Here is a quick and pleasant recipe for the summer. I was inspired to make it not by some delightful salad at an event, nor by finding such a salad on the blogosphere. Rather, I was intrigued by lentils and orzo themselves. I have loved both since I was a child, and I was tickled to learn that many Jewish communities called orzo “bird’s tongues.” I also learned that the Gemara considers lentils to have “no mouth” – appropriate for mourners with “no words.”
I am not in mourning, but I decided to make something that combined the “mouthiness” of orzo and the “mouthlessness” of lentils into a heretical but nice salad. It helps that it tastes good, and can be served cold during the heat of the Northern summer.
Lentil Orzo Salad
1 cup dried black lentils
1 medium red onion, diced
2 large fistfuls fresh mint, diced
2 large fistfuls fresh parsley, diced
4oz/125g cooked corn (canned is fine)
½ cup/125g soft white cheese, crumbled up (I use queso fresco)
2 tablespoons berry-flavored jam
1 tablespoon hot water
1 tablespoon vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt to taste, parsley to garnish
In two separate pots, cook the orzo to package directions in water, and the lentils in 3-4 cups of water until they are soft. Drain, rinse with cold water, and let cool.
Mix the lentils and orzo together in a large bowl, then add the onion, mint, parsley, corn, and cheese. Mix together.
Make the dressing: Mix the jam with the hot water first, until it is liquid. Then, add the vinegar and oil and mix until combined. If you want a less oily dressing, you can add a bit more vinegar and hot water for some of the oil.
Once the dressing is blended, pour it over the salad and mix in thoroughly. Add salt to taste, and more parsley as a garnish if you wish. Serve at room temperature or cold. The salad keeps in the refrigerator for 4-5 days.
The question became then, what style do I use? Until recently, lentils were viewed as a food of mourning and famine in the Ashkenazi world, and were thus disdained until the early 20th century – though by 1938, when Fania Lewando’s vegetarian cookbook in Yiddish was published, lentils were common enough in Lithuania to appear in several recipes. A soup recipe was among them. In the Sephardic and Mizrahi realms, however, lentils were an everyday, quotidian, and celebrated food. The lentils used in the Mediterranean – and in Claudia Roden’s Egyptian recipe – were red, but brown and green lentils are more common elsewhere. And, of course, seasoning differed across the Jewish world – as well as the carbohydrate or presence of meat or dairy in the soup. There are as many Jewish lentil soups as Jewish communities.
I recently made my own lentil soup – a throwback to my grandmother’s recipe, but with more vegetables and a slightly sharper flavor than her very meaty and saltier soup. This soup is probably closest to a French lentil soup, but with Palestinian seasoning. I used the green lentils common in France, along with the very Nordic split peas and leeks in the place of onions. Leeks go well with lentils: their sharpness and vegetal flavor balance out the lentil’s starchy meatiness. Meanwhile, the sumac and za’atar add a pleasant bitterness to the soup – and the fenugreek adds an irresistible aroma.
Green lentils in a jar. (Photo mine, December 2016)
Sauteing the leeks and tomatoes. (Photo mine, December 2016)
So, what to cook for your vegetarian friends and relatives – or yourself, if you are vegetarian? There are, of course, many options, but I am going to suggest this very simple adaptation of a Indian recipe: lentils with okra. Both lentils and okra are traditional in many Jewish cuisines, and both have that wonderful ability of being very easy to cook, yet tasting like something very complex indeed. I make a simpler version of this recipe quite regularly for guests, and the contrast of the green okra chunks against the brown lentils can, with a bit of arrangement, be beautiful. The original recipe I used many years ago had a completely different spice mixture; for this recipe I used a more Middle Eastern combination with sumac and paprika.
Lentils symbolize plenty to some, but unlikeother beans in some Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, they are not actually a traditional Rosh HaShanah food. Instead, many consider the lentil to be a food of mourning, and eat lentils both during theshivafor a deceased relative, and at the traditional meal preceding the fast of Tisha b’Av. However, lentils also can and do show up on the table at joyous occasions – and perhaps, with this recipe, at yours as well.
Lentils with Okra
1 medium white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound okra, chopped into chunks*
2 tsp table salt
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp ground sumac (optional)
½ tsp ground thyme
1 tbsp white wine or rice vinegar
1½ cups dried lentils
3 cups water or vegetable stock
Olive or vegetable oil
Fresh cilantro (for garnish)
Heat a deep saucepan, then coat the bottom with oil. Add the onions and garlic and begin to sauté.
When the onions begin to soften, add the okra and mix thoroughly while sautéing.
After the okra is mixed in thoroughly, add and mix in the salt, pepper, paprika, turmeric, cumin, sumac, and thyme. Sauté for two minutes.
When the onions are significantly softer (beginning to brown under the spices), and the spices are sticking to the okra and onions, add the vinegar. Sauté for another two minutes, or until the okra begins to “look” and feel slightly softer against your mixing implement.
Add the lentils and mix in, then add the water.
Bring the mixture to a boil. Then, simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the lentils have absorbed most of the water and are soft, and the okra is soft. Stir every few minutes. (If the lentils and okra are very soft, and you still have some water left over, you can add 1 teaspoon of cornstarch or ground kuzu root to thicken the sauce.)