The kosher pulse that can save the world

By Ruth Joseph, September 12, 2008

Lentils: tasty, historically haimishe and an eco-friendly alternative to meat.


In the past, lentils had a poor image, often regarded as food for sandalled hippies, eco-warriors and veggies. But historically, they have existed as part of Jewish dietary culture. Archaeological evidence in Ein Gedi shows that lentils grew during Chalcolithic times (4300-3300 BCE).

Every Jewish child has heard the story of Jacob and Esau in which Esau sold his birthright for a mess of potage - possibly the most expensive bowl of lentil soup in history.

The Bible describes numerous other occasions when lentils were cooked as part of a meal. For example, Barzillai served them on a journey to David's ravenous followers (Sam 17:28). And in the Mishnah, if a man separated from his wife, then a portion of her separation allowance was a payment in lentils.

Usually, lentils were stewed with water, oil and herbs in primitive clay pots over a simple fire, but some describe the "ashaiyot" mentioned in the Song of Songs not as raisins but ground, toasted lentils rolled in honey and fried: in other words a kind of flour. Certainly, a type of lentil flour was incorporated into the first biblical bread.

So why are they so important now? Meat-based diets require seven times more land than plant-based diets. While lentils and other pulses are high-protein, cheap, easily stored, high-fibre, low-GI, they also help fight cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. And best of all, they taste wonderful.

The red, brown and luscious grey-green puy lentils do not need to be soaked. For four portions, cover 200g, or two cups, of green or puy lentils with double the water and cook for approximately 30 minutes and taste. You can cook them with a little more water for another 10 minutes if you prefer them really soft.

For a summer salad, cook with two sliced red onions, then add two red peppers, deseeded and sliced, freshly chopped watercress, a dash of red wine vinegar and chopped coriander. Or omit the watercress and the vinegar, combine with 250g (9oz) lightly cooked spinach, crushed cherry tomatoes and serve hot over pasta - preferably wholegrain - for a truly healthy supper.

Alternatively, simmer 200g (two cups) of the red lentils in a pan with water until they just retain their shape. Take care they don't stick.

Then flavour with a teaspoon of Marigold powdered bouillon. Add a quarter of a teaspoon of turmeric and a dessertspoon of garam masala to make a very simple dhal that can be served sprinkled with masses of fresh coriander.

Finally, try my healthy lentil pie: satisfying for carnivores and veggies.


Healthy Lentil Pie

200 g, (7oz) lentils
1,320 ml / generous 2 pints water
1 large onion peeled and sliced
4 large carrots - peeled and sliced
3 slices of fresh celery, finely chopped, including the leaves
Good 25gms (1oz) fresh parsley or coriander and a few thyme leaves
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 tbs Marigold bouillon powder
Dash of Tabasco or 1 teaspoon of harissa paste or some dried chilli flakes if you like your pie spicy
3 large potatoes, well scrubbed - leave on the skins (they contains the majority of the vitamins and are barely discernable in this dish), then cut into large chunks.
225g (8 oz) frozen peas or fresh
75g (2 oz) fresh basil
25g (1oz) sesame seeds for topping

-Cook the lentils in the water with the carrots and celery in the microwave until tender. 
-Stir, season with Marigold powder, Tabasco, harissa or chilli flakes if wanted and taste. 
-Place in a large oven-to-table dish. 
-Cook the potatoes covered to their waists in water until soft. 
-Reserve the potato water and place in a mixing bowl. Sweat the onions in a large pan with the olive oil. Layer the lentil mixture with the cooked onions. 
-Now mash the potatoes with the saved water adding masses of black pepper and a little salt to taste - no need for fat. 
-Add the frozen peas and torn basil. Smooth the potato/ basil/pea mixture over the lentils, sprinkle with sesame seeds and bake for 1 hour 180 C, 350F, gas mark 4 until crisp and golden. 
-Serve with steamed cauliflower or salad for a nutritious and delicious meal.

Last updated: 5:02pm, March 2 2009