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Dining on Lentils is Now Okay

posted on: Nov 18, 2020

Dining on Lentils is Now Okay

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer 

Homesteading in the early 20th century through years of drought on the prairies, the nutritious lentils, along with chickpeas, were the mainstay on our daily menu. Flourishing in our hand-watered garden, they easily weathered the south Saskatchewan sandstorms.  When our neighbors could barely make do and moved away from one by one, we thrived on our lentil soups and stews that I really came to appreciate later in life.

This began during my Air force years in the Second World War when my taste for lentils began to grow.  Settling in Toronto, I yearned for my mother’s lentil dishes.  Alas, the city in the late 1940s was not the cosmopolitan urban center it is today.  Finding lentils on the menu in any of the city’s restaurants or even in stores was an impossibility.  Since my home was only a room with no cooking facilities, I could only relish lentil dishes when invited for dinner by some of my Arab friends.

However, that was the Toronto of long ago.  Today, lentils can be found in thousands of stores in every part of the city and there are hundreds of restaurants offering lentil dishes.  One of the main legumes which kept our family healthy during the Depression years, it has now entered the cuisine of the health-conscious North Americans.

On the western Canadian prairies in the 1930 lentils were not known to the vast majority of our fellow farmers.  However, the ancestors of my parents in Syria had cultivated this tasty legume, one of the world’s oldest foods, for untold centuries.  When our family immigrated to Canada, they brought their love for lentils with them.

In the dry soil of the prairies, this hardy plant that had adapted to the arid conditions of the Middle East, grew and thrived.  None of our fellow farmers were familiar with lentils and we, like the other Arab immigrants, kept the knowledge of cultivating lentils well hidden.  Being foreigners with inferiority complexes, we ate our delicious lentil dishes hidden in our home, safe from the prying eyes of our neighbors.

All this has changed in the last few decades.  In the1980s, I visited my sister’s family who was a farmer in Saltcoats, near Yorkton.  To my astonishment, I found that lentils had become one of the major crops in Saskatchewan, and many people were talking about this legume as a health food.

Today, Canada is one of the world’s top lentil-producing countries with most of the crops grown in Saskatchewan.  Canada is the second-largest exporter of this pulse, only exceeded by Turkey.  It is apparent that the country has come a long way from when we ate our lentil dishes in secret.

Little did I know in those years that the fare that my mother cooked from lentils was perhaps one of the reasons why our family members rarely had to see a doctor.  They are low fat, containing about 116 calories in half a cup of cooked lentils.  Highly nutritious, this legume is chock-full of minerals, such as folacin, iron magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, and rich in calcium, carbohydrates, vitamins B6, and especially protein.

Lentils have one of the highest protein contents of any vegetable, containing more protein than an equal amount of meat.  To get the full punch of this protein content and create a complete and tasty vegetarian meal, lentils should be combined with a grain like rice or burghul.

In addition to their nutritional value, lentils are recommended for anemia, emaciation, hemorrhoids, low blood pressure, and ulcerated digestive tracts.  A boon to diabetics, they assist the body in controlling blood sugar and insulin levels.  However, they have one drawback, tending to produce gas – an irritant which can be somewhat relieved by adding turmeric as an ingredient in the cooked dishes.

Cheap and wholesome, lentils are climbing the social ladder in North America, appearing more regularly on the household menus.  It is possible that in the foreseeable future, they will become one of the basic foods in the Western Hemisphere.

Lentils are delicious when cooked by themselves or with almost any grain, meat, or vegetable.  In salads, soups, stews, and vegetable side dishes, they are delightful.  With their meaty flavor and healthful qualities, lentils make appetizing and nourishing any dish in which they are an ingredient.  Without a doubt, they must have contributed greatly to the health of our family during the Depression years.

These few lentil dishes from a repertoire of hundreds will open the door for the uninitiated into one of the most ancient foods in the world.

Chickpea and Lentil Appetizer

Dining on Lentils is Now Okay

Serves about 8 

This dish makes an excellent appetizer when scooped up with crackers or Arab bread (pita).

1/2 cup lentils, rinsed

3 cups of water

2 cups cooked chickpeas

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon oregano

1/2 teaspoon. salt

1/4 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon pepper

l/8 teaspoon cayenne

5 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

1/2 medium tomato, finely chopped

2 tablespoons olive oil

Place lentils and water in a saucepan then bring to boil.  Cover and cook over medium heat for 30 minutes or until the lentils are cooked but still whole then drain and allow to cool.

Place in a food processor with remaining ingredients, except parsley, tomato, and olive oil, then process into a smooth paste, adding a little water if necessary.  Spread on a flat serving plate then decorate with the parsley and tomato pieces.  Sprinkle with the oil just before serving.

Lentil And Rice Soup – Shawrbat ‘Adas Ma Ruz

Dining on Lentils is Now Okay

Serves 8

If desired, after the soup is cooked, it can be puréed in a blender, then heated and the coriander and lemon juice added.

