Genius Recipes

A Genius Method for Never Cooking Boring Lentils Again

October  4, 2017

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.

This way of cooking lentils has been a game changer in my kitchen.
Anna Jones

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.)

Shop the Story

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Always looking for variations on lentils - soup or salad, for instance. Hubby loves lentils so I jumped on it. I did it almost exactly as written and it went together beautifully. For once I had all the ingredients. Just moved, so I don't have thyme plants in the garden yet, but it was tasty with dried thyme. Thank you for a delicious supper.”
— Katherine

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.

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.

Listen & Subscribe

From our new podcast network, The Genius Recipe Tapes is lifelong Genius hunter Kristen Miglore’s 10-year-strong column in audio form, featuring all the uncut gems from the weekly column and video series. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out.

Listen & Subscribe

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mayukh Sen
    Mayukh Sen
  • marynn
  • Katherine
  • drbabs
  • mhgoblue
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Mayukh S. October 5, 2017
Always in awe of the beauty (and ease!) you write about food with, Kristen—thanks for making this column so consistently engaging to read.
marynn October 5, 2017
Phenomenal! Absolutely craze amaze good!
Katherine October 4, 2017
I prepared this recipe today for dinner. Wonderful, imaginative, something new. Always looking for variations on lentils - soup or salad, for instance. Hubby loves lentils so I jumped on it. I did it almost exactly as written and it went together beautifully. For once I had all the ingredients. Just moved, so I don't have thyme plants in the garden yet, but it was tasty with dried thyme. Thank you for a delicious supper.
drbabs October 4, 2017
I'm so glad you chose this recipe. It is fantastic. The whole book is great for anyone who wants to eat more plant based.
mhgoblue October 4, 2017
This has been my favorite lentil recipe for ages. That whole book is a treasure. I'm excited that you chose it!
Basil A. October 4, 2017
I would like to add that I too enjoyed reading your "middle school assignment prose". Thank you.
Alexandra S. October 4, 2017
Me, too! I look forward to this column more than anything I read all week.
Robin October 4, 2017
I can't wait to try this tonight! I personally enjoyed reading your "middle school assignment prose". Thank you.
Catherine D. October 4, 2017
Thanks for this great recipe. Lentils are a favourite at my house. I think I might try swapping out the cottage cheese with extra firm tofu crumbled, seasoned and mixed with some nutrition yeast for a cheesy consistency to make it dairy-free.
Karen R. October 4, 2017
The recipe looks good, but what a chore having to read through your verbose, chatty, adjective overloaded, middle school assignment prose. Please spare us and just get to the point.
mela October 4, 2017
The link to the recipe is in the very first line of the text. I personally enjoy her articles, though there are others whose prose seems long to me, and for anyone who is bothered there is always the alternative of just. clicking. through.
icharmeat October 4, 2017
someone isn't channeling their best self. A BIG THANK YOU TO mela for pointing out that you can scroll down to the recipe highlights and click through. my personal habit is that i rarely read the article first. I click through to the recipe to see if it "looks right". While i'm down there i often look at a couple of comments if available. Then, if i have the time or i am otherwise curious about something in the recipe, i read the article. this method works for me. btw, when i write to describe, it is much as Kristen does (not quite as many descriptors, but liberal nonetheless. for me, the article wasn't a chore to read at all once i decided that i wanted the story.

if you are just looking for a recipe, you can get there with your mouse quite easily once you are familiar with how the site is laid out. until you have that familiarity, perhaps holding your comments is a good idea.
Sara D. October 17, 2017
Yikes. What's your problem, lady?
Basil A. October 4, 2017
Totally intrigued and can't wait to try this recipe! I love lentils and it's great to have a method to explore with. Thanks!
Rainbow D. October 4, 2017
I wonder how it could be made dairy-free? Just leaving out the cottage cheese seems like it would be missing something.
Roe October 4, 2017
There are several different VEGAN options out there: either almond milk or cashew milk--creme fraiche, sour cream, whipped cream cheese.
One of those might work..... I'm going to try swapping myself.
Good luck!
Jessica October 4, 2017
Maybe a small scoop of hummus, or some sliced avo with a squeeze of citrus and a sprinkle of salt? I think that either might get close-ish to cottage cheese. I love vegan cheeses, but where I live, they aren't always available and I haven't always prepped them ahead of time.
Rainbow D. October 4, 2017
Thanks Roe and Jessica for the suggestions! I'll give them a try.
VeganWithaYoYo October 4, 2017
I'm probably going to use Kite Hill Ricotta "cheese" as a 1:1 replacement. It's probably the closest thing texturally to cottage cheese. Barring that, you could use Tofutti "sour cream," which is decent stuff and available at essentially every health food store on the planet.

Let us know what you do and how it goes... I'm definitely looking forward to this recipe!
Catherine October 5, 2017
A poached egg would add that extra protein could be a tasty substitute!
Alexandra S. October 4, 2017
Can't wait to try this! Love the mashing of the garlic with the tomato trick. Sounds SO good.