I need a little structure in my life these days, especially when it comes to cooking. The initial thrill of bulk shopping and creative cooking has faded, leaving me with a vague sense of menu-planning agita that increases every time I open my pantry. Luckily I’ve developed a strategy to vanquish decision paralysis: making a really big pot of marinated lentils.
Keeping a cache of cooked lentils provides a blueprint for a full week of meals (even when the rest of my fridge is lacking). As for the marinade, pre-seasoning creates a solid base layer of flavor that can be taken in countless directions.
Although I love all lentils equally, I stick to sturdy French green or black for this scenario, which easily hold their shape to maximize repurposing opportunities. I usually pull out a cup or two of cooked lentils to use as a blank canvas later in the week. Then I add a flavorful marinade to the rest of the pot based on whatever my pantry can provide. Instead of getting hung up on specific ingredients, I draw from two essential categories: spices bloomed in oil and fruity vinegar. My salad game has never been better, and I’ve since expanded my universe:
Fry ’em up
Fried lentils are a crispy, compulsively snackable revelation that can be topped with almost anything in the fridge. Test kitchen director Chris Morocco tipped me off to the idea of turning crisped lentils into a pseudo grain bowl with quick toppings like shaved raw vegetables, grated cheese, and pickled onions, but my favorite trick might be from contributing writer Priya Krishna’s mom, Ritu, who sautées her cooked lentils in extra ginger and garlic before topping with chopped red onions, quartered cherry tomatoes, cilantro, and lime. The combination of textures and toppings turns leftovers into an entirely new dish.
Simmer into soup
This one came to me on a frantic afternoon: My blood sugar was dropping. My sandwich staples were nonexistent. When I realized I had marinated lentils and chicken broth in the fridge, I simmered the two together, floated some thinly shaved carrots on top, and grated on a pretty significant pile of parm. The lentils’ marinade infused the chicken broth with a soup’s worth of aromatics and spices, and a new go-to weekday lunch was born. I’ve since added leftover shredded chicken and silken tofu cubes to great success, but pretty much any cooked protein should work great too.
Form into lentil burgers
Impossible and Beyond burgers may have overshadowed the humble lentil burger as the designated cook out option for vegetarians, but I think it’s time for a comeback. Chris Morocco’s all-star recipe combines partially-mashed cooked lentils with chopped crimini mushrooms, white miso, smoked paprika, and grated garlic for a seriously punchy patty. But really, it’s all about the texture: a bit of frying pan action creates a lacy, crisp crust that’s contrasted by crunchy pickles, a smear of lemony yogurt, and a tangle of sprouts (for some welcome health food store nostalgia). The burgers, which can be made up to four days in advance, are ideal for using plain cooked lentils—an oily, vinegar-spiked marinade would add too much moisture.
Make a (really) quick dal
Dal is traditionally made with dried lentils, but it’s a great way to repurpose cooked lentils too. Because cooked lentils are already hydrated, start by reducing the amount of liquid by half. Keep an eye on the pot as it simmers, tasting periodically and adding more liquid if needed, until the dal is tender, not mushy.
Lentil sauce, meet pasta
I would have never thought to transform marinated lentils into pasta sauce, until I saw Anna Stockwell’s Lentil Bologenese recipe on Epicurious. She blends them into a tomato sauce enriched with harissa paste, wine, and sizzled bacon to create an earthy-sweet bolognese—then sprinkles some extra lentils over the top for added protein and heft. 10/10, would lentil again.