BEIRUT: Lentils get a bad rap. They taste like very little on their own, and are known as the poor man’s meat.
However, it’s the very fact that lentils don’t have a strong flavor that makes them adaptable and gives them wide appeal, according to the authors of a new cookbook, “Lentils: Traditional and Contemporary Recipes from the Mediterranean.”
Lebanese cook Claude Chahine Shehadi and Italian cook Maria Rosario Lazzati have been making food together for over a decade. The idea for “Lentils” grew out of a curiosity about what their native cuisines share, as well as where they diverge.
“About seven years ago, we decided to try something together. We were always saying, ‘We use the same ingredients, but slightly differently,’” Shehadi said.
The friends began teaching cooking classes, calling their business Libaliano.
“We explored the cuisine in the Mediterranean and we wanted to go a bit further and try to understand why ingredients travel and why they change.”
They chose lentils because of their versatility; here was an ingredient that could fill a cookbook.
“Lentils get on very well with fish, meat, pasta and rice,” Lazzati said. “And they’re also a popular ingredient in both countries.”
Lebanese and Italians turn to local ingredients to give lentils flavor, rooting the dishes in their respective cuisines.
“The main difference is that in Europe we add herbs to flavor it while in the Middle East spices are used,” Lazzati said.
“In Europe, in Italy, they add pork – ham or porchetta – to lentils which are so low in fat, to get flavor, to give it that extra punch,” Shehadi added. “Here you use lemon, add pomegranate molasses or spices, and quite often, like with mdardara, we eat it with laban.”
The cookbook, which is available in French and English editions and is part of Tamyras’ Les Mediterraneennes series, is divided not between Italian and Lebanese recipes but between traditional dishes and contemporary dishes, which the two cooks created together.
Lazzat and Shehadi were on hand Wednesday to sign copies of their cookbook at Beirut restaurant Tawlet, as well as to present their recipes in action at a lunch buffet.
Lentils joined Lebanese favorites tabbouleh and kibbeh, while lentil and Swiss chard cake represented the Italian side.
“I love them all, I love lentils,” said Shehadi, trying to pick a favorite dish from the book.
Lazzati already had a complete meal of lentils imagined: “For salad, I like the lentil, cauliflower and orange salad. As a main dish, I like lentil moussaka, which you see today, and for soup, because I love soups, lentil and chestnut.”
One of Shehadi’s favorites is a dish she learned from an attorney during a recent business trip to Jordan.
When the Palestinian attorney heard Shehadi was working on the cookbook based on lentils, she gave her a recipe for habbet rumman, which brings together lentils, aubergine and pomegranate molasses.
“She insisted that we call it Jerusalem lentil stew,” she said. “I love it because it’s surprising finding the aubergine with lentils and the tang comes from the pomegranate molasses.”
The response to “Lentils” has been positive, though the authors admit their friends didn’t completely understand the project initially.
“They didn’t expect to have 57 recipes on one thing,” Lazzati said. “We could have even done more than the 57. We had to exclude some.”
“And it amuses people, ‘How can you talk about lentils for so long?’” Shehadi added. “But once the book was out, they were happy. I think it takes lentils from the mundane to the special.”