Please help me like lentils
May 17, 2020 7:39 AM   Subscribe

I have fancy lentils. I don't like lentils. How should I prepare them?

My Bean Club box included these black caviar lentils, and would like to be able to enjoy them. My only experience with lentils is the $2 bag from the grocery store, and they always kind of taste like cooked dirt.

I am looking for recipes that will mitigate the earthiness of lentils.

-I have no dietary restrictions, but I am limited to what the grocery store has in stock. I'm in the South SF Bay Area (West San Jose and Gilroy mostly), so if the store is open, I have access to a lot of good stuff. I will happily take specific store recommendations as well.
-I am a fairly confident cook, but with regional cuisines I'm not familiar with, I will follow recipes to the letter until I understand how the flavors/spices work together. Which leads me to...
-I can't do too spicy, so if you recommend a recipe that is spicier than say, a couple of splashes of Tobasco, please tell me what ingredient(s) to cut back on or substitute.
-I am primarily interested in using this as an excuse to learn how to cook with South Asian or Middle Eastern flavors. My pantry is mostly Japanese ingredients, but I've got plenty of cumin,coriander, and dried chickpeas from a recent Falafel obsession, and some Za'atar.

tl;dr I am looking for recipes that will mitigate the earthiness of lentils.
If I've been doing it wrong all these years by buying the wrong lentils, then I'm open to hearing that as well!
posted by dogmom to Food & Drink (44 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Have you ever made dosas? You can stuff them with whatever you like. So good. Here's one random recipe.
posted by pinochiette at 8:06 AM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm not familiar with black caviar lentils, but if you haven't tried dal makhani you should. I don't find this recipe spicy at all, but if you are sensitive, you could swap the red chili powder for paprika or something else to give you the reddish color without the heat.

There's also this recipe which specifically uses black beluga lentils instead of the standard urad dal. Or you could be wild and make regular dal with black lentils, which feels slightly transgressive in the way that, say, bright green pound cake would be.
posted by basalganglia at 8:06 AM on May 17, 2020 [6 favorites]

I would use these in place of the urad dal in a dal makhani, it's a delicious rich slow-cooked black lentil dal. Example recipes 1, 2.
posted by terretu at 8:07 AM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

I use lentils to make a sort of curried dhal by sauteeing onions till soft, adding curry powder, and simmering the lentils with the onions in broth until the liquid is absorbed. You can add shredded coconut and tomatoes to make the flavor richer, but the main recipe is really just those three things. Curry powder by itself isn't necessarily spicy, so if you want to kick up the heat you can add diced chiles of your choosing. You could also add coconut milk if that's your jam, or other vegetables like green beans or squash if you want more of a stew.

I call this dish "bachelor chow" (thanks, Futurama) because it makes a lot if I use a whole bag of lentils and I tend to eat it for every meal till it's gone, especially if I am alone (I used to make a pot when my spouse traveled and feed off it for several days).
posted by Otter_Handler at 8:09 AM on May 17, 2020

P.S. Re the dosa suggestion, if you're not familiar with them, lentils go into the pancake batter- I'm not suggesting them as a stuffing.
posted by pinochiette at 8:16 AM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Just in case you aren't already, make sure you're rinsing your lentils very well first. If you don't they can taste like dirt because of actual dirt on them.

My favourite ways to eat lentils are dal (with random veggies) and lentil shepherd's pie.
posted by randomnity at 8:17 AM on May 17, 2020 [8 favorites]

Also, rinsing your lentils really well can help remove the dust that may be giving you that "dirt" flavor.
posted by Otter_Handler at 8:18 AM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Mejadra - the Ottolenghi version is idiot proof (not suggesting that you are one, simply saying it was tested by me, an idiot, and was found to be easy and delicious.)

I'm also in Bean Club and while I haven't tried it, I bookmarked this to try with mine.
posted by superfluousm at 8:19 AM on May 17, 2020 [5 favorites]

If you want to go in a different direction, black lentils are good for cold salads, especially with crumbled feta cheese. I simmer them gently for maybe 20 minutes (keep them intact and kind of al dente) and drain and mix with olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, parsley, onions, grated carrots, feta, and salt and pepper.

