it comes from a chapter entitled “How to Live Well.”)

red lentil soup A

Truly. And how about the fact that today is National Bean Day?

The trick comes from boiling the lentils in salted water right off the bat– a technique I learned from one of my most treasured cookbooks, Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking by Julie Sahni. A dash of turmeric gives red lentils a lovely color, which would otherwise turn dull after cooking.

Meanwhile, you chop an onion, mince garlic and ginger and prepare the spices and cook them with tomato paste in a separate pan. This seasoning mixture transforms a so-so pot of beans into a wholesome and exotic dinner.

When the lentils are tender, you stir in the seasonings mixture and your soup is ready. Just add warmed pita bread and an optional topping of chutney or sour cream. Or cook the lentils longer to thicken them for dal to serve over rice.

With a meal ready in twenty minutes, you will feel healthy, smart and frugal. I did–and we hadn’t even unpacked from our trip yet.

2016, I’m ready. I’m home.

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Spiced Red Lentil Soup

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cup red lentils, rinsed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil or ghee
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon brown mustard seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon fenugreek
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
  • 1 clove garlic minced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste

Instructions

  1. Combine the lentils, salt, turmeric with 4 1/2 cups water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, stir well then lower the heat to simmer partially covered for 15 to 20 minutes.
  2. Heat a small saute pan over medium-high heat with the oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion and cook just until translucent.
  3. Add the whole cumin, mustard, fenugreek, and fennel seeds with the red pepper flakes and stir until the spices become fragrant.
  4. Add the ginger and garlic and stir until fragrant, before stirring in the tomato paste. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes while stirring continuously.
  5. Transfer the onion-spice-tomato mixture into the pot of lentils. Cook for 5 minutes more, uncovered, until the flavors are blended and the lentils are very tender. Or continue cooking until the lentils are the thickness you prefer, 10 to 15 minutes more.

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