Simple Moroccan Lentils

March 7, 2013

I am posting today so that I secretly have an excuse to share this super exciting food discovery:  a farm on Vancouver Island (in fact, right here on the Saanich peninsula) grows lentils!!! I know, right? WAY more exciting than all this local wheat taking up the headlines.

Until now, there have been very limited sources of vegetarian protein for the locavores of Vancouver Island, which makes these affordable lentils from Saanichton Farm an awesome addition to our local diet. But, more importantly, now we get to enjoy the lovely flavour and creamy texture of really fresh lentils!

This is a big deal, and I’ll tell you why.

Most supermarket beans and lentils are old, more than a year away from harvest. Which means they lose flavour, texture, and ease of cooking. Tough skins, slightly bitter flavour and mealy texture are only some of the sins you will, or have already, encountered with store-bought beans. It’s like the rancid nut problem all over again.

Local lentils grown on Vancouver Island
Saanich-grown lentils

Many years ago, while travelling in Cuba, I had the luck to be offered a simple farmhouse meal of pinto beans and rice, cooked by the farm wife from her new crop of dried beans (new crop in this case meant beans that had been grown and dried within the last season). The beans were prepared very simply – basically, cooked with some salt and a bit of garlic – and they were an absolute revelation. Creamy, nutty, full of hearty bean flavour, her simple simple pinto beans put all my professional vegetarian cooking prowess to shame.

I have since had occasion to try some locally-grown (i.e., really fresh) beans, mostly from the lovely gals at Saanich Organics, and they are always so so good, just on their own, so much so that I have developed a decided distaste for supermarket (or even health food store) dried beans and lentils.

(Full disclosure here: Jill Rashleigh from Saanichton Farm actually gifted me my first bag of lentils to try out at one of my Local Harvest cooking classes. I think she really did this the spirit of good drug pushers everywhere: the first hit is always free :) Now I am addicted and have bought several more bags. Despite my free bag of lentils, if I didn’t love them, I would not blog about them.)

bowl of local spiced lentils

Anyway, this brings me to my Moroccan Lentil recipe. I have cooked the Saanichton lentils in various ways: in soup, as a mash, in dahl, etc. All delicious. But it occurred to me that I have yet to post a Moroccan recipe. Shameful – I have been back from my trip for over a year!

One of my favourite meals in Morocco happened as we drove through the Atlas Mountains. We stopped at a Berber restaurant and ate lamb kefta (meatballs) accompanied by this:

Lentils in Morocco

Lentils in Morocco

I enjoyed those perfectly-cooked, delicately-spiced lentils as much as anything else I ate in Morocco (and that is saying something!). This recipe is my homage to both that pleasant memory of lentils eaten in Morocco and to the lovely lentils grown locally in our very own peninsula. (However, you can use regular supermarket lentils to good effect)

Serves 4.
This recipe is relatively quick to make for a bean stew, and provides an excellent exotic flavour without having to toast and grind your own spices. Even though the list of ingredients is long, this is quite simple to make.
You may want to reduce the amount of cayenne if making this for children.

Local lentils are available at Niagara Grocery, Cook Culture, The Root Cellar, Dan’s Country Market, or directly through Saanichton Farm.

Cooking Tips:
1) this recipe will work with regular supermarket lentils, or fancier lentils from a deli. Choose brown, green, or black whole lentils.
2) If you would like to add vegetables to the lentils, add 1 cup diced hard vegetables (i.e. carrots, green beans) about halfway through the cooking. This variation will require the extra 1/2-cup of water for sure. Or, stir in some finely chopped spinach when you add the herbs and lemon juice.

 spice mix
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp ground dry ginger
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp cayenne
¾ tsp salt, or more to taste

4 Tb olive oil
1 tsp whole cumin seeds
1 small yellow onion, peeled and diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
spice mix, above
1 cup finely chopped or pureed tomatoes (canned or fresh)
2 to 2-1/2 cups water
1 cup whole brown- or green-skinned lentils, rinsed
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 Tb fresh lemon juice, or more to taste
¼ cup minced fresh parsley
¼ cup minced fresh cilantro

To make spice mix: mix together the ingredients in a small bowl until well-blended.

To make lentils:
Have all your ingredients measured, chopped and ready to go before starting the cooking part. Heat a medium-sized pot over medium-high heat.  When hot, add olive oil and whole cumin seeds.  Let cumin seeds sizzle for 10 or 15 seconds, then add the onion and  sauté, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent all the way through and turning golden in spots.  Add the garlic and sauté for about 15 seconds, until fragrant.  Add the spice mix and stir vigorously for a few seconds, until everything has been coated in oil. Immediately stir in the tomato and salt and turn down the heat to medium low. Let simmer for 3 to 5 minutes, until oil starts to pool on the surface – a very important step to bring out the flavour of the spices.