I don't find black lentils to be that earthy, especially in this, but I like all lentils so YMMV.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:20 AM on May 17, 2020 [12 favorites]

I came in to also suggest rinsing your lentils really well. Lentils don't taste earthy to me - they generally taste quite mild, like most beans. I do flavor the heck out of them, otherwise I get bored.

One of the easiest thing to do with lentils is to cook them according to package instructions, drain, and then toss with vinegar, oil, salt/pepper, herbs and/or aromatics - onion, garlic, parsley, maybe some oregano or thyme. And then maybe more salad elements such as roasted tomatoes and a bit of feta.
posted by bunderful at 8:31 AM on May 17, 2020

also I may just be neurotic here but I don't see most lentils as super interchangeable. The dishes I make with $2 brownish supermarket lentils would seem totally different with black lentils or with split red lentils, and vice versa.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:35 AM on May 17, 2020 [17 favorites]

Lentil rinsing has been covered, but I'm here for the cold salad thing. My husbear makes a thing where he boils lentils for about 20 minutes until al dente and then he combines them with shredded cabbage and mayonnaise and whatever other seasonings one might enjoy (he goes spicy but one could go in any direction) and you could add blue cheese or whatever and you toss the whole thing together and it's one of those things that is great first day and then takes on a different character as it contemplates its existence as a leftover.
posted by hippybear at 8:36 AM on May 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I find black caviar lentils are very different from other lentils except Puy lentils, both in taste and consistency, and I love lentils. I sometimes use this recipe when I have them, it's very similar to what needs more cowbell suggests. I also use them just for a simple lentil stew (if you are vegan or vegetarian, just leave out those elements, it's still good), and for a lentil shepherd's pie (use the leftovers from the stew/soup as the filling, and cover with a lid of mashed potatoes, scatter a bit of butter or oil over the potatoes and bake till there are golden bits on the lid). I mainly use these three recipes because I love them so much, I don't feel the need for more variation.
I looked for Middle Eastern recipes but those I found have tahin and/or cumin in them, and they are definitely earthy flavors. I think it would be a great idea to make something like a tabbouleh salad, but with cooked lentils instead of the bulgur. (This is a NYTimes recipe, that I chose because it is very authentic, and it seems not to be paywalled, maybe because of the pandemic).
posted by mumimor at 8:41 AM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

When making traditional long grain rice (1 cup rice, 2 cups water...boil, then simmer with a lid on) I often sub out 10-20% of the rice for lentils to make a more interesting dish.
posted by mmascolino at 8:42 AM on May 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

I’ve tried and failed with lentils. Give them to someone who likes them instead of wasting effort cooking something you know you’re not going to enjoy.
posted by Segundus at 8:43 AM on May 17, 2020

just leave out those elements, it's still good
Oh, just to be very accurate, since you specified that you want recipes that work: if you take out the chicken broth from the linked recipe, you must replace with the same amount of water or vegetable broth. I prefer water. You do not need to replace the sausage, but you can use vegan sausage. I don't. I've served this often for vegan friends, and they love it.
posted by mumimor at 8:49 AM on May 17, 2020

Agree that the black caviar lentils are very different from cheap supermarket brown lentils. So you'll be getting less earthiness -- and a firmer, less mushy texture -- right from the start.

For me, the One Cool Trick to amazing lentils is replacing around half the cooking liquid with red wine (as in this recipe). Seriously, it's pretty amazing.
posted by neroli at 8:59 AM on May 17, 2020 [4 favorites]

Punjabi-style Black Lentils from Smitten Kitchen is one of my all-time favorite recipes. I add way more of the garlic/ginger/spices than she suggests, but obviously you don't have to, or you could just reduce the "ground chile powder" (which I use cayenne for, as I think in South Asian dishes, this kind of chile is actually spicy, not like the "chili powder" you commonly see at the grocery store in the US). Also, I add a dollop of plain/greek yogurt instead of heavy cream, at the end.
posted by unknowncommand at 9:02 AM on May 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Oh also, I find black lentils simply don't taste as earthy/gross/mealy/squeaky as $2 grey lentils.
posted by unknowncommand at 9:32 AM on May 17, 2020

