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Saturday, January 23, 2021

Making Budget Foods and Recipes User-Friendly: Quick-Cooking Lentils to Serve Warm or Chilled


Back to my weekend version of this blog -- basic frugal foods made easy. 

A lot of folks weren't raised learning basic frugal cooking skills. Instead, in their family homes of origin, a lot of foods that they consumed were what we'd recognize as convenience foods, such as boxed meal helpers. There's nothing at all wrong with that scenario. However, they now find themselves (through no fault of their own) on a very limited budget, unemployed or forced into early retirement due to this pandemic, struggling financially right now and looking for help so that they can help themselves. Enter Basic Frugal Foods Made Easy, my weekend version of this blog that goes back to the basics to help others make very delicious foods while sticking to a tight budget. Remember, once you learn a piece of information or a new skill, you own that information to use over and over again. 

Last weekend, we talked about cooking dried beans, that quintessential frugal food. I mentioned that there are some bean-like legumes that don't require pre-soaking before cooking -- black-eyed peas, split peas, and lentils. These legumes are the fast food of the bean world. They cook up quickly and can provide an inexpensive, hearty and protein-filled meal in an hour or less. And when they're prepared with aromatics (onions, garlic, herbs and spices), these legumes are downright delicious.

Today, I'm going to share one of my favorite ways to cook and use lentils. Lentils come in black, green, brown, red (orange), and yellow. The yellow and red/orange tend to turn mushy when cooked, which makes them suitable for curries and soups. Black lentils are hard to find locally, but are said to be the most flavorful and will do well in salads. Green and brown lentils keep their shape when cooked, with brown lentils being the most plentiful. Brown lentils are the ones that are simply labeled as "lentils" in your grocery and warehouse stores. They're also the least expensive of the lentils, which is what we're after with these budget recipes. 

As I said before, cooking lentils with aromatics adds flavor to a somewhat bland food. Whether you want to serve lentils chilled or as a warm dish, the addition of carrots, onions, garlic, herbs, and tomato paste to the cooking liquid elevates these legumes from a boring bean dish to a culinary delight. As with other dried beans, 1 cup of dried lentils will yield 4 adult servings, cooked. Also like other beans, don't add salt until the lentils are tender.

With some recipes, you can wash, chop, and measure as you go. With this recipe, everything comes together rather quickly. For best results, we'll prep the ingredients before cooking. Are we ready? Let's do this!

Seasoned Lentils

equipment needed:

capacity info on bottom of your saucepan

  • medium saucepan (a medium saucepan is also known as a 2-qt. saucepan. The bottom of a saucepan is often stamped with the capacity. This pan can hold 2 quarts of liquid/ingredients, but that doesn't mean you should cook 2 full quarts in this size pot, as you need some residual space for stirring and the possibility of boiling over.)
  • mesh sieve for rinsing/draining uncooked lentils
  • large knife and cutting board
  • spoon for stirring


1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup finely chopped carrot

1/4 cup finely chopped yellow onion

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 tablespoon tomato paste, unsalted

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, crushed

1/2 bay leaf, whole piece

1 cup brown or green lentils, rinsed

2 cups water

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

optional if serving as warm side dish -- 1/2 tablespoon mustard (Dijon, spicy, or yellow)

Rinse lentils. I pour the measured lentils into the medium saucepan and cover with a couple of inches of water, agitating for 2 minutes.

Drain the lentils in a sieve and set aside. Rinse the pot and dry the inside.

1/4 cup of finely diced onions
is about 3 half-slices  (thin)
of a medium onion, then diced

1/4 cup of finely diced carrot is about
 1/2 of a medium carrot, cut into
 long thin carrot sticks, then chopped

Chop onions and carrots, and mince garlic, set aside. Measure tomato paste, dried herbs and water.

Heat the saucepan over MED. Add olive oil and swirl around to coat the bottom of the heated pot. 

I add the onion, carrots, and garlic,
spread across the bottom of the pan
 before adding the tomato paste

Add onion, carrot, garlic, and tomato paste, stirring to combine. 

onion, carrot, garlic and tomato paste
mixture after cooking 3 minutes

Cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add water, lentils, and dried herbs. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 35 to 38 minutes, until lentils are tender. Remove from heat and allow to stand, covered, for 10 additional minutes.

lentils after cooking and resting 10 minutes

Remove the bay leaf. Gently stir in salt and pepper.

The lentils can be served right away, warm alongside a grain dish like rice or bread, plus some roasted root veggies, or as filling for tacos, or with pita wedges, tzatziki, and tomato wedges. If serving warm, you can stir in the optional 1/2 tablespoon of mustard for additional flavoring. Taste for seasoning then add additional salt or pepper as desired.

