At my house, dinner is not a three-course meal every night. More likely, it’s a main course and a green salad. Sometimes, it is a one-pot main course, though not always. (I find that even when cooking a simple meal, at least two pots and pans are often involved.) And, quite frequently, dinner is meatless.
While I consider myself a carnivore, my first love will always be vegetables. I’m quite happy to have a vegetarian meal several times a week.
In addition to fresh vegetables, whole grains and dried legumes are usually part of the picture. I’m a big fan of every type of bean, whether cannellini or garbanzo, with a cupboard full of them to choose from. Lately, it is lentils that most strike my fancy. Aside from being delicious, they have the advantage of being quick-cooking. It usually takes no more than 30 minutes to simmer a pot, so they are perfect for a relatively fast meal.
For most uses, any kind will work, but even among lentils, there are lots of types to choose from. If the meal is leaning in a Spanish direction, I might go with Pardina lentils, a small brown variety good for stews, soups or salads. For an Italianate dish, I like Castelluccio lentils from Umbria. When I want to veer toward Turkish flavors, I choose split red lentils.
What follows are three lentil dinners I highly recommend. They are all vegetarian, and all have the advantage of tasting good, perhaps better, when prepared in advance. Lastly, each of these dishes can benefit from a drizzle of fruity extra-virgin olive oil as a final flourish, to make them that much more luscious.
This rustic stew improves after a day in the fridge. At the very least, try to cook it an hour or two ahead of the meal, so the elements have time to meld. (You can also make it to eat over several days, or to freeze for later.) Any size green or brown lentil will work here, if you can’t get the small Spanish Pardina lentils (or French lentilles du Puy). But the smoky pimentón is vital: Along with extra-virgin olive oil, it provides real depth of flavor.
There are many versions of pasta with lentils, a multitude of which are thick and stewlike, more lentil than pasta. This one emphasizes the pasta. The saucy lentil topping is similar to a traditional Bolognese ragù. The addition of fennel — seeds, bulb and chopped green fronds — gives it a surprising brightness and zest. For even more flavor, put your saved-up Parmesan rinds to use in the sauce. (Meat eaters: Add a little chopped anchovy or Italian fennel sausage.)
You may have encountered the kind of vegetarian lentil loaf that masquerades as something else. With its brownish-grey color and a red ketchup glaze, it tries to emulate the homespun comfort of meatloaf. Most recipes call for Worcestershire and barbecue sauce to make it taste beefy. This delicate red lentil loaf is worlds away from that. It’s all about the undisguised flavor of the lentil: sweet and vegetal. The seasoning is a little bit Turkish, with lemon, cumin, cilantro, dill and yogurt. It is delicious served at room temperature or warm. The loaf is easier to cut if cooled, with slices heated through in the oven. Even better is to griddle the slices with a little oil in a nonstick or cast-iron pan until crisp and golden on both sides.
And to Drink …
The earthy, smoky flavors in this lentil stew send me on a beeline to the Northern Rhône Valley of France, ancestral home of the syrah grape, which with its peppery, savory flavors will be an excellent complement to this dish. Look for St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage or a midaged Cornas, coincidentally just what we drank in Wine School recently. You could also try syrahs from California or Australia, as long as they are made in a restrained style. Other red options? You could drink a new-wave grenache, like those coming from the Sierra de Gredos region of Spain, or an aglianico from Campania, as long as it’s not too tannic. Or if you want a white, I think this dish would go really well with a good chenin blanc. ERIC ASIMOV