Brad and Sohla just made dosas, which Brad knew nothing about and Sohla was so extremely laid back about using basically whatever for the batter that I now actually feel like I can semi-confidently make them and plan to try this week.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:46 AM on May 17, 2020 [4 favorites]

I like making lentil bolognese and then using the bolognese in a lasagna.
posted by BeHereNow at 9:49 AM on May 17, 2020 [2 favorites]

Came to suggest Dosas as I saw them made on bon appetit yesterday but got beaten to the punch they sound delicious & a fun project. My quick reading afterwards suggests they're easy enough to make but make and pretty fast for a fermented product. It'd on my list of things to try next week as I too am not a huge lentil fan & I think the tangy fermenty thing could be great with them.
posted by wwax at 9:54 AM on May 17, 2020

This recipe for those exact lentils is not just the most delicious lentil preparation I have ever had, it is one of the best things I have ever eaten, period. It's so good that I promptly went and bought the book it came from after making it (the rest of the book is very good, but damn, that lentil dish is the stand-out). The brightness of the basil and lemon provide a nice counterpoint to the lentils' earthiness, and the garlicky yogurt is I always serve it on a thick slice of grilled bread. It won't really give you a chance to play with unfamiliar ingredients, but I think it ticks all of your other boxes.
posted by la glaneuse at 10:25 AM on May 17, 2020 [11 favorites]

This type of lentil is very different than the kinds that cook down to mush. I don’t think that dosa is the best application. To tamper the earthiness, you can make salad with an assertive vinaigrette. Here’s an example: The walnut oil could definitely be omitted.
posted by gryphonlover at 10:37 AM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

My mother in law makes this lentil salad and it’s very good.
posted by vunder at 10:44 AM on May 17, 2020

Came to recommend the same recipe linked twice above (AND is recommended by someone reviewing the Rancho Gordo lentils you linked to!): Smitten Kitchen Punjabi Style Black Lentil Dal.

Smitten Kitchen is popular for a reason, and one of those is her comments being divided into three groups: general, I made this, and I have a question. The latter two often give a ton of ideas and riffs on a recipe, so if you don’t have all the ingredients then there’s almost certainly someone in the same boat who can weigh in on what works as substitutions.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 10:50 AM on May 17, 2020

Wow- this is great! I am sure these are all best answers, but knowing that different lentils behave and taste differently is likely to be a game-changer for me (I knew this about beans, but for whatever reason never applied the same logic to lentils). I'm going to try half-recipes of the Mejadra to ease me out of my East Asian comfort zone, and the yogurt lentils based on the stellar review. After that, I definitely want to try one of the many Dal recipes here.

Thank you all, and if you've got any more recommendations, I will take them!
posted by dogmom at 11:01 AM on May 17, 2020

I am a certified Lentil Liker, but the Just-Keeps-Getting-Better Lentil Salad from Bon Appetit is one of my faves. I usually use tamari almonds or lemon almonds, and I leave out the feta because it doesn't seem necessary. If you like lemon and olives, those are the dominant flavours, rather than the lentils.
posted by ITheCosmos at 11:01 AM on May 17, 2020 [4 favorites]

I usually cook with red lentils and agree, they're all different with the cheapie ones from the supermarket being less good. This is what I make with red lentils that is not particularly lentilly. If you like peanut-type stews, it's fantastic.
posted by jessamyn at 11:22 AM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

Here's one I like: Lentil Stuffed Sweet Potatoes with Chard, Feta + Pistachios.
posted by taz at 11:33 AM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you are going to Trader Joe's and they have the other 2 ingredients, this 1 minute lentil salad is soooo yummy
posted by snowymorninblues at 11:42 AM on May 17, 2020

