Loving lentils: Q&A with Chef Michael Smith

By: Jenny Potter

Photography by Heckbert's Studio Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by Heckbert's Studio


Loving lentils: Q&A with Chef Michael Smith

By: Jenny Potter
They’re a staple in vegetarian cooking, a source of lean protein and a truly Canadian ingredient. Lentils may not seem as Canadian as maple syrup or back bacon, but our country produces 1.9 billion tonnes a year, and our little legumes are considered the gold standard.

The high-yield pulse crop is attractive to young farmers in Saskatchewan, where 96 percent of Canadian lentils are grown, but only a small percentage stays in Canada. The rest are exported to countries such as India and Turkey, where they’re made into curries and stews. The legume is quick and easy to cook and great in warming soups during a chilly winter.

Chef Michael Smith, who has tracked Canadian lentils from field to dinner plate for his web series Lentil Hunter, gave us some insight into the uniquely Canadian ingredient.

When people think of quintessentially Canadian foods, lentils aren’t at the top of the list. Why don’t Canadians love lentils like they do maple syrup?

It’s as simple as that we’re just learning that we produce them at all; we don’t see them as a Canadian-grown product. We know we produce maple syrup. We go to farmers’ market and see chickens and apples, and we know they’re Canadian. We’re seeing a huge increase in awareness of lentils. We’re moving the needle; we’ve largely raised the awareness.

What are the biggest misconceptions about cooking lentils?

The biggest one is the time issue, partly because people think they’re like other legumes and need to soak before you cook them. If you can cook rice, you can cook lentils. They’re not a wildly mainstream ingredient, but they’re becoming more and more familiar.

What are some of the health benefits?

There’s a laundry list. Lentils have lots of fibre and protein, and nutrients such as iron, zinc and other trace minerals.

What’s the best way to introduce lentils?

A good way is dal; everybody seems to like curry. Dal is easier to make than mashed potatoes. Just put curry powder, water and red lentils in a pot and you have a pretty decent dal. Another way to incorporate them is to toss some green lentils into a soup. Start simply.

You’ve travelled around the world, searching for the best lentil recipes. What was the most inspiring use of lentils you encountered?

My favourite recipe was lentil fritters. I make them for my kids a lot because they really love them; they ask for them specifically. I love how I learned how to make those fritters: in the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

What’s your favourite lentil recipe?

I make dal for the kids a lot, too. It’s a dead-easy comfort food. I’ll tell you about cooking dal with Lentil Hunter: There I am in India, and doesn’t it turn out that I’m doing it right. I’m making dal beside a woman who makes it every day for her family, and so many of the little things she does, I’m doing it, too. I thought that was supercool.

More: 5 quick and easy lentil recipes

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Loving lentils: Q&A with Chef Michael Smith