bacon or ham trimmings, as well as lard or bacon grease for sauteing the vegetables. And like the good Cuban cook she is, for years my Mom made this dish with lard and/or a bit of ham. But occasionally she would use Spanish olive oil instead, and the lentils were every bit as delicious but with a slightly lighter flavor (and definitely a lower fat and calorie count).
Like my Mom, I use ordinary brown lentils. I suspect that Cuban lentil recipes trace their origins back to Spain's rustic "Lentejas con Chorizo" (lentils with chorizo sausage), although my Mom never added chorizo to her lentils.
My version below of my Mom's Cuban lentils is made with olive oil, making it ideal for vegetarians. For a richer and more authentic dish, you can substitute lard or bacon fat for the olive oil, and you can also add a little diced cooked ham, sliced chorizo or crumbled bacon to the lentils when you stir in the cooked vegetables. Either way, the end results will be irresistibly tasty, and any leftovers will be even more flavorful the next day.
Serve the lentils over hot cooked rice (white is traditional in Cuba) or quinoa if you prefer, and drizzle a little bit of extra-virgin olive oil as a garnish if desired (also a an authentic Cuban touch). If you start the rice cooking right before you start the lentil recipe, both will be done at the same time--and in under 30 minutes. My recipe serves 2 as a main dish, or 4 as a side dish. You can certainly double the recipe to feed more, or tweak the seasoning amounts to suit your taste buds.
1 cup dry lentils
2 cups water
1 small bay leaf
1 Tbs olive oil
1 small onion
1/2 green bell pepper
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1/2 tsp salt (or to taste)
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
Hot cooked white rice for serving
Pick through the lentils to remove any debris, then rinse well under running water (I use a fine-mesh colander). Combine lentils, water and bay leaf in a medium saucepan or small pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer, stir and cover. Cook over low heat until lentils are tender but still holding their shape, about 20 minutes--there will still be some liquid in the pot.
While the lentils are simmering, finely chop the onion and bell pepper (I pulse a few times in my food processor together with the garlic cloves). Heat the olive oil over medium heat, then add the chopped vegetables and saute until very tender and translucent. It's ok for the onion to start turning a little bit golden, and the vegetables will be ready around the same time as the lentils.
When the lentils are tender, drain off a little of the liquid if they look too soupy, then stir in the cooked veggies, oregano, salt and pepper. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook an additional 5 minutes or longer if you prefer a more tender dish (I like my lentils a little on the al dente side, but some folks prefer them a little mushier). To serve, discard the bay leaf and ladle the lentils over hot cooked rice, finishing with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil if desired.
PS: Lentils come in a variety of colors and sizes, with a range of flavor and texture differences among the them. Lentils are an inexpensive and versatile legume that are rich in
protein, fiber, iron and other important nutrients. Unlike other
beans, lentils don't require soaking before cooking, making them an ideal choice for busy cooks. Their earthy
flavor pairs nicely with all sorts of seasonings, from tomatoes and
Italian herbs to Indian or other curry spices, as well as Caribbean
ingredients or more subtle French flavors.
PPS: If you'd like to try more of my Mom's (and my own) Cuban recipes, simply search this blog for "Cuban recipes," or visit my Cuban Recipes board on Pinterest.