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Minding One's Peas & Lentils

February 18, 1988|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

Mention dried split peas or lentils to the average person and the almost instant reaction is, "Ah yes, soup! I love (or hate) split pea (or lentil) soup." And that's about the only way most of us think to use these fine but commonplace legumes.

According to Waverley Root's voluminous treatise "Food" (Fireside Books: $15.95), lentils have been in the human food chain for more than 8,000 years and peas several thousand years longer; considering that, it really is surprising that these two very basic foods aren't used more often in more creative culinary offerings in the American diet.

One reason may be that these are essentially earthy foods; foods associated with filling and more or less unexciting meals. Another may be that both of these vegetables (they actually are seeds of their respective plants), are bland in taste. They need flavor help from fellow vegetables and other seasonings, such as herbs and spices.

Even the colors of lentils and split peas seem to be against them. Ask someone what color a lentil is and you'll be told "brown," while split-pea fans will be quick to answer "green." Actually, lentils are available in several colors, including red, pink and yellow, while split peas are commonly available in green and yellow.

Because both of these legumes contain a good quantity of good-quality vegetable protein and have good fiber content, there should be a firm resolve to include them in any well-balanced, nutrient-laden diet, even if they do lack excitement. What's needed here is the touch of creativity that turns a dull dish into a popular one.

For example: Michael Roberts, chef-partner at one of Melrose Avenue's trendier restaurants, Trumps, is one of those who likes to play around with flavors and textures when he creates new dishes for his menus. A year or so ago, in doing just that, he came up with an appetizer that caused quite a bit of comment from those who tasted it. It was a variation on that very popular dip, guacamole. Roberts simply replaced the usual mashed avocados with cooked and pureed fresh peas. He seasoned the pureed vegetable with seasonings usually associated with guacamole and produced a slightly sweeter, more stable dip that found instant favor with customers.

Remembering his success with fresh peas, we used dried split peas in yet another version of the dip, a version that was voted an instant success by tasters in The Times' Test Kitchen. Our tasters not only liked the flavor, they were exceptionally pleased with the reduction of fat and the increase in protein when the pea-based version was compared to the real thing.

Other high-flavor dishes based on split peas and lentils soon followed the successful Split Pea Dip through a variety of tests in our kitchen. Thus the accompanying recipes, though based on nothing more glamorous than these two dried legumes, should delight the taste buds of any diner willing to spend a small amount of time in the kitchen preparing them. And for traditionalists, we've even included a more-or-less classic soup recipe.

SPLIT-PEA DIP

1 onion, chopped

3 tablespoons oil

3 1/2 cups water

8 ounces green split peas

1/4 cup finely chopped green chiles

2 cloves garlic, minced

Juice of 1 lemon

2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro leaves

1/2 teaspoon cumin

Few drops Chinese chili oil

Salt

6 (6-inch) pita breads

Saute onion in 2 tablespoons oil in 1 1/2- to 2-quart saucepan until tender but not browned. Stir in water and split peas. Bring to boil. Boil 2 minutes, remove from heat, cover and let stand 30 minutes.

Place pan over heat again and bring to boil. Cover, reduce heat and let mixture simmer about 20 minutes or until peas are tender. Cool slightly, then drain peas, reserving any liquid. Puree peas in food processor or blender, adding enough reserved liquid to reach desired dipping consistency.

Place pureed peas in bowl and stir in chiles, garlic, lemon juice, tomatoes, cilantro, cumin and remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Season mixture to taste with few drops chili oil and salt. Cover and chill well.

Split pita rounds and cut each half into 6 to 8 wedges. Place on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees 5 to 10 minutes or just long enough to crisp and lightly brown wedges.

To serve, place dip in bowl and serve with crisp pita bread wedges for dippers. Makes about 3 cups dip.

CHEESE AND LENTIL QUICHE

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups whipping cream

1 cup cooked and drained red lentils

1 (10-ounce) package frozen mixed vegetables, thawed and drained

Salt, pepper

Cheese Pastry Shell

Minced fresh cilantro leaves

Beat eggs until frothy, then add whipping cream and beat just until well mixed. Stir in lentils and mixed vegetables. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Pour mixture into Cheese Pastry Shell and bake at 350 degrees about 45 minutes or until filling is set. Sprinkle cilantro over top of quiche and serve warm or cold. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Cheese Pastry Shell

1 1/2 cups flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

10 tablespoons shortening

1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

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