Lentils are an ancient a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine and European peasant fare, but seldom do these little legumes take the seat they deserve at the head of the table. High in fiber, protein, iron and magnesium, they are highly nutritious and have a delicious earthy flavor.
A cousin of split peas, lentils are available in a range of sizes and colors — black, white, red, yellow and green. They are readily available (try Indian markets for the more exotic kinds), inexpensive and easy to keep on hand.
As a general rule, a pound of dried lentils yields six cups cooked. Cooked lentils will keep in the refrigerator, tightly covered, for several days, and can be frozen for up to three months.
Unlike dried beans, lentils do not need to be soaked overnight, and because they cook in 10 to 30 minutes (depending on type), they are an ideal basis for a midweek meal like Sara Moulton’s delicious Lentil and Eggplant Pastitsio.
Lentil and Eggplant Pastitsio
1 cup brown or green lentils
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
2 garlic cloves, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
1 small Italian or 2 Japanese eggplants (about 8 ounces), peeled and cubed (about 2 cups)
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce (preferably fire-roasted)
1/2 cup red wine
2 teaspoons fresh oregano leaves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Freshly ground pepper
2 cups milk (preferably whole)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons Wondra or all-purpose flour
2 ounces feta cheese
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
11/2 cups (6 ounces) elbow macaroni
1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Bring lentils, 4 cups water and 3/4 teaspoon salt to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until lentils are just tender, about 20 minutes.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Reduce heat to medium-low, add onion and cook 5 minutes or until softened. Add garlic and cook 1 minute.
Increase heat to medium high, add remaining 2 tablespoons oil and the eggplant and cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes, until golden.
Stir in tomato sauce, wine, oregano, cinnamon and cayenne. Bring mixture to a boil over high, reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes, until slightly thickened. Drain lentils and stir into eggplant mixture with salt and pepper to taste.
Center an oven rack and heat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 9-inch square baking pan or shallow 2-quart baking dish. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.
Heat milk until steaming. In a saucepan, melt butter, whisk in flour and cook, whisking, for 3 minutes. Whisk in milk and simmer 5 minutes. Crumble feta into milk mixture and stir in nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste.
Boil macaroni until al dente and drain. Grate Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Arrange half the macaroni in the bottom of the baking pan. Top with half the lentil mixture and 1/3 the grated cheese. Repeat layers. Pour on feta sauce and smooth it to cover lentil mixture. Top with the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until bubbling around the edges. Makes 6 servings.
Per serving: 418 calories (45 percent from fat), 21.6 g fat (8.8 g saturated, 9.6 g monounsaturated), 36 mg cholesterol, 12.8 g protein, 42 g carbohydrates, 5.6 g fiber, 433 mg sodium.