Jim and Carrie, by the way, will be hanging out to take your questions at today’s Free Range chat, which kicks off here at noon sharp. In case you’ve never joined us, it’s a weekly tete-a-tete, bringing together writers/editors/readers into one glorious Q&A stew. You ask the questions, we supply the answers, or try to. And when we run out of time, which always happens, I grab a succulent leftover. Like this one, from last week’s chat:
I like lentils and make a lot of recipes that incorporate them. Every time I make them, however, it feels like a crapshoot. Sometimes it takes the expected amount of time for them to absorb water and get soft. Sometimes this process takes WAY longer, like twice as long as it should. And sometimes the lentils never really seem to reach doneness at all. FYI, these are regular old brown lentils from the supermarket. Ideas?
Good timing! We happen to have a great lentil recipe for you this week. For her Dinner in Minutes column, Bonnie S. Benwick cooked up Chicken, Spinach and Lentil Coconut Curry, from “Cook on a Shoestring” by Sophie Wright. When Bonnie brought the curry to the photo studio last week for its closeup, I liked it so much that I made it over the weekend.
And whaddaya know? My lentils, too, took a while to reach the right level of doneness. Not an outrageous amount of time, but longer than I had expected.
I’ve always heard that if you put salt in the cooking water, it will toughen the lentils, so they’ll have to cook longer. I’ve also always heard that if you put acid in the cooking water – vinegar, for example, or wine, or tomato – that, too, will toughen the skins. And finally, I’ve always heard that the older your lentils (or dried beans, or other dried legumes) are, the longer they will take to cook.
As far as our curry is concerned, the recipe doesn’t call for salt, but it does call for red curry paste, which has some salt, plus acid in the form of tomato.
The other variable – the age of my lentils – is a mystery. The bag has a “best if used by” date , but that doesn’t tell me how long those lentils had been hanging out in a warehouse somewhere, either before or after being bagged. I suspect that was my problem and could be yours, too. There’s no way of knowing how old those lentils are.
Once you open a bag, though, and cook with it, you’ll have an idea of what the cooking time will be like, so you can make adjustments the next time you use it. Unlike many other dried legumes, lentils aren’t supposed to need presoaking, but if you find yourself with some particularly tough customers, consider an hour-long soak in tepid water before you cook.
The most common advice regarding lentil age is to buy your supply from a place with steady, rapid turnover so you’re not grabbing a bag that has been on the shelf for a year. You’d think that all the major supermarket chains would be good bets because of the volume of shoppers. That’s where I bought my bag, though, and I am not sure it was terribly fresh. So you don’t know.
Anyway, some storage tips, so you don’t make the problem worse. Use common sense in the grocery store and don’t buy bags that have holes or bugs or moisture or powder in them. Store the lentils in an airtight container in a cool area – but not in the refrigerator or freezer – and out of the sun. Don’t mix an older supply of lentils with a new one.
To help you keep on enjoying this little legume, read on for a roundup of some of the recipes in our Recipe Finder. And you can find more, of course, by using the search function there.