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Lentils, uncovered

(article, Helen Rennie)

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Every serious cook has some time-saving shortcut that she’s embarrassed to admit she uses — frozen spinach, say, or buying ready-made dough at the store, or running vanilla ice cream through the blender to make crème anglaise.  

Until recently, my darkest kitchen secret was canned beans. Black beans, great northern beans, kidney beans, even chickpeas from a can were my covert weapon for making soups, stews, and even hummus in a rush. 

But my blissful ignorance about cooking legumes ended the day I opened a can of lentils. I was trying to recreate the lentils I had had on a recent trip to Italy, but that first bite of canned lentils made it clear I’d have to look elsewhere. There was no comparison between the mushy lentils I was tasting and the toothsome, nutty little beans I remembered. So I decided to learn to cook legumes.

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A trip to the bulk-foods department of my local Whole Foods revealed five varieties of lentils: red, brown, green, black, and du Puy. These last are also known, for their color when dried, as "French green," even though when cooked they turn a definite brown. The little du Puy lentils are the kind served regularly in French and Italian restaurants, so I bought several bags of them and got to work.

Unlike other dried beans, lentils don’t need to soak in water before cooking and only need about 30 minutes of simmering. So I decided to err on the side of undercooking and checked my lentils after 20 minutes. Under the lid was a pot of muddy liquid and burst skins. My freshly cooked lentils were even mushier than my sad canned ones.

Most of the lentil recipes I consulted warned that legumes would refuse to get tender if salt and acidic ingredients were added before the beans had had a chance to soften. I had the opposite problem, so I thought I could use the salt-and-acid handicap to my advantage.  I made another batch, adding a few spoons of white wine for acidity and seasoning the cooking liquid with salt from the start. The results were not much better than the first time. Half of the lentils stayed crunchy, while the other half had the now-familiar burst skins and pulpy feel.  

It wasn’t until I discovered Judith Barrett’s book [%bookLink code=1579547249 "Fagioli: The Bean Cuisine of Italy"] that I found an explanation for my lentil fiasco. Unlike other cookbooks that suggested partially covering the pot, or omitted the covering instructions altogether, Barrett's book was very explicit about leaving the pot uncovered.

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When the pot is covered, it's almost impossible to keep the liquid inside from moving. The bubbles might be small, but they break the surface of the water at a lively pace even at the lowest heat. According to Barrett, if you looked into a pot of cooking beans in Italy, it would be hard to tell that the pot was actually set over heat. 

So I tried cooking lentils a third time, watching them vigilantly. I left the pot uncovered the whole time. The moment the water came to a boil, I turned down the heat to low and waited for the water to calm down completely. Then I regulated the heat to get just a bare quiver of the water every five seconds or so.  

Staring at a pot of lentils cooking very, very slowly is not the most exciting kitchen activity, but I figured that, until I understood how to cook them successfully, I had to stare my lentils down. Depending on the lentil, a pot can take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes to cook, so after the first quarter-hour I began tasting the lentils every few minutes for doneness.

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Shortly after I passed the 20-minute mark, my lentils had lost their crunchiness but not their skins. They were barely firm to the bite, not unlike the texture of a chewy grain like barley. But that perfection lasted only a few minutes; the next time I tasted from the pot, I could see some of the skins bursting and the lentils turning into mash. Overcooked again.

The fourth batch was, finally, just right. As soon as the lentils had reached the sweet spot, I took them off the heat and added salt and white wine to stop them from cooking further.  

These days, I can't get enough of lentils. I’ve been serving them hot as a side dish, cold as a salad, and even as a main dish with a few other veggies thrown in for a hearty soup or stew.  

Once you smell the earthy aromas rising from your pot, listen to the gentle whisper of a few lone bubbles, and taste that first bite of perfectly cooked lentils, you’ll be hooked too.

p(bio). Helen Rennie is a food writer and cooking teacher living in Boston.


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