Photo by Vaughn Tan
To try Vaughn's tasty lentils, click here.
Some months ago, I went to dinner at a local restaurant of some repute. None of the main courses blew us away. The free table snack, on the other hand, was a different story. Within minutes of us sitting down, a small dish of mildly spiced lentils, each intact but tender and the whole topped with a pool of olive oil and dusted with chopped parsley, appeared with a basket of warm flatbreads and a tiny crock of thick yogurt. They were the best thing to hit the table that night. I continued to think about these lentils, particularly at times when I was supposed to be thinking about other things that were more pertinent but less delicious.
Apart from of-the-moment superstars like farro or quinoa, grains and pulses are far from the mind of the man in the street. Few who think of a spread to lay before favored friends say to themselves, "Yes, there will be pulses. And they will be tasty." So it was only the memory of those lentils that led me to the grains and pulses section of the food co-op several weeks later. I bought a pound of brown lentils with the vague intention of producing not the exact lentils I had before, but something a little warmer and spicier.
If you have inadvertently purchased masoor dal, do not be distressed.
After several attempts with varying degrees of success, I present to you a formula for tastiness: brown lentils with carrots, onions, numerous spices, and pomegranate molasses, topped with feta and thick yogurt laced with garlic, mint, cilantro, and cayenne pepper. (For a vegan dish, leave out the feta and yogurt.) Warm, spicy, slightly minty, round from the yogurt, earthy from the lentilsthese are generous lentils and a perfect dinner.
When I have served this in the past, conversations at table have touched on world peace, higher thoughts and metaphysics, big trees, and charismatic megafauna. Your mileage may vary.
• Dry lentils come in a range of hues, consistencies, and tastes. The type I favor for this recipe is brown lentils, which cook to a tender firmness and tend to break free of their skins instead of staying intact as Puy lentils, for example, do. Unskinned Indian orange lentils (masoor dal) have brown skins and are sometimes mislabeled as brown lentils in bulk departments (a sure sign is many bright orange bits mixed in with the brown). If you have inadvertently purchased masoor dal, do not be distressed. Add your carrots immediately, and cook for a much shorter time (sometimes as little as 15 to 20 minutes). The result will be a fine-textured pureedifferent but also tasty.
• Have I omitted cooking times merely to frustrate and perplex? Not so. Cooking times vary wildly depending on the type of pulse, how old and dry the particular batch is, how much heat is applied, and how tender you want the final result to be. These lentils have cooked in a total of anything from 25 to 60 minutes, so keep on checking; it's an excuse to taste.
• Pomegranate molasses is available at Middle Eastern grocery stores and is often used in the cooking of Syria and Lebanon. Investing in a bottle opens up a world of tasty treats including one of my favorite summer drinks (lime juice and crushed mint mixed with an equal amount of soda water and gin, sweetened with pomegranate molasses and served on ice) and my current favorite weekend breakfast food (sourdough buckwheat pancakes topped with pomegranate molasses and whipped cultured butter). If you decide that these are insufficiently enticing reasons to buy some, honey with character, like tarweed, tupelo, or buckwheat, is a good substitute.