Lentils and Cream Dip for Maria: new take on an ancient legume
Red lentils stewed into "pottage," according to the Book of Genesis, was the reason why Esau, the firstborn son and rightful heir of Isaac, traded away his birthright to his younger brother. Except for the lentils, the people of Israel might have been the House of Esau rather than the House of Jacob.
Called "lens" by the Romans (still the scientific genus name for lentil) lentils had the name well before it was applied to the similarly shaped light-focusing structure in telescopes and eyes.
A legume like peas and beans, lentils grow easily in poor soil thanks to nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their root nodules. The bacteria make fertilizer, in effect, from thin air. Lentils also require little rain, and can be grown in fairly dry zones.
Like other legume seeds, lentils are rich in protein and fiber. They are also an excellent source of dietary iron. They store and ship well. And unlike most of their dried bean and pea cousins, they cook quickly.
But their historical, agricultural, nutritional and culinary attributes would be of limited interest if they did not taste good. Fortunately they do taste good. And cooked well, they can be exciting as well as comforting.
Strangely, lentils are not prominent in American cuisine, despite their popularity in South Asia and the Mediterranean. These simple legumes, of which there are many varieties, are among my favorite cooking ingredients.
Here's a lentil appetizer dish I developed for my daughter Maria for an opening reception at a gallery exhibit of her pottery. Lentils and pottery are intertwined in early human history, and I made a dip of lentils to serve out of one of Maria's pots.
The lentils for this recipe are the common tan-green variety readily available at supermarkets (near the dried beans and rice) as well as at natural and health food stores. The smaller dark green "French" lentils are also extremely tasty, but they require somewhat longer cooking.
Choosing a wine to pair with this dish is a little challenging. It's earthy and creamy body, with light herbal overtones, suggest to me a medium light-bodied red wine. A Beaujolais, a good Chianti, or perhaps a Grenache/Garnacha or Malbec would do, as would a crisp, luscious white like Viognier or Albariño.
The recipe makes enough appetizer for a large crowd. Accompany it with non-salty crackers or pita chips.
Lentil-Cream Dip for Maria
1 pound (2 cups) tan or green lentils
1/3 cup red wine
2 medium-large carrots
1 medium celery stick
1 medium onion
1 medium clove garlic
1/3 cup olive or vegetable oil
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
3/4 cup sour cream
12 small fresh Asian basil or 4 medium-large regular basil leaves
Add lentils to a pot of boiling water, simmer 1 minute, then allow to sit at least 20 minutes. Drain, then return lentils to pot.
Add wine plus enough water to reach the surface of the lentils. Bring back to a boil. Simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until tender. Add a little water as necessary to keep lentils moist but not wet.
Meanwhile, scrub but do not peel carrots. Cut off tips, then chunk the carrot. Chop very finely in food processor, along with chunked celery, onion and garlic. Alternately, mince all the vegetables very finely.
In frying pan, fry vegetables in oil, stirring frequently until color lightens and vegetables become tender.
When lentils are very tender, add fried vegetables plus salt, pepper and cayenne. Simmer 10 minutes, stirring frequently and scraping bottom of pot. Taste, and add salt to make the mixture slightly salty (the lentils will soak up more salt).
Remove from heat. Stir in sour cream. Mince basil finely and stir it in.
Cool thoroughly. Taste, and add salt, if desired.
Serve in bowl, accompanied by crackers or pita chips.