How to Cook Lentils
By Merchant Gourmet Cook Alex Mackay
The versatility of Puy lentils is astonishing. They can be the main ingredient for meals like curries, hotpots and my lentil bolognese, which you can then turn into a multitude of recipes from moussaka,to mushroom Wellington. Lentils make excellent side dishes which accompany meat and fish so well, that I now cut back on the amount of meat I eat by serving it with an ever more generous portion of Puy lentils.
Lentils can be the base for hot, cold and warm salads to eat immediately or for packed lunches, think of the ready-to-eat pouches like using sliced bread instead of baking your own, and you’ll open your mind to endless possibilities. Another advantage with a lentil packed lunch is that the lentils absorb the dressing while they wait to be eaten so your salad becomes better tasting by lunchtime rather than wilting as a leaf based salad will.
Lentils are an ideal ingredient to use for soups, they provide tasty ballast in a chunky soup and become the silky thickening agent for smooth soups like lentil and mushroom or lentil and spinach.
As we look to eat less meat, for our heath and for the planet, lentils are a vital ingredient to introduce to children to as early as possible. Tender lentils have always been a great part of my boys’ diet, first as a puree, then lightly crushed, then whole, they took us all the way through weaning and are still going strong as my boys move all to quickly into their teenage years. They both love to exercise and lentils in one form or another have made many a brilliant energy giving option for their sports lunches and snacks.
The most recent addition to my lentil repertoire is my ‘Baked Lentils’ for breakfast, and I’m sure I’ll be finding new ways to use them for the rest of my life.
How to Cook Dried Puy Lentils
There is no need to pre-soak Puy lentils. Put the lentils in a sieve and rinse them for 20 seconds under cold running water. Transfer the Puy lentils with 3 times their volume of water (i.e. 100g of lentils to 300ml of water) into saucepan just large enough to hold it all comfortably. Bring to the boil. Boil for 30 seconds. Turn the heat to low. Put a lid on the pan. Simmer gently over the lowest heat for 22-25 minutes or until the lentils are cooked but still very slightly firm in the centre. Season the lentils with salt and pepper to taste then put the lid back on. Leave the lentils to sit for 5 minutes, this is like resting meat, the heat gets right to the heart of each lentil and finishes cooking them perfectly. You can now drain the lentils and freeze the cooking liquor to use as a vegetable stock, alternatively use the lentils with their cooking liquor to make or add to a stew, curry, soup or sauce.
How to add flavour to Puy Lentils as they cook
This is most relevant if you have a specific recipe in mind for the Puy lentils once they are cooked, if not, I like to keep the pure lentil flavour by cooking them in water alone. To add other aromas to Puy lentils or to tailor them to what you want to serve you can add bacon; or just bacon rind, onions, carrots, ginger, garlic, citrus zest, hard herbs like bay, thyme, rosemary or spices to the cooking water. To give lentils more body, you can simmer them with with beef, chicken, meat, vegetable or porcini stock, (soaking water) or replace part of the water with reduced red wine, apple juice tomato juice or passata. In most cases when you use a liquid other than water, the lentils take longer to cook, so don’t worry, add a few extra minutes and keep tasting the lentils until they are tender.
How to Use Cooked Lentils
These tips are the same for ready to eat pouches and for lentils you’ve cooked yourself.
The key the great flavour inside and out is to dress the lentils while they are hot even if you are going to serve them cold. Hot lentils absorb dressings and flavours much better than when they are cold. My go-to dressing is one part lemon juice, 3 parts extra virgin olive oil. Then you can build from there. Lentil salads don’t need to be limited to Mediterranean ingredients; I’ve made delicious salads with soy, ginger and garlic, others with coriander, lime and chilli, or curry, orange and caraway. You can then turn the salads into substantial main courses by laying strips of chicken, beef, peppers, aubergines, halloumi, chunks of mozzarella, melting soft cheese or prawns across the top.
For chunky vegetable soups, follow the basic technique in this recipe, where you soften the onions and root vegetables before you add the cooked lentils and stock. You can then add boiled green vegetables and sliced herbs at last minute. If you want to turn your mixture into a smooth soup you can liquidise the mixture at the end of the cooking time. The longer you liquidise your soup for, (1-3 minutes depending on your machine) the smoother and creamier the soup will be.
You can just heat and eat the lentils as they are, or mash them with butter, crush them with olive oil, puree them with walnut oil, warm them through with tomato juice or toss them with a one or a mixture of herbs, spices, citrus, garlic, ginger or pesto.
Puy Lentil Q and A
Q. Are your Puy lentils vegetarian, vegan and gluten free?
A. Yes, our Puy lentils are vegetarian, vegan and gluten free (although they are not produced in a certified gluten free environment just to be aware if you are coeliac). CAROLINE IS THIS STILL THE CASE?
Q. Sometimes a recipe calls for dried Puy Lentils and I want to use the Ready to Eat ones, or vice versa. How do I convert the quantities from one to the other?
A. The weight of cooked Puy lentils will be the equivalent to just over half the weight of dried, uncooked lentils. For example, if a recipe lists 125g of dried lentils you will need 250g of Ready to Eat cooked lentils, or vice versa. Check your recipe carefully though, they are not always interchangeable as sometimes the point of using a dried Puy lentil is that they soak up and become flavoured by the cooking liquor. You may have to add the pre-cooked lentils at the end of the recipe rather than at the beginning for example.
Q. Can I cook more Puy lentils than I need and then freeze them?
Yes. When I cook our dried Puy lentils, I often cook the whole box and then freeze what I don’t eat for another day. It’s very practical to freeze them in 250g portions, so that you can use them for our recipes that call for a 250g pouch.