Sometimes the humblest ingredients have the most exotic histories. So it is with the lentil, whose journey to Mexico dates back thousands of years, to approximately 8000 B.C. in Southwest Asia. It traveled to Greece during the Neolithic period, and to the Mediterranean area during the Bronze Age. Along the way, it journeyed to ancient Egypt, where the seeds have been found in the tombs of pharaohs, and to Imperial Rome, where lentil recipes were presented in Apicius, a 4th-5th century cookbook that provides a look at the cuisine of that luxury loving society.
Like so many other ingredients common in Mexican cooking, lentils came to the New World with the Spaniards, and became a staple in the culinary repertoire. They are found in bulk in the mercados at the same stands that sell rice, chiles, spices and beans, and in one pound bags in the supermarkets. The most common types in Mexico are Spanish brown (pardina) lentils and large yellow ones called macachiados.
Lentils, like other legumes, are highly influenced by their companions in the cooking pot, including aromatic vegetables, herbs, spices and chiles. They have a particular affinity for pork, including chorizo, bacon, stew meat and ribs. In the Yucatan, cooks are inclined to add all of the above, and in Oaxaca, lentils are cooked with pineapple and plantains to make a sweet and savory dish that does not depend upon meat for its flavor. In Querétaro, lentils are cooked with nopales and garnished with cilantro, giving them a decidedly Mexican character.
Regional additions aside, most families in Mexico have a favorite recipe for sopa de lentejas, or lentil soup, a satisfying comfort food that, whether made with meat or not, is a popular choice, especially as the cooler weather sets in. Some versions are thicker than others, some contain more vegetables, and others rely on chiles and tomatoes to add bright flavors to what is a basically a somewhat bland taste. A pot of lentils is a blank canvas, just waiting to be embellished by a few livelier ingredients, of which there are plenty in Mexico.
And when it comes to nutrition, the lentil is a powerhouse. A one cup serving of cooked lentils provides 62% of daily fiber needs, plus significant amounts of iron, folate, B vitamins and several minerals. This one little cup also contains a whopping 18 grams of protein, comparable to a serving of T-bone steak, making lentils an excellent choice for vegetarians. And all of this comes with virtually no fat, which coupled with all that cholesterol lowering fiber, makes lentils a heart healthy choice.
The demand for lentils in Mexico far exceeds supply, with most being imported from the United States and Canada. The small, bushy lens esculenta plant produces pods, each of which contains one or two edible seeds. So, what we call lentils are actually the seeds of the plant, which are sold either whole or split. It is not surprising, given their high nutritional value, that lentils are seeds, because seeds turn out to be among the healthiest foods we can eat. (Although, unlike the biblical Esau, most people would not trade their birthright for a bowl of lentils.)
Whether purchased in bulk or in a package, make sure the lentils are dry and unbroken. Store them in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place. When properly stored, lentils should last up to a year, and cooked lentils will last for three days in the refrigerator. Unlike other legumes, lentils do not require presoaking, and can be prepared the day they are served. All that needs to be done before cooking is to spread them out on a flat surface, check for stones or debris, and rinse them in a strainer under cool running water.
The general rule for cooking lentils is to use a ratio of three cups of liquid to one cup of lentils, if cooking them separately. The amount of liquid will increase for soups, and will depend upon individual recipes and the desired thickness of the final dish. Lentils are typically used in soups and stews, and also make a very good salad. They are a staple of vegetarian cooking, in which they are often combined with rice in casseroles and pilafs.
The following recipes for lentils are from different regions of Mexico and include three vegetarian dishes and two with meat, although healthy substitutions can be made in the meat department, such as using vegetarian chorizo, a product that has been around for several years and can be found in any supermarket. The chiles can be omitted if desired, or served on the side for the chile heads. Given their versatility, ease of preparation, and nutritional bonanza, there is every reason to add lentils to just about any diet.
- Yucatan style lentil stew: Potage de lentejas estilo yucateca
- Mexican lentil soup with chorizo: Sopa de lentejas con chorizo
- Mexican Oaxaca-style lentils: Lentejas oaxaqueñas
- Mexican Queretaro-style lentil soup with nopales: Sopa de lentejas con nopales estilo Queretaro
- Lentil salad: Ensalada de lentejas