For this week’s I•ATE post we unveil for you the secrets of one of the most delicious and ancient pulses: the tiny yet nutritious lentils!
Lentils are one of the most well-known legumes in Europe and beyond. Recent studies suggest that lentils were protagonists of the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies in the Middle East, in parallel to the domestication of cereal. Lentils, whose etymological origin is very likely to be linked to the Latin word lentus (“slow”), were also one of the main meals of Roman Centuria (military unit comprised of approximately 80 soldiers, 20 auxiliary servants). Their balanced nutrient profile together with a low glycemic index (slow absortion of carbohydrates, mainly starch) explains the love for lentils across time and space in Europe. However, in the last decades legumes in general and lentils in particular have experimented a decline in popularity, possibly due to the fact that they are often confined to traditional cooking and are not subject to culinary innovation. In this context, the 68th UN General Assembly declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, in an attempt to “heighten public awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production aimed towards food security and nutrition”.
Let’s take a look at how we prepare lentils in different European countries!
Spain is a huge fan of lentejas, which are considered to be one of the “Granny-Grandpa recipes” par excellence. In fact, Spain has obtained protected geographical indications (GPI) for at least two types of lentils (Lenteja de Armuña and Lenteja de Tierra de Campos). Traditionally, lentils are soaked in water the night before cooking them to make them soft. They are usually cooked by stir-frying some chopped onion, tomato and garlic in Extra-virgin olive oil, adding some meat (namely chorizo or morcilla) and vegetables (carrot is the most popular, but some recipes also include leeks and green/red peppers) and boiling the lentils for at least one hour with a generous amount of water. It is also very common to add a leaf of laurel to give the dish an extra touch of flavour. The result is a delicious red-brownish soup that makes the perfect choice for an Autumn-Winter meal in Spain. Some recent innovations have led to prepare a vegetarian (and less heavy) variation of lentejas, eliminating all meat products and adding other vegetables.
But lentils are also part of the Italian cuisine and can be prepared in many different ways. For example, they can be served in a soup, ragù or a stew, just to mention a few. The most common lentil dish is the zuppa di lenticchie (lentil soup) which may be vegetarian or include pork or beef, as well as sausage.
One of the most popular Italian lentil dishes is lentil soup with beef, a really rich meal ideal for the cold winter months. The following ingredients are needed: lentils, beef, onion, celery, carrots, parsley, tomato sauce, guanciale, meat broth, white wine, olive oil, some herbs and chilli pepper. The first thing to do is to simmer the lentils in water for approximately one hour. In the meantime, it is possible to lightly fry finely chopped onion, celery, carrots, parsley, guanciale and chilli pepper in olive oil. After a few minutes, the meat can be added. It should be browned on all sides before adding the white wine, and as soon as the wine has evaporated, the tomato sauce can be added. Then the mixture should be let to cook for another 45 minutes, gradually pouring in broth. The final step is to add the lentils to the soup and cook them for 10 more minutes. Herbs can be sprinkled before serving to give it a final touch.
There is one important thing you should know about the Italians and lentils. In Italy the little lentils play a very important part during New Year’s celebration. According to the tradition, lentils are served on New Year’s Eve after midnight because it is believed that their coin-like shape will bring good luck and prosperity. The dish is usually served with cotechino (a spicy pork sausage) or zampone (a front trotter of a pig, deboned and stuffed with sausage meat). This tradition originates from the ancient Roman custom of giving a scarsella – a small leather purse usually worn on the belt – as a present. Scarsellas were filled with lentils to symbolisethe wealth of jingling coins. Apparently the name lenticchie could derive from the particular lens-like shape which reminds one of a coin.
In neighboring Greece it is also possible to taste another wonderful variation of this dish: fakes soupa (φακές σούπα – lentil soup)! Traditionally, the fakes soupa could be found on the table during Wednesdays or Fridays (a custom from the Christian Orthodox) and/or during the fasting period before Easter. Of course, in general, you can eat this soup whenever your appetite or your blood iron levels demand it! Nowadays, the fakes dish is mostly linked to healthy eating & vegan recipes, rather than to religious traditions and practices. You only have to take a pot and add water, lentils, olive oil, garlic gloves (a lot), onions, chopped fresh tomatoes, bay leaves, a touch of parsil et voilà! A secret touch is to add some wine vinegar before serving, which can make the difference (also popular in Spain)! As for the Greek name for lentils, the term probably derives from the word fakos (φακός) that means lens, since lentils look like small lenses.
Finally, we cannot ignore that outside the European borders lentils are popular in a number of countries. In this case, we would like to pay especial attention to India, where dal (also spelled as daal and dahl) is very popular. Dal is a delicious dish prepared with stir-fried and boiled red lentils, onion, garlic, tomatoes, turmeric, cumin seeds, garam masala, coriander and optional diced potatoes, that can be served in the form of soup or of “dry dal”. There are several variations to this recipe depending on the region and family, but all of them are a tasty homage to lentils!
Do you know of any other lentil recipes? How do you prepare this lovely legume? We will be delighted to hear from you! Bon appetit!
Written by Doris Fernandes del Pozo – Journalist, Translator-Interpreter and Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament. She is pursuing a PhD as part of the Communication and Contemporary Information Programme of the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain); Katerina Palamioti, Translator, Social Media and Content Manager, Communication Trainee and Foodie at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament; Iris Rinner – Terminology trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament, BA in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures from the University of Sassari and MA in Specialized Translation from the University of Vienna; and Serena Grementieri – Terminology trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament, BA in Intercultural Linguistic Mediation and MA degree in Specialized Translation at the School of Foreign Languages and Literatures, Interpreting and Translation (ex-SSLMIT) of Forlì, University of Bologna.
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