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Ease your way in to autumn with lentils

Updated: 2013-09-28T12:53:44Z

By TYLER FOX

Some ingredients are made for glamour and some are simple staples that find use day after day.

A gentle dollop of Beluga caviar from a carved bone spoon is sublime on the tongue to be sure, but the joy is as much in its rarity as its flavor.

Much more practical are those ingredients that offer a bevy of ways to be eaten with a cost as comforting as their taste. Lentils are just such an ingredient.

The lentil is that most humble of foods, a small but power packed little legume found in many cuisines but rarely in the glare of the spotlight.

Like many of its brethren in the bean family, it is an inexpensive staple food fortified with an arsenal of nutrition under the guise of simple filler for soups, salads and such. Lentils are loaded with protein, amino acids, soluble fiber, vitamins and minerals like iron, providing a nearly complete source of essential healthy components to a balanced diet.

Grown in many countries around the world, lentils are a truly global food. From the dals of India to the salads of France, lentils are cheap and readily available to many cultures and economic backgrounds throughout the world.

Would you believe that Canada is actually one of the planet’s great exporters of lentils, thus disproving the idea that only stand up comedians, affordable health care and amazing bands come from Canada?

So why does a multifaceted food like lentils not find the same adoration and Internet “inksploitation” that other darling ingredients like quinoa or Goji berries enjoy?

Perhaps a small bit of the lack of appreciation for the lentil lays in the very simple flavors of its differing varieties. Lentils have an earthy but basic taste profile. Whereas this can be misread as boring to some, I view it as a prime candidate to combine with stronger, more pronounced flavors.

Be they of the many tastes of an Indian curry or the stout, smoky backbone a rasher or two of bacon can give them during cooking, the lentil is an ingredient that can take as much flavor as you can give it.

Befitting a food that served as basis for the word “lens,” lentils come in a variety of colors, each with a unique texture and slight alteration in cooking time. Red lentils are small and brightly hued orange and red appearance. They break apart during cooking, making them ideal for soups and softer, pureed dishes.

The brown lentil is the most widely available in America, basic and mostly holding its shape during cooking. It’s cheap, hearty and quick to prepare. Like all lentils, it doesn’t require any soaking prior to cooking like many beans and legumes.

Green or French Puy Lentils and Black lentils take a slightly longer time to cook, but hold their shape very well. This makes them a perfect component to add in salads or meat and grain dishes where the toothsome bite and shape of the lentil can be more greatly appreciated.

As autumn has arrived and temperatures are trending ever downward, our appetites begin to slowly shift with the season. We crave the soothing flavors of warming comfort foods.

This soup is a perfect bowl to accompany the seasonal transition. Aided by the brilliantly humble lentil’s hues of red, green and brown echoing the changing leaves, it welcomes and fills with all the comfort of a well-worn autumn sweater.

The “Colors of Fall” Red Lentil Soup with Black Kale and Pickled Pear

This vegan recipe uses a mix of textures and flavors from the colorful variety of lentils that serve as its base. Almost like squinting from afar at a forest in fall, their colors blend and blur into a harmonious and comforting soup bowl.

The red lentils collapse and thicken the soup, while the brown, green and black lentils hold much of their form and give a lovely bite. The exotic fragrance of Garam Masala helps to elevate the hearty, simple lentil flavor while coconut milk and the combination of kale and pickled pears help add sweet, fresh notes to finish.

A bowl of this soup and a small salad are a simple, healthy and satisfying dinner to delight even the meatiest of eaters on a pleasant autumn evening.

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 yellow onion, fine dice

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons garam masala

1 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon coriander seed, toasted and ground

2 teaspoons tomato paste

1 cup Red Lentils

1/2 cup French Puy lentils (or any green lentil)

1/4 cup brown lentils

1/4 cup black lentils

7-8 cups vegetable stock (or water)

1/2 cup coconut milk

1 bunch black kale, stems removed and sliced thinly

1/4 cup Marcona almonds, chopped

2 Bosc pears, under ripe, cored and sliced thinly, sprinkled with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon sugar

In a large stock pot on medium heat, add olive oil sauté the onions and garlic 4-5 minutes, until they begin to caramelize. Add Garam Masala, turmeric and ground coriander seed, cooking another minute until the spices become fragrant. Add tomato paste, stir and let cook another minute.

Add lentils and stir to coat the lentils in bloomed spices, cooking another 1-2 minutes. Add 7 cups vegetable stock and bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook 30 minutes, checking and stirring every 10 minutes or so. The red lentils will soften and break apart, while the others will hold their shape for the most part. Add more stock, 1/2 cup at a time, if it appears soup is too thick.

To finish soup, stir in coconut milk, ladle into bowls and top with a small bundle of sliced kale, almonds and a few strips of the pear. Finish with a drizzle of good olive oil.

Tyler Fox, personal chef/event caterer who emphasizes ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking philosophy as well as vegan and local/farm to table foods.

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