Friday, May 8, 2015

Spiced Red Lentils


In my last post, I shared about what I had learned from writing a research paper on the multifunctional spice turmeric and its many potential medicinal uses. Today I thought I'd share a real-life example of how to incorporate turmeric into your diet. (Because turning research into dinner always sounds like a good idea.) This red lentil side dish was a real sleeper hit at our house. It's a classic example of don't-judge-a-book-by-its-cover--I mean, how often do we expect something that looks like a pot of rust-colored mush to turn out to be full of restaurant-quality deliciousness? Not often, yes? But that's just what happened the night we gave this recipe a try. 

As for myself, I would never have started cooking with lentils if it hadn't been for a half-finished bag my vegetarian brother left at our house after one of his visits. Being a neurotic food-user-upper, I knew I had to find a purpose for the remaining legumes in the bag. But how to do so was kind of a mystery to me, because prior to that, my only mental associations with lentils had been the following: 

1.) Thinking of them as "those tiny beans that people from other countries eat" (my inner 'Murica coming out)

and

2.) The line in the musical Funny Girl: "When a girl's incidentals are no bigger than two lentils, well, to me that doesn't spell success." (Don't tell my husband that quote or he's gonna start using it about me).

So figuring out how to cook and serve lentils was a real education. And as it turns out, a useful education, since turmeric is such a health-beneficial spice. (Again, see that last post.) As discussed in that post, turmeric is best absorbed by the body when paired with black pepper. This red lentil dish does so with a 2:1 ratio of turmeric to pepper. 

Looks like they like each other. Turmeric and pepper, sittin' in a tree...

In my research, I found out that a typical amount of turmeric in the dietary supplements people take to experience its health benefits is between 400 and 600 milligrams. With this in mind, I was curious--how much benefit would be gained from eating this red lentil dish with only a 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric in it? A half teaspoon doesn't sound like a lot. Would it be at least the same as one dose of turmeric in supplement form? To find out, I had to do a little finagling involving my food scale. Since a teaspoon is a measurement of volume and milligrams are a measurement of weight, they don't convert. The half teaspoon had to be weighed to determine how its content might compare to a supplement. 

See, honey, that food scale is good for something!

The verdict? One half teaspoon of turmeric is equivalent to 2 grams (my spoon weighs 18g--don't get too excited), or 2,000 milligrams. So if you ate the entire batch of spiced red lentils (good for you in the turmeric department, bad for you in the bathroom department) you would get a whopping five times the capsule amount. But if you, like a normal person, eat a regular serving--say, 1/5th of the recipe--you'll get about as much as if you took one turmeric supplement. As someone who would rather eat than take a pill, I call that good news. While I don't expect it to keep me from getting cancer, it's a nice way to incorporate a health-beneficial spice into my diet from time to time. Maybe over the long term, it will work some magic.

But I digress. The important thing is mainly that these lentils are incredibly, aromatically delicious. Served with a tortilla-crusted tilapia and a drizzle of red pepper-shallot aioli, they were HEAVEN. My husband talked about this dinner for days afterward. I could also see them pairing well with grilled chicken or pretty much any Indian dish. Give them a try even if you think you don't like turmeric--your taste buds and your health will thank you.

Spiced Red Lentils
(Adapted from Myrecipes.com)

Ingredients:

2 Tbsp. butter
1/2 onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
28 oz. chicken or vegetable broth
1 1/4 cups red lentils, thoroughly rinsed
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/4 tsp. black pepper
salt to taste

Chopped basil for garnish, if desired

Directions:

1. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté about 6 minutes or until onion is tender. Add broth, lentils, turmeric, cumin, and pepper.

2. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lentils are tender and have absorbed the broth. Season with salt to taste and garnish with basil, if desired.

Makes 5 cups.

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