It took me a few extra laps around the track of adulthood to find my cooking gene. My life had previously been spent trying to convince those closest to me that the bowl of cereal I poured or the eggs I scrambled was enough cooking. For everything else, there was take out — or my wife.
Even typing those words makes me feel like a tremendous schmuck. I never intended to be one of those hopelessly incompetent CBS sitcom husbands who waited on dinner from the comfort of their couch. Sure, I did the dishes, but cooking someone a meal is arguably one of the fullest expressions of love there is in life. And if there’s one thing I do share with the dopey sitcom husband, it’s that I married up. Suffice it to say, I needed to start pulling my weight with the pots and pans.
An awakening happened in my early 30s, brought on by a deep dive into my Ashkenazi Jewish heritage that fired up my culinary genes for the first time, turning me into a mad man with a skillet. Before long, I found myself constantly experimenting with new recipes and even creating my own.
Getting hands-on with my food is one of the many factors that pushed me to reconsider eating meat. Our kitchen quickly became meat-free, and neither of us have missed cooking meat ever since. We found just how versatile and delicious vegetables, specifically legumes, can be when treated with the same love, care, and seasoning as meat. Lentils, in all their savoury glory, have become our go-to replacement for minced meat.
Lentils: A baby vegetarian’s new best friend
In our household, we make Greek bolognese and pastitsio — a baked pasta dish with tubular bucatini noodles, minced meat, and topped with béchamel sauce. These are important dishes to my wife’s Greek-American family where Aunt Tula from My Big Fat Greek Wedding is regularly quoted. “You don’t eat no meat!? That’s OK. I make you lamb.”
A permanent ban on pastitsio wasn’t an option. At the same time, these aren’t dishes where you can simply drop the meat. You need a replacement — and it doesn’t need to be some highly processed concoction trying to simulate meat. Lentils will more than do the job.
If you’re a baby vegetarian, or someone who is simply trying to reduce their meat consumption, lentils will be your new best friend. Of course they can stand out in a number of dishes on their own — lentil freakin’ soup comes to mind — but they also work as a tasty substitute for the minced meat we’d find in a traditional pastitsio.
We learned the technique in a vegetarian moussaka cooking class. Moussaka is similar to pastitsio in that it’s a layered dish, usually eggplant and/or potato, with minced meat. Our instructor, an Albanian-Greek woman named Klara, showed us how to substitute the meat with a savoury helping of cooked lentils.
How to use lentils for your minced meat replacement
The technique is simple: Treat your lentils with the same care you would minced meat. Sauté them in your cooking oil of choice for a few minutes over medium heat (usually extra virgin olive oil for us), season them with your spices, and add two cups of liquid for every cup of lentils (ideally vegetable stock). Bring the pot to a boil before lowering to a simmer with the skillet or pot mostly covered.
Check after about 10 minutes for the consistency of the lentils. If you’re going to add them to a typically meaty dish where they’ll bake in the oven, like pastitsio, then you’ll want to stop cooking them a few minutes before al dente. Otherwise you risk baking them to a mush. If you’re making a bolognese-type sauce, then remove from heat once you’re happy with the bite of the lentils.
Greek cuisine may have been our inspiration for using lentils, but they can be used throughout the culinary and cultural spectrum. (Though we do have a go-to vegetarian pastitsio recipe you might want to start off with, featuring a layer of lentils seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, and oregano.)
Put your lentils in stuffed tomatoes, peppers, a spicy stir fry, shepherd’s pie, lasagne — the possibilities are limitless.