Type to search

Lentils: Ancient in history as both a peasant food and a delicacy


By Murray Schulman

Archaeological digs along the Euphrates, Greece, Egyptian tombs, and the lands of the ancient Hebrews have turned up closely related relics dating back as far as 8000 B.C. Under normal conditions, the science world would be fasci-nated by such a discovery. Why is so little fanfare evident related to these discoveries?

What are these relics? Lentils.

These tiny members of the legume family grow in pods like many other beans. Even as small as they are, they grow only two to a pod. Lentils are considered to be one of the most ancient domesticated crops to exist in the world.

In history, lentils were considered peasant food in some cultures while at the same general time was a delicacy served to royalty. More recently, lentils are symbolic in certain festivals and celebrations. They are thought to bring luck and prosperity. In Ireland, some parts of Italy, and predominantly in India and the surrounding areas of India, lentils are staples. In India, nearly every meal will include lentils in any varieties of dishes.

Now the question turns to what I use lentils for from a culinary perspective. The most obvious answer that comes to mind here in the United States and even among Italian Americans is lentil soup. In stores, we find processed and prepared lentil soup ready to heat and eat. In the canned vegetable or bean
section we will find lentils packed in salt water. If you look in the dried bean section of your local supermarket, you will find dried packaged lentils, in most cases the brown lentils.

To find the best variety and best quality lentils, you will have to look in upscale specialty grocery stores. I was excited to learn that a couple of Delaware ShopRite stores have taken the leap into the deep end and are carrying the top-of-the-line Daivi lentils.

I regularly prepare lentils as a staple in my home. I generally rotate my selections among Daivi’s Urad Dal, Masoor Dal and Toor Dal. I also include moong or mung beans, which fall into a strange classification between lentils (pulses) and beans. Ural is a black lentil with a white interior it has an earthy flavor in a deep rich and pleasing way. It is great as a stand-alone, in salads or in combination with greens, spinach and other vegetables as a main course or side dish with meats, poultry and fish. Masoor is the red lentil. It is more tender and cooks faster. I enjoy this lentil in stews, curries, or sauces and with fish or seafood. Red lentils are great with rice and pasta as well. The reason those red lentils work so well with stews curries and sauces is that they are natural thickeners. Toor dal is pigeon peas, usually split. I prepared a delicious vegetarian main course with these lentils just the other day. The dish I prepared was simple to make and was surprisingly satisfying not to mention having bold flavors and great eye appeal.

Next to soy, lentils are the most nutritious members of the legume family. They have all the essential nutrients that the body needs and are an important replacement for meat.

A meatless Italian-style Toor Dal dinner recipe

Toor Dal (split yellow pigeon peas) – 2 cups
Water – 8 cups
Baby spinach – 2 cups
Mixed field greens or spring mix – 2 cups
No-salt-added diced tomatoes – 16 ounces
Red onion, diced – 1 small or ½ large
Olive oil – 1 tablespoons
Fresh basil – ¼ cup
Chopped garlic – 2 cloves
Ground black pepper – ½ teaspoon
Fresh chopped parsley – ¼ cup
Organic apple cider vinegar with mother – 1 cup
Unsalted butter – 1 tablespoon

Clean lentils of any small stones and rinse well.
In a large pasta pot, boil the lentils until just tender.
Don’t overcook the lentils
Drain the lentils
In a large skillet, sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil until just soft. Do not brown.
Add the diced tomatoes and continue to sauté until liquid reduces by half.
Add all the greens and black pepper until wilted.
Add the vinegar, reducing heat to a simmer.
When the vinegar reduces by half, finish with softened butter.
Add this mixture to the cooked and drained split pigeon peas and gently toss to gully incorporate flavors, textures, and colors.
Serve in a pasta type platter with crusty bread.

Stay up-to-date with our free email newsletter

Keep a pulse on local food, art, and entertainment content when you join our Italian-American Herald Newsletter.