Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Lentils, again

Lentils are one of those things that people think of as being pauper’s food and a foodstuff that stumps them. They don’t really look very appealing, although there are some rather beautiful French ones, let alone are they seen as something good enough to serve at a clever dinner. Split pea and ham soup, made from a traditional English family recipe, might be the only time that most people get close to a eating a lentil, and yet they are cheap, cheerful and delicious cooked in many, many ways.

There are added health bonuses for including lentils in your diet. They are high in iron (especially the green or black ones), provide excellent low fat protein and lower cholesterol significantly. They are also instrumental in drying up ‘damp’ in the body. In Traditional Chinese Medicine ‘damp’ is an excess of phlegm in the body (how disgustingly descriptive is that?) caused by an excessive consumption of things that produce phlegm - think dairy, eggs, wheat. Westerners, especially Western vegetarians, often rely solely on these foods for their nutrition at the potential risk of health and the definite risk of boredom. Dampness shows its symptoms in a number of ways but the most obvious is in excessive weight and that is an area in which most of us have a complaint!

I love lentils. Absolutely adore them, eating them in some form of other at least twice a week. I much prefer them to beans. Last week I raved about Minestrone made with lentils and this week I found myself making yet another lentil soup, albeit with a different kind of lentil and with gentle Indian spicing. It is delicious. If the Minestrone was easy and cheap to make, this one’s from the bargain bin, but no less lovely and much quicker from start to finish (about 25 minutes to cook). Plus it makes tonnes and reheats beautifully. It is adapted from Deborah Madison’s ‘Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone’.

Red Lentil and Lime Soup

Serves 4-6 (great leftovers)

1.5 cups of red lentils, picked over and rinsed well under running water

1 tablespoon of turmeric

2 tablespoons of olive oil

3 teaspoons of sea salt

1 tablespoon of unsalted butter

1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped

2 teaspoons of ground cumin

2 teaspoons of mustard seeds

1 bunch of coriander, roughly chopped (or use parsley)

Juice of 3 limes

1 cup of cooked rice (leftover from another meal –- omit if you can’t be bothered)

1 bag of baby spinach leaves (or a bunch, well washed and chopped)

Plain yoghurt to serve

Put the lentils into a soup pot with 2 litres of water, add the turmeric, olive oil and salt and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, stir well, and cover, cooking for about 20 minutes or until the lentils are soft and cooked through. Puree if you can be bothered (though it is an extra step, this is well worth doing if you are serving more people than just you and your loved one).

While the soup cooks, heat the butter in a frying pan over a gentle heat and add the onion, cumin and mustard seeds and, stirring occasionally, cook for about 15 minutes, by which time the soup should be ready. Add the coriander or parsley and cook for 1 minute longer. Add to the soup along with the lime juice and stir well. Add the rice if you are using it and stir again.

Just before serving heat a non-stick frying and chuck in the spinach with 1 teaspoon or so of water. Turn with tongs until it wilts then take the pan of the heat, pour the soup into bowls, and drop in some spinach and top with a dollop of yoghurt.

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