The brew had been stronger that morning than usual and rather than helping me focus, I was bouncing around like a bunny. Distractions, the enemy of all desk-bound, were everywhere and were luring me towards them. And so, like any reasonable person, I gave in to them. I took my To Do list, left my desk and went to the farmers market.
A farmers market in New York in January is a bit like a Sample Sale on Day 5 – inventory is tired, expectations are low, shoppers move slowly. The kale lay limp, tinged with the brown sting of frost; apples at one stand were huddled together under a thick blanket to keep from freezing; pears were already showing signs of storage fatigue; vapor wafted from a hot cider pot, warming the air but doing little to remove the chill.
I’d come to the market for inspiration for a lentil dish. A jar of them had been sitting on my shelf, its contents looking for work. But inspiration was elusive. The carrots were not the delicate, thin-fingered variety with voluminous green hair, but stocky ones, hard working carrots with dirt under their nails. The celeriac (celery root) was shrunken, the mushrooms were cold, the beets mid-hibernation. But these were to be my muses.
Blue collar carrots and yellow fleshed beets.
Bug-eyes celeriac and dirty creminis.
If constraints enhance creativity, I had no excuse.
Some interesting things about lentils*:
- “Lens culinaris” is their Latin name due to their disc shape, which also gives us the word for the piece of glass/plastic we put over our eyes.
- Lentils have the 3rd highest protein by weight of any plant (25%), after soybeans and hemp, but unlike those two, are virtually fat-free. A half cup of cooked lentils has 10g of protein, about the same as a smallish piece (2 oz) of salmon.
- But all protein is not alike. The protein in lentils (though excellent for you) is nutritionally speaking “incomplete”, meaning it’s missing a couple essential amino acids. (Salmon’s protein is complete as is meat and poultry.) You can get these two missing amino acids, though, by eating lentils with grains/rice, thereby creating a “complete protein”.**
- They’re also exceptionally high in fiber (helps ferry food through the intestines and stabilizes blood-sugar), folic acid (essential for pregnant woman but also helps lower heart disease in all of us), magnesium (largely involved in proper nerve and muscle function) and iron (helps move oxygen efficiently through the body). It has twice as much iron as other legumes, such as beans or split peas.
- Lentils make you gassy because the starch is not easily digested and hence must be broken down by intestinal bacteria that gives off carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The best way to lower the gas? Lower the starch. Cook them slowly and for a longer period of time – say 45 mins vs 20 which is all they require. (Some people also suggesting soaking them (which cuts cooking time by hydrating them), but I don’t believe cold water does much to break down starch.)
- Soaking also releases the phytic acid that can inhibit the absorption of minerals.
As day faded to night, the farmers disassembled their stands, re-filled trucks with unsold goods and counted their cold cash. And I was home giving life to lentils***. The final result: “January Lentil Stew”. I’m a biased chef, it’s true, but this dish was outstanding. (The secret ingredients – red wine and fresh tarragon). See the finished product.
Your favorite ways to enjoy lentils? Any “unique” ingredients that often find their way into your dish?
*Some of these nutrition facts are from here.
** There are twenty two amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Eight of these (called “essential amino acids”) can not be made by the body and hence must be derived from food. The two essential amino acids missing in lentils are methionine and cystine. Both of these are found in high quantities in grains, making legumes and grains highly complementary foods. Many cultures have intuitively known this for centuries and often combine the two in order to get complete protein (think “dal” for example, the Indian dish of lentils and rice.)
*** Here is an good site that reviews the different types of lentils and when you might want to use which kind.
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