Lentil, mushroom, red pepper and spinach bake with crusty cheese topping, a vegetarian feast. Make sure you cook the lentils from scratch: it's better in value and not a lot of effort.
Lentils and me
When I was a kid my grandmother sometimes cooked lentil soup. I used to think it looked like mud, tasted like mud and smelled worse. I wasn’t a fan. Let’s face it: lentils used to be something weird out of the Bible or, at best, the domain of old hippie vegetarians.
But then a good few years ago I was travelling through north of Spain. It was late autumn, out of season and not exactly the Costa level of catering for hungry tourists. We ended up late one Sunday night in the city of Huesca.
It is a lovely place but clearly everyone there insisted on eating in on Sundays: there was nowhere open to grab some food. We were very tired and famished, and close to despair when after a couple of hours’ of trekking the town up and down we finally found an open eatery.
Relieved, we asked for a menu. The lady who came to take our order frowned ferociously and responded with a barrage of machine gun-fast Spanish, out of which we could only pick up ‘estofado!’ and ‘lentejas!’
Ah well: it transpired that a 'menu' was a silly North European whimsy; you got what you got. So said estofado (a Catalan beef stew) and lentejas (braised lentils) were brought to us with lashings of very decent house Rioja wine.
I must say they were the best blooming lentejas I’d ever eaten in my life. They were close to the best THING I’d ever eaten. That’s how hungry I was.
The lentils I had that night in Spain were cooked in tomato sauce but I’ve since tried cooking them in different ways. The recipe below is one of my favourites: cheesy crust on top, less soupy, with mushrooms to match their earthy flavour. Or muddy flavour, as my ten-year-old self would describe it.
Cooking lentils from scratch
You can buy cooked lentils in tins or pouches, and it certainly is a cooking shortcut. But unlike beans or chickpeas, puy lentils do not need soaking overnight and cook reasonably quickly, in about twenty minutes.
Also, dried lentils are about four times cheaper than even the cheapest tin: don’t forget they swell to about three times their volume when cooked. And you can season them better when you cook them from scratch, add herbs or use the dried mushroom soaking water as per my suggestion.
I like the vibrant colours of red peppers and spinach added to rather dour-looking pulses. They need sweating briefly beforehand, and ideally do it in an oven-proof pan, to save up on washing up.
Cheese added to the mix is optional, but I never opt out when it comes to cheese. Either way, the sprinkling of grated cheese on top of the dish is a must, for that cheesy crust.
This lentil bake can happily be made in advance, prepared and mixed, ready to go into the oven. It also renders itself beautifully to batch cooking and meal prepping: double or triple the amounts, divide it into portions and freeze, all set to be baked even from frozen (in which case double the baking time).
Any leftovers also reheat well the following day.
More lentil recipes
If you want them tomatoey, here comes: lentils and chorizo casserole, cooked on hob. You can make it as saucy as you wish.
And if you doubted if cheese goes with pulses, this will convince you. Spicy cheesy lentils bake is basically a cheese dish with a few lentils added.
More beans and pulses recipes
Crispy and spicy roasted chickpeas with grilled peppers are a wholesome vegetarian lunch or dinner as chickpeas are an excellent source of protein and fibre.
Vegetarian chilli is a bean fest, and tinned beans are allowed. Pinto, haricot, kidney, black beans are the best for chilli, or you can use a mix.
Butter beans and chorizo dish with crispy Parmesan topping, a little heat from a chilli and saltiness from anchovy are a dish fit for a king.