Lentils. Yep, they aren’t sexy. But, choose the little French green lentils (so cute,) add a little spicy Spanish chorizo (totally different than Mexican…I will explain) then top with an oozy cheese and herb-filled polenta crust, they suddenly become an exotic Thursday night dinner. My lentil-loathing oldest actually went back for more!
The Players in Spanish Lentils with Polenta Crust
Lentils, considered one of the world’s healthiest foods, come in many different varieties and colors:
- Red lentils can actually also come in hues of orange or yellow and they have the texture when cooked similar to split peas. You cook them the same way, too, until they are almost mush. These are the ones used for the Indian dish Dal.
- Brown lentils have a mild, somewhat earthy flavor. They too can range in color – from khaki green to black – the latter which is very striking to serve with a piece of roasted or grilled wild salmon. The brown lentils cook only about 30 minutes before they are tender and hold their shape well when cooking.
- Green lentils tend to be the most prized. A mottled green/brown color, they are called Lentilles Du Puy, Puy Lentils or simply French Green Lentils, which is what they are called at Trader Joe’s. They tend to be the most expensive of the lentils unless you do have a Trader Joe’s nearby where they are only $1.69 a pound. The flavor is a bit peppery (not spicy) so they are great when they will be the star of dinner or at least part of a beautiful entree. Green lentils, like the brown, hold their shape well, but they take closer to 45 minutes to cook until tender.
Now about that chorizo. Many people don’t realize there are two distinctly different types of chorizo:
- Mexican which is a fresh, uncooked sausage that is flavored with cumin, oregano and a little vinegar for tang. You will find it usually by breakfast sausage or in butcher’s case at specialty markets.
- Spanish which is a fully cooked and smoked sausage that is flavored with Pimenton (or smoked paprika) and garlic. It is sold as a dried sausage and usually not refrigerated. Look for it with other dried sausages, in the cheese department or in the ethnic foods aisle. Spanish chorizo is served by itself or simmered in red wine in tapas bars all over Spain. It is featured in Paella, the national dish of Spain, and is used to flavor many other dishes, especially those with chicken or seafood, like these mussels.
The more rustic cousin to cornmeal and almost identical (with exception to color) to grits, polenta is a blank canvas. It can be used plain, fancied up with herbs and cheese or even served for breakfast with a little maple syrup and cinnamon. It can also be used in the soft, creamy form almost anywhere you would use mashed potatoes or it can be poured into a pan and allowed to sit to make shaped polenta (my favorite way is cut into french fry shaped sticks) that is ready to fry in olive oil, bake or even grill like the beautiful grilled polenta in photo above. Available in either quick-cooking or regular versions, the typical ratio is 4 cups of liquid (milk, water or stock) for 1 cup of polenta and this will make about 5-6 cups of finished polenta but if you are wanting it to set up use less liquid to start. That said, for best results, follow the directions on the packaging since the liquid:polenta ratio could vary by brand and type.
Now, for the recipe:
- 1 cup polenta
- 3 cups water
- 1 cup milk (can use almond milk)
- 2 tbsp fresh chopped herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage) or 2 tsp dried
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1 cup green lentils
- 4 oz chorizo, quartered lengthwise and cut into pieces the size of veggies
- 2 carrots, chopped
- 2 stalks celery, chopped
- 1 small head of fennel, chopped (optional)
- ½ medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
- 3 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- pinch of red pepper flakes1 cup chicken broth
- 1 tbsp Spanish smoked paprika
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 big handfuls of spinach
- Sea Salt and pepper to taste
- Combine polenta, water and milk in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir reduce heat to low and cover. Stir occasionally to avoid sticking and lumps. Check it after 5 minutes for quick-cooking or 30 minutes for regular. The polenta should be creamy with very little bite to the polenta grains. Once it is fully cooked add the herbs, butter and half the cheese. Reserve remaining cheese for topping.
- While polenta is cooking, bring the lentils and 4 cups of water to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer over medium until the lentils are done. Start checking them at about 20 minutes. They should be slightly soft and quite a bit bigger than they were. They should not be mushy so if they are not done at 20 minutes, check them at least every 5 minutes after that until they are done. Add 2 tsps of salt to the cooking water and let them sit while you cook the veggies then drain just before adding.
- Heat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large skillet, cook the chorizo over medium high heat until crispy. Remove and leave all the rendered fat in the pan. Saute the veggies in the chorizo fat and sprinkle with a little salt. When they are soft, add the tomato paste and stir to incorporate and soften the "canned" taste of the tomatoes. Add the smoked paprika and dried chile flakes and another sprinkle of salt. Stir for a minute to season all the veggies then add the chicken broth and bay leaf. Cook for 3-4 minutes or until liquid is reduced by half. Add the spinach and stir to encourage the spinach to wilt.
- Add the lentils to the veggies and stir well to incorporate all the ingredients. Pour into a medium sized casserole pan (11 x 8 or so) and top with half the polenta, spreading to cover and make about a ½" crust. Add more polenta if you need to or if you want an extra thick layer of polenta.*
- Sprinkle with cheese and place in the oven to bake for 10-15 minutes until cheese melts and turn brown. Let stand for a few minutes before serving.