The Bible labels Esau a dullard for selling his birthright to his crafty brother, Jacob, for a mess of red pottage. But Jacob must have been a good cook and Esau must have considered the practical advantages of good nutrition and regular meals more important than the theoretical benefits of being the older son. So Jacob became the father of nations while Esau got some bread, something to drink and his pottage of lentils. Fair trade, if you ask a lentil lover like me.
Lentils have long been a staple food in the Middle East -- where this member of the legume family is believed to have originated at least 8,000 years ago -- and other parts of the world. In India, people have been consuming lentils, or dal, in vast quantities for thousands of years. And ancient Greeks, ancient Romans and Europeans throughout the Middle Ages and later ate lentils by the ton.
Although the ancients probably did not know that lentils mixed with grains make a great high-protein meal, they did know that a dish of the two is delicious and filling.
A casserole of rice and red Egyptian lentils is the traditional version of Esau's famous pottage, or porridge. But it has evolved into a variety of dishes, with each country individualizing its version.
In Egypt, for example, I saw street vendors with glass-enclosed pushcarts piled high with kosheri, which consists of layers of lentils, rice, noodles and crisp fried onions, topped with a sauce of tomatoes and spices.
In India, I found, a meal is incomplete without dal. In one dish, khitchri (a combination of brown rice and lentils), cooks use whole or split orange lentils named chilka masur dal, which cook to a puree. Red lentils (Indian brown lentils with the seed coat left on) can take the place of orange lentils in khitchri or any other dish. Both become extremely soft, almost as if they had been pureed. And ordinary green lentils, the kind sold in the supermarket, work in these dishes, too, though they keep their shape even after thorough cooking. They can be pureed in a food processor or left whole.
Instead of rice or noodles, bulgur (cracked wheat) can be combined with lentils to form a soupy version of the historic porridge. Fried onions, indispensable to all these dishes, are added to the soup, as is a dose of cayenne pepper, to enliven what might otherwise be a bland pottage.
2 cups lentils
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon cumin
4 tablespoons oil
3 onions finely sliced
1 cup rice
Wash lentils and drain. Place in a saucepan, cover with cold water, bring to a boil and simmer 1/2 hour or until tender. Drain and reserve liquid. Season lentils with salt, pepper and cumin. Heat oil in a skillet, add onions and saute until golden and crisp. Add 1/3 of the onions to the lentils and stir in rice. Measure lentil liquid, adding enough water to make 2 cups. Stir into lentil-rice mixture. Simmer, covered, 20 minutes or until rice is tender, adding more water if necessary. Pour mixture into a shallow serving dish and garnish with remaining fried onions. Serve hot or at room temperature. Serves four to six.
LENTIL AND WHEAT SOUP
1 1/2 cups lentils
1/2 cup bulgur wheat
2 1/2 quarts water or part chicken broth, part water
salt to taste
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup Oriental sesame oil
2 onions, chopped
hot pepper sauce, optional
Wash and drain lentils and bulgur. Place in a saucepan with water, salt and cayenne pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, partially cover and simmer 2 hours. Heat oil in a skillet, add onions and saute until golden. Stir into soup and continue cooking 15 minutes. Serve with hot pepper sauce, if desired. Serves eight.