Cinderella has to pick lentils out of the fireplace in order to go to the ball (at least in Into The Woods) and for a long time I thought to myself, “At least she doesn’t have to eat them!”
There are so many foods that people associate with “health food,” they’re anything but enticing. Lentils definitely have a prominent place on that list. (The guiltiest offender? “Nutritional yeast.” Can you think of a food with a more awful name? I can’t.) And yet, just like The Best Broccoli of Your Life changed the way we think about broccoli, Ottolenghi has a recipe for lentils that’ll shift them into the category: “Something I really want to eat!”
The trick, here, is to develop deep, dark flavor that matches the deep, darkness of the lentils themselves.
A few things: Ottolenghi’s original recipe calls for Puy (green) lentils. He also calls for cherry tomatoes that get charred along with the eggplant. I took liberties here based on what I had around. If you’re feeling unsafe, I get that; head over to Ottolenghi’s recipe, and make that.
I also changed up his technique, starting with the eggplant first, so that I could get a really good sear on it without having to worry about burning garlic or tomatoes bursting and putting too much liquid in the pan to really get anything brown.
To emulate the charred tomato effect, I drained a can of tomatoes, and squeezed a few solid tomatoes directly into the pan and let them cook until they got deep, dark brown. The bottom of the pan had great brown bits that got worked up with the white wine.
If there’s one ingredient that you absolutely must procure before making this dish, it’s Urfa Chili. Frankly, my Urfa Chili was sitting in my spice cabinet, neglected, for way too long. Here, it finally has its moment to shine: the deep, profound heat you get from Urfa Chili comes alive with the lentils.
Make this for dinner, and “lentils for dinner” will sound like less of a punishment and more of a reward. Just don’t put Nutritional Yeast on it. Nobody deserves that.
Spicy Black Lentils with Charred Eggplant and Urfa Chili
- Olive oil
- 4 Japanese eggplant, stemmed and cut into cubes You could also use one large globe eggplant and do the same.
- 1 red onion, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, sliced thin
- 1 can San Marzano tomatoes, drained, liquid discarded, tomatoes crushed by hand
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 2 cups water or vegetable stock I used water, it was fine
- 1 1/2 cups black lentils, rinsed and picked over
- 1 Tbs Urfa chili, plus more to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Sour cream, Greek yogurt, or crème fraîche for serving
- Cilantro, for garnish
Start by heating a splash of olive oil in a wide, metal skillet. When hot, add one layer of eggplant: don’t crowd the pan (you may need to work in batches). Sear on all sides, then season with salt, and set aside. Do again until you’ve seared all the eggplant (you may need to add more oil as you go).
Add more oil to the pan (a few Tbs), and add the red onion. Season with salt and fry until golden brown. Add the garlic and cook just until it starts to color. Add the solid tomato pieces, stir all around with salt, and cook until starting to caramelize. The bottom of the pan should be brown, but not black.
Add the wine to deglaze the bottom of the pan, working everything up with a wooden spoon. Add the eggplant back in, then the water or stock, and finally the lentils, plus a big pinch of salt. Stir all around as the liquid comes to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer, and cook until the lentils are completely tender, about 30 – 40 minutes. You may need to add more water or stock if the lentils get too thick.
Towards the end of its cooking time, start seasoning with the Urfa chili and black pepper. Keep adding sprinklings of both until you really taste it. Don’t be timid! This is what makes the lentils special.
Scoop into bowls and top with the sour cream and cilantro. Eat right away.
Curried Lentil Soup (Amateur Gourmet)
Lentil Soup with Sausage, Chard, and Garlic (Smitten Kitchen, featuring Gina DePalma’s recipe from my cookbook!)
Lentils with Grilled Aubergines (The Guardian, another Ottolenghi lentils and eggplant recipe)
Lentils Diavolo (Ali Slagle, The New York Times)