The Joy of Lentils

I grew up loving all beans – in New Orleans, with its red beans and rice tradition every Monday, how could I not? And when I got old enough to start reading about and thinking about food, I uncovered history that explained a lot. The red beans I adored were part of a long tradition – an ancient tradition, really – of nourishing the poor on a protein that was cheaper than meat or seafood. All poor countries, I discovered, had important bean cookery.

Yes, sometimes this fact was understood all too well, as when people in any culture make economic advances and reject the “poor” foods they grew up eating. Even that catchy “Movin’ on Up” song from “The Jeffersons” alludes to this. Yet more commonly, other, more expensive items replace beans on the table, even if not in the heart of longing, loving and being nostalgic about what was, or at least seems, golden about the past.

I’m not 100% sure when I tasted my first lentil, which typically takes the form of lentil soup, or indeed what ethnic identity it carried into my life. There are super-famous peppery green lentils from a place called Puy in France, which might have shipped a few bags to New Orleans with the colonists early on. Still, this bean (or pulse, more accurately) often came to specific parts of our country via Sicilian immigration.

It’s widely understood that Sicilian cooking is distinct from every other “Italian” cuisine for its reliance on Arab foods over centuries of occupation. You know… couscous, chick peas, citrus, cinnamon and nutmeg in savory dishes, and many other non-Italian touches. Sicilians will even tell you, with neither pride nor shame, that their native island is closer to North Africa than it is to Rome. They might also mention, if they have a sense of history, that the Arabs brought them many valuable things, while the Romans merely took all their valuable things away. Half-hidden in history, that is a striking difference.

Considering this was New Orleans, lentils probably entered my life with Sicilians, who also added exotic produce like eggplant and artichoke to the Creole food vocabulary. Little did I know, spooning my father’s lentil soup into my young mouth, that I was entering a history going back 8,000 and perhaps as much as 13,000 years, to humankind’s first efforts to domesticate plants in hopes of not starving to death. The lentil is our very first pulse, historians tell us.

By all accounts, this happened in the Middle East, perhaps even in the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates, where so many important things took place. Other early archaeological evidence of lentils comes to us from Greece, Turkey and Syria, though the crop clearly was carried forth a long way by traders and invaders.

Most importantly, from a culinary perspective, lentils took hold in yet another traditionally poor and hungry country, India. Both India and Pakistan consume more lentils than anywhere else today, generally cooking and serving them under the name “dal.” It is an added delight that both interwoven food cultures grow and cook many different colors of lentil – from green to red to yellow – these joining the endless

rainbow of ground spices in open burlap sacks filling our eyes (and especially our nostrils) in any covered bazaar or outdoor market.

The consumption of all other beans has dropped since the 1960s, as culture after culture does its Jeffersons impression and relies on meat and seafood for protein. Yet the world consumption of lentils has more than quadrupled. Demographics play a major role in this, as they do in most things. But as a cook and an eater, I’d like to think I’m doing my part.

ARTICHOKE & ASIAGO LENTIL SOUP

One of the best things about this soup recipe, besides its convenience and the relatively quick cooking time delivered by the lentils, is that it works quite well as a vegetarian dish – merely leaving out the bacon and subbing vegetable broth for chicken broth. Here, though, we start things off with bacon, in the Italian tradition of starting things off with pancetta. 

2 slices bacon, chopped

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small yellow onion, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

3 spring onions, white and green parts, chopped

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 (16-ounce) package dried lentils

1 (24-ounce) jar Mom’s brand Artichoke Heart & Asiago Cheese Sauce

1 (32-ounce) package chicken or vegetable broth

1 tablespoon Italian herb seasoning

1 teaspoon lemon pepper

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

Salt and black pepper

Cook the bacon in the olive oil in a soup pot or kettle until it is crisp. Add the onion, celery, carrot and green onion, stirring until lightly caramelized. Add the garlic and stir just 1 minute more, being careful not to burn it. Add the lentils and stir to combine, then add all remaining ingredients. Bring mixture to a boil, then lower heat and simmer until lentils are tender, about 1 hour. Add additional broth or water if needed. Serves 8.


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