Little marvels: Yotam Ottolenghi's lentil recipes (2024)

If the purpose of any food isto sustain, nourish and delight, then to describe a particular dish as "comfort food" is tautologous. At the very least, it's a loose term that means different things to different people. My colleague and friend Sami Tamimi, when asked recently what his favourite comfort food was, said it's any dish that evokes a memory of childhood. It'sjust as elusive a concept for me: rather than having one particular comfort food, it's all about context.

If pressed to commit, however, I'dbet both Sami and I would answer the same. The ultimate comfort food? Lentils, every time. And the ultimate comfort dish? Mejadra, amelange of sweetly spiced rice and lentils strewn with soft, fried onion. The ingredients couldn't be humbler, but the result couldn't be more comforting or sublime.

In fact, I still find it surprising how quick people default to potatoes or pasta when an easy meal is called for. Great as those two staples are, in my book lentils are hard to beat in terms of ease and versatility. They're also kind to both wallet and gut, which is just as well after the recent excesses.

Lentils can be broadly divided into two groups. Those with large, flat seeds are the more common. They soften much more quickly than most beans and peas, and take only 20 or so minutes to cook. Unlike red lentils, which fall apart in the cooking (so making them perfect for soups), brown and green varieties hold their shape, making them a very good base on which to lay a roast bird or to sit with sausages in a one-pot stew. A pan of lentils – braised with carrots, onions, celery, hard herbs and stock – is a useful thing tohave in the fridge, ready to turn yesterday's leftover roast into a whole new meal.

The most prized lentil has smaller, more rounded seeds and so a finer texture: the slate-green French lentille de Puy leads the way here, followed by the chic black beluga and the robust green pardina from Spain. Holding their shape and holding their own, their natural nuttiness can be enhanced by the addition of nuts in a salad or with a creamy cheese dotted on top. I love them teamed with another pulse such as chickpea, or with a mix of grains.

Whichever colour you go for, lentils love to absorb other flavours: dress them while they're still warm, so they really take on any sharpness or spice that's been added. Unlike many other legumes, lentils don't need soaking, but do give them a rinse before cooking, to remove any starchy dust. If you cook them in too much liquid (water or stock), their nutrients will leach out, so, unlike pasta, which likes a nice rolling boil, use just enough to be soaked up.

Crushed puy lentils with tahini and cumin

This sustaining meal-on-a-plate isalittle bit like hummus, though much easier and quicker to prepare. With warm flatbread, I could eat thisevery day. Serves two as a main, or four as a starter.

200g puy lentils
30g unsalted butter
2 tbsp olive oil, plus extra to finish
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 tsp ground cumin
3 medium tomatoes, skinned and cut into 1cm dice
25g coriander leaves, chopped
4 tbsp tahini paste
2 tbsp lemon juice
Salt and black pepper
½ small red onion, peeled and sliced very thin
2 hard-boiled eggs, quartered

Bring a medium pan of water to a boil. Add the lentils and cook for 15-20 minutes, until completely cooked, drain and set aside.

Put the butter and oil in a large sauté pan and place on a medium-high heat. Once the butter melts, add the garlic and cumin, and cookfor a minute. Add the tomatoes, 20g of coriander and thecooked lentils. Cook, stirring, fora couple of minutes, then add the tahini, lemon juice, 70ml of water, a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of black pepper. Turn down the heat to medium and cook gently,stirring, for a few minutes more, until hot and thickened. Roughly mash the lentils with apotato masher, so that some are broken up and you get a thick, porridge consistency.

Spread out the lentils on a flat platter, run a fork through to make awavy pattern on top, and scatter on the sliced onion, the remaining coriander and a final drizzle of olive oil. Serve warm with the hard-boiled eggs alongside.

Lentils with mushrooms and preserved lemon ragout

Little marvels: Yotam Ottolenghi's lentil recipes (1)

If any of your friends say they don't care much for lentils on account oftheir virtuous, health-food credentials, serve them this and they will start questioning their convictions; add a poached egg ontop, and you are guaranteed towin the battle. Serves four.

10g dried porcini mushrooms
1 medium onion, peeled and halved
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 small carrots, peeled, one cut into 1cm dice, the other in half widthways
Salt and white pepper
175g puy lentils
¼ celeriac, peeled and chopped into 1cm dice
75ml olive oil
30g fresh coriander, chopped
1 large leek, cut in half lengthways, then sliced into 5cm chunks
200g fresh ceps, cut into 0.5cm slices
200g mixed wild mushrooms, cleaned and roughly torn
3 tbsp double cream
35g preserved lemon skin, finely diced
160g Greek yoghurt

Heat the oven to 200C/390F/gas mark 6. Soak the porcini in 200ml ofboiling water for an hour. Strain through muslin into a bowl, to remove any grit from the water, and set aside. Rinse the soaked porcini in fresh water and add them to the strained water in the bowl.

Half-fill a medium saucepan with water. Put on a high heat and add the onion, thyme, bay, the halved carrot and half a teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, add the lentils, turn the heat to medium and simmer gently for 15-20 minutes, until the lentils are cooked but still retain a bite. Drain, remove and discard the veg and herbs, and set aside.

Put the diced carrot and celeriac ina small bowl with two tablespoons of oil, half a teaspoon ofsalt and aquarter-teaspoon of ground white pepper. Spread out on a baking tray and roast for 30 minutes, until the vegetables are cooked and starting to caramelise. Transfer to a bowl, addthe lentils and 20g of coriander, and keep warm.

Put a tablespoon of oil in a large sauté pan and put on a high heat. Add the leek and a half-teaspoon of salt, and fry for two minutes, stirring, until soft and lightly caramelised all over. Tip into a bowl, add the ceps and another tablespoon of oil to the pan, and fry for three minutes, until caramelised. Tip into the leek bowl, and repeat with the wild mushrooms, then return the seared leek and ceps to the pan. Add the cream, preserved lemon and porcini and their water, turn up the heat and boil for five minutes, until thickened and reduced by half.

To serve, divide the lentils between four plates and spoon over the mushrooms. Top with a dollop of yoghurt, sprinkle over the remaining coriander and serve hot.

Little marvels: Yotam Ottolenghi's lentil recipes (2024)


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