Concurring with all the others who say that a firm lentil like a black or green Puy is going to cook up differently and is probably best used in different recipes than a red or regular green which will inevitably go to mush or near-mush. I am a late tolerator of lentils myself. Two recipes I like are Easy French Lentils with Garlic and Herbs (fair amount of chopping here; when I'm willing to make the texture tradeoff, I do it in a mini-chopper, but it is a bit of a trade-off) and Warm French Lentil Salad with Bacon and Herbs.
posted by praemunire at 12:13 PM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

They would probably work well in this excellent Ottolenghi recipe: Puy lentils with roast aubergine, tomatoes and yoghurt. Although you might not feel like roasting eggplants for an hour for a recipe if you’re not sure how you feel about the main ingredient.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 12:28 PM on May 17, 2020

Seconding the above recipe with the yogurt—it was in the bean club newsletter the first time I got those lentils and we absolutely loved it.
posted by padraigin at 1:15 PM on May 17, 2020

This Hellenic Republic Cypriot grain salad is one of the most delicious salads I’ve ever eaten. It calls for puy lentils, so would work perfectly with the ones you have. You can sub quite a few of the ingredients if you like too; I use bulgar instead of freekah, and add pistachios if I have them.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 1:18 PM on May 17, 2020

This Greek Lentil Soup recipe from the Washington Post is flavorful and satisfying!
posted by panther of the pyrenees at 2:41 PM on May 17, 2020

Mejadra (or Mujadara -- transliterations differ) is genuinely wonderful. I use a slightly different recipe than the one previously linked (a full cup of oil for onion frying is not needed and olive oil is used throughout). The only change I make in this version is bumping up the basmati to a full cup.

The only time I messed up this dish was when I decided to add some spinach, which is often a great addition to all kinds of legume dishes, but in this one, it threw off the balance of flavour and it tasted like disappointed greens all the way through.
posted by maudlin at 3:12 PM on May 17, 2020

lentils, rice, carmelized onions, olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper
posted by Jacqueline at 3:56 PM on May 17, 2020

Anytime I see lentils mentioned.... Young Ones
posted by wkearney99 at 4:19 PM on May 17, 2020 [1 favorite]

This burrata with lentils and basil vinaigrette is one of the best things I've made! (Another Smitten Kitchen recipe.)
posted by kylej at 4:46 PM on May 17, 2020

My favorite lentil salad is black caviar lentils, celery, carrots (lightly cooked), tomatoes, walnuts, and sauteed mushrooms. You can add ham or bacon for a heartier dish. I make my own dressing with walnut oil, sherry vinegar and minced shallots.

Also, simmering black caviar lentils until just tender in chicken broth, wine, and a bit of lemon juice and then adding instant couscous at the very end is fabulous.
posted by dancing_angel at 6:35 PM on May 17, 2020

I'm a big fan of the tangy lentil soups you find in Syrian and Lebanese restaurants, usually heavy with tomato and lemon and cumin for a salty, spice-rich sharpness that completely de-earthies the taste of the lentils themselves. This is a tasty example, but there are dozens of iterations of this recipe—the place I get takeout from cooks in a huge amount of finely chopped chard, and when I make it at home I usually load it up with a lot of whichever heavier greens I have on hand. It's a good soup base for experimenting with in general. If I have mushrooms, carrots, potatoes, celery, etc. on hand, they'll usually end up in the mix.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:56 PM on May 17, 2020

I love this recipe, but I use about four times more smoked Spanish paprika than it calls for. That way it tastes much more of smoked paprika and red wine, and less earthy. There is both hot and mild smoked paprika — be sure you get the mild kind if you want to avoid heat. Also, be sure to get smoked paprika, not regular paprika. The smoke is key.

(I’ve had multiple people demand this recipe after just catching a whiff of the food — it has a really appealing smell.)
posted by snowmentality at 8:06 PM on May 17, 2020

This cabbage and lentil recipe is delicious, much more so than I was expecting, and also very easy. The sage brown butter sauce was very effective. I didn't have walnuts and it was still great.
posted by sepviva at 6:32 AM on May 18, 2020

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