A Lens on Lentils

I just returned from Italy, where I was eating out three meals a day for five weeks straight. (And eating exceedingly well, I might add. Ours are gourmet tours, after all.) Now my pants are telling me that I should shed a few pounds. Which is why I made a big pot of lentils this afternoon.

Lentils? you say. Don’t they make you fat?!

Well, guess what? They’re good for losing weight! One cup of cooked lentils is jam-packed with protein and has just 212 calories. What’s more, its hefty load of fiber keeps you feeling full longer and stabilizes your blood sugar. (Important for hypoglycemics like me.) That means you should be ready to tackle that workout rather than slump limply in your chair.

Think about it this way: How many ancient Egyptians were fat? Or Greeks or Romans? (Well, I’ve got to hedge there a bit. Those Romans did like their endless banquets.

In any case, lentils are probably the oldest cultivated legume on earth, dating back at least 7000 years. The seed of a small shrub, they originated in southwest Asia, then traveled to the Middle East and northern Africa, and were wildly popular with the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans.

Lentils are mentioned in the Old Testament; Esau sold his birthright for a “pottage of lentils,” thought to be an ancient Middle Eastern dish of lentils and onions simmered slowly in sesame oil.

That’s per my Bible, THE BRILLIANT BEAN cookbook. Authors Sally and Martin Stone go on to relate how the Romans gave lentils their Latin name, lens. 1700 years later, when optical scientists invented the double convex lens, they named it lens after the similarly shaped legume.

Ever the materialists, the ancient Romans ate lentils on New Year’s Eve. At least the plebeians did. The idea was that lentils, being shaped like little coins, would bestow good fortune and wealth on diners the following year. (It doesn’t work, I’m sorry to report. But there’s nothing tastier than lentils with cotechino sausage on New Year’s Eve. Watch for the recipe this December.) The richer muckety-mucks distained such lowly fare, and Athenian playwright Aristophanes poked fun at one nouveau riche character by having an acquaintance observe, “Now he doesn’t eat lentils anymore.”

Well, I do and I’m proud to say it. Besides, the cooler temperatures and first flashes of crimson in Brooklyn’s maples have me hankering for a good fall dish. A real classic. Something 7000 years old.

So here’s an age-old Italian version of stewed lentils. I can’t say it’s from the ancient Romans (though I do have some recipes from the 4th century De Re Coquinaria coming up.) But it is from a great cookbook: ROMA, by Julia Della Croce. These stewed lentils can serve as a side dish, or as a main course when accompanied by a succulent pork sausage (that is, if you’re not on a diet).

Grab a nice Chianti Classico or even a simpler Chianti Colli Senese. Nothing too pretentious, mind you. We’re eating lentils, after all, the homiest food of all.

STEWED LENTILS (Lenticchie in umido)
(Serves 3-4)

1 cup dried brown lentils
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons salt
1 celery stalk with leaves
1 carrot, peeled
1 small onion
¼ cups extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling (optional)
1 large clove garlic, minced
½ cup tomato sauce
1 cup water or more as needed

Pick over and rinse the lentils. Cover them with cold water and soak for about 1 hour. Drain and rinse well with cold water.

Put lentils and bay leaf in a pot and add cold water to cover by 4 inches. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until not quite tender, about 15-20 minutes. Skim off any foam that forms at the top. Turn off the heat and stir in the salt; let stand for 5 to 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Finely chop the celery, carrot, and onion together. In a large skillet, warm the ¼ cup olive oil and the garlic over medium-low heat until the garlic is nicely colored but not browned, about 2 minutes. Add the chopped vegetables, partially cover, and sauté, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are tender, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add more water if necessary to keep the lentils from drying out; the consistency of the stew should be loose by not watery.

Turn off the heat and let stand about 10 minutes. Remove bay leaf, taste for salt, and serve. Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil over each serving for flavor, if desired.