Claiming the lentil

Last Thursday we had a potluck with the Up With People folks and all the host families. It was a standard North American potluck—pasta, pizza, and donuts and hardly any vegetables or whole grains. I couldn’t complain too much, though, since my two contributions—I took this and this—didn’t help boost the green factor.

The good thing was, most people ate like North Americans (sorry to be so negative, fellow Americans, but when it comes to food, we have A Problem)—this means that even though I was at the end of the line, the salads were mostly untouched. There was also this bland looking casserole dish—a mound of white rice on one half and a mound of dry-looking brown lentils on the other—of which I, expecting the worst but trying to be responsible nonetheless, took a small serving.

Back at my table I tasted the lentils and promptly turned to a stranger lady sitting beside me, jabbed my fork in the air, and exulted mightily, “Oh my word! These lentils!”

“Yes, I know,” she said. “I had some of them and they are good. I want to know who made them.”

As soon as my plate was empty, I went back for seconds of lentils. So did the stranger lady who, I learned, was named Susan. Then we sat back down, elbow to elbow, and began scrutinizing our lentils, taking small bites and murmuring to each other: Vinegar? Yes. Sugar, of course. Fruit juice of some sort? Apple or pineapple? Yeah, I think so. Onions? Yes, we can see those.

We sighed happily, “We have got to get the recipe.”

Our husbands, sitting across from us, shook their heads. Please don’t, they whimpered. Susan’s husband couldn’t eat lentils for health reasons and my husband, well, you know all about how he feels about lentils.

When I went back for thirds, another woman was helping herself to the lentils. “Did you make these?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “But I’d like to know who did.”

It came time to leave. We gathered up our dishes and kids and started moving towards the door, but when we came to the table of food, I stopped. “You go on,” I said to my husband. “I want to see who claims the lentil dish.”

And then I spied my midwife standing off to one side with her family and I knew immediately that she was The One.

Because it’s a common known fact that all midwives live on lentils and herbal tea.

“Melanie!” I called. “Did you make the lentils?”

She nodded and I pounced. “What’s in them?” She rattled off the ingredients: brown sugar, vinegar, apple juice, onion, cloves. “The recipe is from the More-With-Less cookbook,” she added.

I was dumbstruck. I had the recipe for this incredible dish at my fingertips for my whole entire life and didn’t know it? Holy freakin’ cow!

I thanked Melanie, pointed her out to Susan, and then scurried out to the car.

Last night I made the lentils for supper. I asked my husband, in Spanish so the kids wouldn’t understand, what he thought of the lentils. Eyes all shifty and downcast, he mumbled sheepishly, “They’re good.”

Need I say more?

Sweet and Sour Lentils
Adapted from More-With-Less Cookbook

You may use beef broth or water in place of the chicken broth. Also, I suspect that this would be wonderful with maple syrup in place of the brown sugar.

Updated January 2019: to a double batch of lentils I added two dried lemons. Used less of vinegar (a couple splashes) and brown sugar (a couple scoops), and added a scoop of caramelized onions along with the regular ones. Before serving, I stirred in a handful of chopped dates. Served over rice, with kalamata olives and feta. Yum.

1 cup lentils, rinsed
1 bay leaf
2 ½ cups chicken broth
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup apple juice (or pineapple, peach, or pear, etc)
1 teaspoon salt
1 pinch ground cloves

Simmer the lentils and bay leaf in the broth for 20-30 minutes, or until tender. In a separate kettle, saute the onion and garlic in the butter till translucent.

Remove the bay leaf from the lentils and stir in the sauteed onion and the remaining ingredients. Heat through, taste to correct seasonings, and serve over rice.

Yield: 6 servings

This same time, years previous: lemon squares, blessing hearts


  • Jess H.

    Not sure what the original tastes like, but I took your suggestion and used maple syrup instead of brown sugar and also subbed tamarind juice for the apple (it was what I had on hand!)…DELICIOUS. Never thought I'd rave about lentils.

  • Kimberly

    I've had a jar of lentils for awhile not knowing what to do with them. They are now on the stove and the house smells wonderful…I have never eaten lentils even, so we'll see!

  • Anonymous

    Made them for supper the next night. Husband said they were good (although I noticed he didn't go back for seconds). He isn't really thrilled with that legume. Too many undercooked ones on the Appalachian Trail. 🙂 I really liked them. Zoe, when serving a "healthy" entree like that I follow up with an extra yummy dessert. I think it was warm apple pie that night. Helps husband's attitude about the whole meal! 🙂


  • Camille

    Okay…I've copied this recipe along with your hashbrowns…soooo looking forward to trying them out. I *love* your recipes! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  • Zoë

    I made the lentils. Here are the stats from my family:

    Brad: had seconds
    Me: LOVED them
    Jada: liked them well enough
    Tage: every bite came back out 🙂

  • Mama Pea

    We just 10 minutes ago finished our dinner of lentil soup with chunks of sweet Italian sausage. We LOVE lentils.

    Strange thing . . . my copy of More-with-Less Cookbook is well used, but I've never made the Sweet and Sour Lentils. Why??

    I throw a couple/few bay leaves in with my bulk bags (stored in friction top covered metal cans) of grains, legumes, rices, etc. and that really helps keep away the bugs.

  • Starr

    This sounds delicious and I'll be making it in the next couple of days. We are a big lentil family, although I usually just make Fakes.

    Sometimes, grains come with the bugs already entrenched in the bag…we just can't see them. Happens with flour a lot, too. Then they grow and grow while the bag sits unused.

  • Zoë

    Swiss chard, definitely. I've been throwing leaves of the stuff in everything lately. Guess I feel I need to get as much out of the garden as I can before it turns to a pile of frost-bitten mush!

  • Jennifer Jo

    Zoe, I've been thinking that sausage would be good with this, or bacon. And how about some chard, too? I've been thinking about these lentils all day. Might just need to set some a-simmering…again.

  • Zoë

    I know, I know. I was just having some fun with ya 🙂

    Maybe I should do like you and make these with white rice for Brad. It might help persuade him. I think I'll also serve some sausage on the side. He's always a bit wary of pots of legumes. We'll just have a high protein meal that evening.

  • Anonymous

    Upon purchasing your rice, put it in a jar and seal it up with the Food Saver machine. No more bug invasions.

    I'll be making those lentils tonight. You make them sound so good. Makes me wonder why I always avoided that recipe.

    Aunt V.

  • Jennifer Jo

    Zoe, Good point. But no one (but me) really likes brown rice and I didn't want to ruin the chance of success by tainting the lentils with brown rice. Besides, my bag of brown rice went all buggy on me and I had to feed it to the chickens so there was no brown rice in the house.

    Suburban Correspondent, I think pineapple would be fine…unless your family is sensitive to textures. Isn't crushed pineapple a little stringy?

  • Zoë

    So you poke fun at the American pot luck at which you find hardly any whole grains and then you serve your delicious lentils over white rice?!

    I will keep this recipe in my arsenal labeled, "Things to Make When Brad is Not in the House." 🙂

  • Karen

    I was just thinking I needed to dust off my More with Less cookbook. I have a feeling my crew will be less than enthusiastic, but by your description I think I would love this dish.

  • teekaroo

    Thank you! My husband always reminds me that he likes lentils, but the one time I tried it, they were awful. Now I have something to try.

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