French Marinated Lentil Salad

Or, the lentils can be served in a chilled salad, such as the following French Marinated Lentils.

French Marinated Lentils

1 batch of above cooked  and seasoned lentils

2 to 3 sticks of celery, leaves and all, diced (reserve 1/4 cup for garnish)

Mustard Dressing (below)

lettuce cups

optional -- chives or minced shallots for garnish

Mustard Dressing (combine the following ingredients in a small dish)

2 teaspoons mustard (I use whatever mustard I have, sometimes Dijon, sometimes just yellow mustard, sometimes spicy mustard)

2 tablespoons vinegar (wine vinegar is nice, but I also use homemade herb vinegar)

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup water

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

Toss the cooked and seasoned lentils with the dressing and all but 1/4 cup of the celery dices. Garnish with the remaining celery plus chives or minced shallots, if available. Chill for 30 minutes or longer.

Serve on lettuce cups.

Wasn't this easy? I enjoyed a plate of lentil salad along with toast as a mini-lunch today -- mmmm, yummy!

According to, cooked lentils, either for serving as a warm dish or in this salad, will keep in the refrigerator for up to 7 days, making them an ideal food to cook on the weekend for easy lunches or a dinner during the week.

You can find brown lentils for under $1 a pound, sold in 1-lb bags, at stores like Target and Walmart. I buy large bags of dried lentils at our restaurant supply store for between 65 cents and 85 cents per pound. (Our restaurant supply is similar to warehouse stores like Costco and Sam's in what they carry, just no membership fee.) Each pound of dry lentils contains about 2.33 cups dry and will cook up to about 9 or 10 servings, for roughly 6 to 10 cents per serving.

The whole batch of seasoned lentils cost me just under 50 cents in ingredients, and the lentil salad cost me about 90 cents, total, for 4 large or 6 small servings. For protein content, there are about 47 grams of protein in a batch of these lentils. That's the amount of protein in over 7 ounces of cheddar cheese, or 7  1/2 large eggs, or almost 6 cups of milk, or about 11 ounces of uncooked 73% lean ground beef.

Budget-friendly lentils are simple and straightforward to cook, versatile in how they can be used, and made flavorful with the addition of aromatics in the cooking liquid. They really are a boon to a frugal meal plan.

Do you cook with lentils? Leave a comment below. I'd love to know what you think about this weekend series.

related posts:


  1. Timely post! I have slowly been adding lentils to our meals, using them in soups. I have had it intestinal issues in the past when I have abruptly added lentils to a meal plan and wanted to avoid that. Sorry for the TMI moment. I made a soup this past week with lentils and sausage and I served your bread that you recently posted. Both were well received by my family. I used the leftover bread the next day with French onion soup which I made as a date meal for my husband and me and that also worked out well and was a fun way to spend time together.

    Anyway, you answered a question for me already. I was wondering what kind of lentils I had used as the package didn't specify, but now I know it was brown lentils. Your other recipes sound tasty and would definitely be budget friendly.

    1. Hi Kris,
      Smart move to add lentils slowly. Yum, I love French onion soup. That sounds like a nice dinner with your husband.
      I'm glad I answered a question for you!

  2. We have lentils fairly often here because as you said, they are a quick cooking, good source of protein. I cook them much like your basic recipe but my son adds all kinds of things to them with different spice combinations-my favorite being curry. I'm really going to have to have him teach me the different spice combinations he uses.

    BTW, Lili, you consistently produce very good content here and I appreciate your efforts.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      Curried lentils are a great change from the usual. I'm guessing your son has become quite a good cook these past few years.
      Thank you for your kind words.

  3. Thanks for this great post. I love the series it is very helpful and I'm learning new things.

    1. Hi Nancy,
      Thank you! The feedback is helpful and encouraging.

  4. I appreciate this post. I kind of get in a rut with meals and have forgotton about lentils. I will try the dishes you just shared. Thank you Lili for sharing that information.

    1. Hi Ruthie,
      I know how that goes. I find myself in ruts with meals, too. I'm glad to have been of help.

  5. My daughter loves lentils as does my husband. They are better for his sensitive digestive system so they are a better choice than beans. I, however, am not as fond of them.

    I wondered about all the folks who use fast food as a daily choice for feeding their families and how they would fare if all the restaurants closed (pre-C) and not knowing how to prepare a meal from scratch. It wasn't long after that that "C" hit and restaurants closed to indoor eating. Grocery stores were limited but preparing home meals was essential. Your back to basics is a good reminder to learn how to get by using basics to feed families.

    I agree with L & L that your content is wonderful. I may have to try lentils again just because of this post.


    1. Hi Alice,
      I imagine it was a bit of culture shock, of sorts, for some folks to have to start cooking at home, last spring.
      Thank you for your kind words, Alice.


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