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 large onions, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 cup split lentils

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/4 teaspoon cayenne

pinch of saffron

7 cups boiling water

4 tablespoons rice, rinsed

2 tablespoons very finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

4 teaspoons lemon juice

Heat oil in a saucepan then sautés onions until they begin to brown.  Add garlic and stir-fry for a further 3 minutes, then add remaining ingredients, except coriander leaves and lemon juice.  Bring to boil then cover and cook over medium heat for 25 minutes or until lentils are tender.  Remove from heat then stir in coriander leaves.  Place into 8 soup dishes, then stir in 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice to each dish.

Lentil in Yogurt –  ‘Adas Ma Laban

Dining on Lentils is Now Okay

Serves about 6

This tasty delight may be served as an appetizer or as a side dish with other food.

1/2 cup lentils, rinsed

3 cups of water

1-quart plain yogurt, chilled

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint or 1 teaspoon dried

1 clove garlic crushed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon chili powder

Place lentils and water in a saucepan, then bring to boil.  Cover, then cook over medium heat for 30 minutes or until the lentils are tender but not mushy.  Drain lentils, then allow to cool.

Place in a serving bowl with remaining ingredients then combine well before serving.

Vegetarian Lentil Delight – Mujaddara

Dining on Lentils is Now Okay

Serves 4 to 6

In the Bible, Esau sold his birthright to his twin brother Jacob for a bowl of pottage – believed to be Mujaddara.

1 cup lentils, rinsed

5 cups of water

1/4 cup rice, rinsed

4 tablespoons butter

3 medium onions, chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/4 teaspoon chili powder

Place lentils and water in a saucepan then bring to boil.  Cover, then cook over medium heat for 15 minutes or until lentils are half cooked.  Add rice then bring to boil.  Reduce the heat to low, then cook for a further 20 minutes or until both lentils and rice are tender but still intact and slightly firm, adding more water if necessary.

In the meantime, melt butter in a frying pan then sautés onions until they turn golden brown.

Stir in the frying pan contents and remaining ingredients into the saucepan, then stir and cook for a further 3 minutes.  Serve hot.

Lentil and Meat Stew – Yakhnat  ‘Adas

Dining on Lentils is Now Okay

Serves 8

4 tablespoons butter

1/2 lb beef, cut into 1/2 inch cubes

2 medium-size onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 small hot pepper, finely chopped

1 cup lentils, rinsed

6 cups of water

4 medium potatoes, peeled and diced into 3/4 inch cubes

4 medium tomatoes, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon cumin

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

Melt butter in a saucepan then sauté beef for 5 minutes.  Add onions, garlic, and hot pepper, then stir-fry for further 10 minutes.  Add remaining ingredients then cook over medium heat until meat and lentils are well-done, adding more water if necessary.  Serve hot with cooked rice.

Bean and Lentil Stew

Dining on Lentils is Now Okay

Serves about 8

1/2 cup navy beans, soaked overnight and drained

9 cups of water

1 cup lentils, rinsed

4 tablespoons, olive oil

2 medium onions, chopped

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1 hot pepper, finely chopped

1/4 cup rice, rinsed

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon oregano

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

Place beans and water in a saucepan, then bring to boil.  Cover then cook over medium heat for 1 1/4 hours.  Add lentils, then cook for a further 20 minutes, adding more water if necessary.

In the meantime, heat oil in a frying pan, then sauté onions until they begin to turn brown.  Stir in garlic and hot pepper, then stir-fry for further 3 minutes.

Add frying pan contents and remaining ingredients, except the coriander leaves, to the lentils and beans, then cover and simmer over low heat for 30 minutes or until lentils and beans are cooked, adding more water if necessary.  Stir occasionally to make sure stew does not stick to the bottom of the pot.  Stir in coriander leaves, then serve hot.

Lentil Loaf

Dining on Lentils is Now Okay

Serves 8 to 10

2 cups lentils, rinsed

6 cups of water

2 medium onions, chopped

5 cloves garlic, crushed

1 hot pepper, chopped

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

1 cup bread crumbs

1 small can tomato paste (5.5 oz 156 ml)

4 tablespoons butter

3 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon thyme

1  teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon cumin

2 tablespoons olive oil

Place lentils and water in a saucepan then bring to boil.  Cover and cook over medium heat for 40 minutes or until the lentils are soft but still whole, adding more water if necessary. Drain then place in a food processor.  Process until lentils turn to paste, then remove and place in a mixing bowl.  In the same food processor, add the remaining ingredients, except oil, then process for 2 minutes.

Transfer to mixing bowl then thoroughly mix with lentils.  Form into a loaf, then place in a greased bread pan.  Sprinkle with the oil, then cover with aluminum foil.  Bake in a 350° F preheated oven for 35 minutes then remove the aluminum foil.  Bake uncovered for a further 10 minutes, then allow to somewhat cool.  Serve hot or cold, but preferably hot.