The ultimate protein drink


If we needed more evidence that American society is in decline, consider how little respect we give lentils. Pound for pound, these legumes quietly deliver more nutrition to more people than anything else growing on Earth. One serving of these lightweight beans  contains twice as many antioxidants as blueberries; about half your daily fiber needs; loads of folate, iron and other minerals; and more protein than any plant that isn’t soy. Being legumes, they can grow in marginal soil, and they improve the soil with each planting.

The trick to cooking lentils is to treat them more like pasta than rice. Don’t try to get them to absorb all the liquid. Instead, cook them in plenty of liquid and then strain them. But save the liquid. It may be the most important part. More on that soon.

Indian farmers produce at least 50 varieties of lentils. It’s probably not a coincidence that India is also one of the few places I’ve visited where vegetarian options are usually more appealing than their meat-based counterparts, thanks, in part, to that hot lentil action. If you’re down with animal proteins but don’t have a ton at your disposal, you can always add a ham hock or stew meat to lentil soup.

In North America, most lentils are grown in the Upper Columbia River Basin. But production is migrating east, over the continental divide and onto the northern Plains, where grain farmers are planting rotations of lentils, if not focusing exclusively on them. Being so good for the soil, the lentils themselves are almost a bonus, a byproduct of a healthy cropland system.

While lentil cheerleaders will sometimes gush about how easy it is to cook lentils, it’s not necessarily as easy to make them tasty. A thick, bland gruel that may also be too crunchy? No problem. But making lentils taste good with a palatable texture takes more finesse. Again, don’t forget that water. For some, like my friend Norman, that water is more important than the lentils themselves.

I met Norman years ago under a massive tamarind tree in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. I was there because a mutual friend had told me about Norman’s proprietary spice mix. Norman generously told me how to make his spice mix and explained how he uses it to flavor a lentil-based dish called rasam (pronounced like awesome). In giving me this recipe, Norman taught me a lot about lentil cookery.

Norman is an Indologist, aka an expert on all things India, and the method by which rasam is prepared pertains to the reason India consumes half the world’s lentils. That reason is dahl, the simple yet satisfying Indian lentil soup. Rasam is made with the water used to precook lentils before they’re cooked into dahl. It’s flavored with Norman spices, tamarind and tomato.

It all comes together into a thin, reddish-brown soup that’s full of tang and spice, balanced against the savory undertones of that rich lentil water.

Rasam is so satisfying that the lentils themselves are basically a byproduct. It’s up to the chef to figure out what to do with them, and there are many options. You could use the lentils to make dahl, of course. Or lentil hummus. Or add them to tabouli or a salad.

The last time I made rasam, as it happens, I was also boiling some meaty soup bones for a stew. So, I added the lentils to my stew, along with the usual carrots, onions and celery. As I had some of the Norman spices on my hands, I used them to flavor my meaty lentil stew.


Norman’s spice mix

  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 tablespoon coriander
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • Just a few pieces of fenugreek

In a heavy-bottomed pan, toast the seeds on medium heat, stirring often,  until browned but not burnt. With a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, grind the toasted spice seeds into a powder. Store in an airtight container.



Makes four servings

  • 1 cup red or yellow lentils
  • 8 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons oil or butter
  • 1/2 cup minced onions
  • 2 tablespoons rasam powder
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind paste or
  • Knorr-brand tamarind soup

Boil the lentils until they’re completely soft. Turn off the heat and allow to cool.

Meanwhile, sauté the onions in the oil until they’re translucent. Add the rasam powder, tamarind and diced tomatoes, including all of the juice in the can, and allow everything to simmer together. Finally, pour the lentil water into the pan of onions, tomatoes and spices. Season with salt and serve.

protein drink, lentils


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