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Lentils don’t usually elicit flashes of anticipation in the way that, say, a molten, just-baked skillet cookie or a summer-perfect tomato sandwich do. But I humbly submit for your consideration a lentil recipe from vegetable whisperer Anna Jones, which—as practical as it may be—will hereby rank as The Most Exciting Lentils I’ve ever eaten. And soon—I hope—that you have ever eaten, too!
For the record, I will admit there have been a lot of Genius lentil recipes I’ve shared in this column, all very, very good—from minimalist to many-layered and colored, from yogurt-dressed to sherry-drunk.
Why so many, you ask? Why are you so weird for lentils, Kristen? As our former columnist Nicholas Day once wisely noted, "Beans are what won’t be ready for dinner, lentils are what will." Lentils are the miraculous legume you can cook in 25 minutes without a soak; the hearty, inexpensive protein you can always have in the pantry, ready to become dinner anytime you realize you’re hungry and ill-prepared. But it does help to have some tricks to dress them up.
These particular lentils, from Jones’ A Modern Way to Cook, are no different in their economy or ease. But thanks to a rather kooky cooking method and some unexpected toppings, their flavor is ratcheted up inside and out, so they become a hotly-anticipated meal unto themselves. “I was taught to cook these lentils in the kitchens of fifteen in London under a lineage of chefs from The River Café,” Jones told me. “Cooked this way, they become the hero of the meal rather then a mere side. Some garlic, tomato, herbs and 25 minutes is all you need for the most flavorful, perfectly soft lentils."
But the way they come together will make you pause and maybe giggle: You drop a whole, large tomato and four garlic cloves, jackets and all, into the pot with the dry lentils and herbs. They’re so-plunked to flavor the lentils as they go, but also to take advantage of the hot environment to cook through themselves, without you having to pre-mince or peel anything. When the lentils are cooked, you fish out the garlic and tomato, squeeze them out of their skins, and mash them together into a sauce to stir back through the stew.
Just for fun, let’s picture other self-contained foods that you could sneak into bubbling lentils. Eggs? Homemade sous vide packets? A fillet of salmon, just like some people do in the dishwasher? A whole pig, instead of burying it in hot coals? (I can’t say these are recommended, but the garlic and tomatoes definitely are.)
The second double-take comes when you see the toppings. All are quite simple for the zing! pow! that they deliver, but one of them is straight-up cottage cheese mixed with horseradish. If you fall squarely into the squeaky cheese-haters camp, you can swap in crème fraîche or sour cream, but I urge that you don’t. The wee curds add an addictive layer of texture, along with the scruff of horseradish and crunch of breadcrumbs—not to mention they were the protein-packed staple of '80s diets for a reason.
The last topping is quickly roasted little tomatoes with lemon zest—which I’ve learned brings out the tomatoeyness in marinara and also here. This is a trick you should pocket.
Each of these toppings adds very little work and nests cleanly in the lentil simmer time, and together are what make a bowl of lentils The Most Exciting Lentils—a complete dinner that needs nothing else.
For the lentils
- 1 1/2 cups (300g) Puy lentils, washed
- 4 cloves unpeeled garlic
- 1 small plum or beefsteak tomato
- A few sprigs of fresh thyme
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 tablespoon of vegetable stock powder, or 1/2 a stock cube (optional)
- A generous glug of olive oil
- A splash of red wine vinegar
- Salt & freshly ground black pepper
For the toppings
- 14 ounces (400g) cherry or grape tomatoes
- Zest of 1 unwaxed lemon
- Olive oil
- A couple handfuls of whole-grain breadcrumbs
- A small bunch of fresh thyme
- 1 clove of garlic, roughly chopped
- 2 teaspoons jarred (or fresh) grated horseradish
- A scant 1/2 cup (100ml) cottage cheese
- Salt & freshly ground black pepper
Photos by Bobbi Lin
Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thank you to Food52er drbabs on the Food52 Hotline for this one.