As versatile and nutritious as they are, lentils can be confusing. Even once you learn the differences in cooking times and textures among red, brown, green and black varieties, along comes something to muddy the issue.
Here’s an example. By “green lentils,” do I mean the large, khaki-colored ones, sometimes called brown lentils — or on some packages called just plain lentils? They’re the most common variety, cook in about 20 to 30 minutes and hold their shape but get nice and tender. Or do I mean the French ones, sometimes called lentils du Puy, that are smaller, darker and speckled, take longer and stay firm when cooked? (They’re perfect for salads.)
I was thinking about this, yet again, when I tried a Jamie Oliver recipe for spiced lentils and rice that unfortunately perpetuates even more lentil confusion. The ingredient list calls for dried red split lentils, but the directions ask you to employ some of the lentils’ cooking water at one point and to drain the lentils at another. Both are impossible, really, because as anyone who cooks red (a.k.a. orange, a.k.a. yellow) lentils knows, they turn to a beautiful mush during cooking, absorbing the liquid and making them ideal for soups, stews and, of course, dal. To make matters even more head-scratching, the photo of the finished dish in Oliver’s book clearly shows distinct, large green lentils scattered among the grains of brown basmati rice, curls of soft onion and wilted kale.
Just to be sure, I first tried the recipe as written, and my suspicions were confirmed: No. But in subsequent tests, when I made it with large green/brown lentils (not French), it worked like a charm. And the dish comes together in a flash, thanks to precooked, shelf-stable rice, which is getting easier to come by in supermarkets, and jarred Indian curry paste, which adds a backbone of complexity.
The recipe is from a book whose title promises a five-ingredient limit, but there are actually nine. Oliver, like many others, makes the constraint work only by exempting some staples — in this case, olive oil, water, salt and pepper. I’m giving you the accurate count because, the way I see it, clarity beats confusion every time.
2 cups water
About 3 ounces (1/2 cup) dried brown or green lentils, rinsed and picked over (do not use French du Puy)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons Indian curry paste, such as balti, tikka or tandoori paste
2 medium yellow onions, thinly sliced
8 ounces kale leaves, stripped from the stems
8 1/2 ounces (2 cups) cooked brown basmati rice, such as Seeds of Change brand
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Boil the water in a small saucepan over high heat. Add the lentils; once the water has returned to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook until the lentils are tender, 20 to 25 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium heat, pour in the oil, and, once it shimmers, stir in the curry paste and cook until very fragrant, 1 minute. Add the onions and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions have softened.
Meanwhile, chop the kale leaves. When the onions are ready, stir the kale into the onions. Scoop out 1/2 cup of the lentils’ cooking water and add it to the skillet. Increase the heat to medium, cover tightly and let the mixture cook until the kale wilts, 2 minutes.
Drain the lentils and add them to the skillet, along with the cooked brown rice. Cover and cook for 3 minutes, until the rice is heated through. Uncover, add the salt and pepper, stirring to incorporate. Taste, and add more salt, as needed.
Adapted from “5 Ingredients: Quick and Easy Food,” by Jamie Oliver (Flatiron Books, 2018).
Tested by Joe Yonan; email questions to email@example.com.
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Calories: 280; Total Fat: 7 g; Saturated Fat: 1 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 330 mg; Carbohydrates: 46 g; Sugars: 3 g; Protein: 10 g.