Add the water (start with 2 cups) and the lentils.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes.  Remove lid to check the progress of the lentils. (Very important – while you are checking the lentils at this stage, stir in the lemon zest.) The lentils should be fully cooked, but still hold their shape, and most of the water should be absorbed. If the lentils look dry, add a bit more water. If the lentils look too wet, remove the lid for the last few minutes of cooking. (I also find it’s helpful to let the lentils sit, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes to absorb any excess water and finish softening up without over-cooking or getting mushy).

When the texture and cooked-ness of the lentils are to your satisfaction, stir in the fresh lemon juice and the minced cilantro and parsley. Taste to adjust the seasonings before serving.  The stew may need more lemon juice or salt.

Serve immediately, ladled over hot rice or couscous.  Sprinkle each serving with more minced cilantro or parsley, if desired.  For kids, place a generous dollop of yogurt on top or on the side, to cool some of the cayenne heat.

The lentil dish keeps in the fridge for at least 4 days and freezes beautifully. I sometimes make this as a side dish to kebabs and freeze the leftovers in 3/4 up amounts for lunches in later weeks.

Comments (24)

  1. Hi Heidi! Funny, I just found out about this local lentil source from a friend at work (the growers are friends of hers). I, too, was so excited! I cannot wait to try them. Have you heard of Rancho Gordo? They are located in California and sell heirloom beans among other interesting things. They even do a yearly trip down to Mexico with a small group to check out the bean growers’ farms and to expose their guests to some local cooking involving their beans (what a great trip that would be!) I’ve been wanting to try Rancho Gordo beans for some time and am tempted to sign up for their “Year of Beans”. I mention Rancho Gordo because their beans are supposed to be incredibly fresh and flavourful, unlike the old, disgusting supermarket beans you mentioned above. If I try them I’ll let you know how they are! And thanks for post on Rancho Vignola. I’m expecting a delivery from them on Monday or Tuesday. Looking forward to fresh, non-rancid nuts :-)

    1. Hi April, I’m going to check out Rancho Gordo right now! Thanks for the tip. Fresh beans are really a world away from old ones. Let me know how you like your Rancho Vignola nuts.

  2. Heidi,

    Just made these last night (fantastic!) and am eating them for lunch as we speak. I was wondering about adding chicken to this? How would you adjust the liquid levels for that? Chicken would be a fantastic addition. And you’d likely add the chicken after the spice mix?

    These lentils are to die for – fully worth seeking them out and the extra money.

    1. Hi Susan, it would depend on what kind of chicken you are using. For instance, bone-in thighs will take more time than chopped boneless thighs, which will take more time than sliced breast. I would be most inclined to use some chopped boneless thigh and add it after the first 10 minutes of cooking. You would not need to adjust the liquid in that case, because chicken thighs give off liquid as they cook.
      If using breast, thinly slice the breast and add it towards the end, in the last 10 minutes or so of cooking.
      Finally, probably the easiest thing to do is to pull or slice some leftover cooked chicken and add it to the dish the next day, as if for a yummy lentil salad.
      Let me know how it works out!

  3. Made these lentils recently (with non-local lentils, as I’m trying to use things up) – and they are wonderful and freeze really well too. Thank you for the recipe!

  4. I’m so happy to hear we had lentil growers right here on the island. I’m always looking for more delicious lentil recipes and I can’t wait to try this one :) yum!!

  5. I just discovered the Saanichton lentils the other day at Aubergine market in Fernwood. And they are really delicious. Going to try this recipe next!

  6. Hi, if i want to make a big batch using 2 cups of lentils do i double up on the spice mix, and can i use lime instead of lemon aswell as the lime zest?, please let me know

  7. This has become one of my favorite dishes. And that’s saying a lot, as I’ve always hated eating lentils. I’ve made it multiple times over the past month and have doubled or tripled the recipe because if you’re going to chop, you might as well chop!! I’ve made this to share with various family and friends and all have commented on how delicious it is. It’s gotten to the point where when I offer to make a group dinner, it is the most requested. And I used the really cheap generic plastic bag lentils from the super market! I need to order the fresh to up my game.
    Thank you so much for sharing this recipe. It is a game changer for me and will be in regular rotation heading into cozy food weather.

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