The Larder

Seeing Red

Three ways to cook a pantry all-star


Red lentils are one of my staple legumes. They are wonderfully cheap, cook quickly, and look so darn pretty in a jar on the shelf. When I know I have a busy week ahead of me, I will often cook a few cups to keep in the fridge. I puree them into dips, use them to add bulk to lunchtime salads, or slip them to blended soups that I know could use some extra substance and thickening.

Pre-cooking lentils takes absolutely no time at all. I typically do it while I’m cleaning up from dinner, knowing that they’ll be done long before I do my final counter-wipe. Here’s how I do it.

Four cups of lentils go into a medium stockpot (at least five quarts). Cover them with cold water and swish the lentils with your fingers. Drain and repeat twice more, until the water isn’t cloudy. Place the pot of rinsed and drained lentils on a burner add two quarts of water. Bring to a boil. Once the water is rolling, turn the heat down to medium and set a timer for five minutes. When the timer rings, taste a couple lentils to ensure that they’re just cooked through (the idea is to have lentils that hold their shape without being hard). Drain and cool. Once they’ve stopped steaming, scoop them into a large container and stash in the fridge.

With pre-cooked lentils in the fridge, you’ve got any number of options. Soup is one of my favorite ways to go. You can tuck them into carrot or sweet potato soup (the colors are perfectly complementary) or make something in which they star. I’m a big fan of the soup recipe below that pairs them with light coconut milk, veggies and a couple spoonfuls of Tom Yum Paste (cheapest at Asian grocery stores and keeps forever in the fridge). When I worked full time in an office, I’d make a batch of this soup on Sunday night and stash it in pint jars. I’d grab one each morning on the way out the door for a mindless lunch.

The curried red lentil salad is one I’ve brought to potlucks many times over the years and it never fails to transform lentil haters into legume converts. My version is lightly tweaked from the one in the Philadelphia classic, The Frog Commissary Cookbook.

The idea to refry lentils was born entirely out of necessity. While I was writing my last cookbook, there were weeks when I’d spend hours in the kitchen testing recipes, without having made a single meal. Scrounging for dinner ideas, I pulled out some cooked lentils, tortillas and cheese. Figuring them close cousins to pinto beans, I smashed them in a pan with onions, garlic and bacon drippings. Heaped on a toasted corn tortilla with a little shredded cheese, it was leftover transformation at its very finest.

Red Lentil Coconut Soup


  • 2 teaspoons coconut oil
  • ½ large yellow onion, minced
  • 3 large garlic cloves, minced or pressed
  • 1 large carrot, chopped into small cubes
  • 2 celery ribs, minced
  • 4 cups cooked red lentils
  • 1 can light coconut milk
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons Tom Yum paste
  • ½ cup chopped cilantro
  • 4 cups spinach leaves, chopped


Heat the coconut oil a medium sized soup pot (4 quarts is perfection here) over a medium high flame. Add the chopped onion and garlic and cook for three or four minutes, until they just begin to brown. Add the chopped carrots and celery and cook until they become fragrant and a bit tender, about 4 to 5 minutes.

Once the vegetables have softened a bit, add the red lentils. Stir them into the vegetables and then add the coconut milk, water (if you want to keep things simple and not dirty a measuring cup, just add one can of water) and Tom Yum paste. Bring to a bubble, cover and reduce the heat to maintain a bare simmer.

Cook uncovered for 15 to 20, until the lentils have mostly dissolved into the soup and the carrots are soft. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the cilantro and spinach.

Makes 8 cups

Curried Red Lentil Salad


  • ½ cup canola oil
  • ½ cup white wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon spicy mustard
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ½ teaspoon turmeric
  • ½ teaspoon coriander
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon cinnamon
  • 4 cups cooked lentils
  • 1 cup chopped red onion
  • ¾ cup dried currants
  • ¼ cup capers, chopped


In a pint jar, combine all spices and shake until they are well mixed. Add oil and vinegar and shake vigorously to combine. Set aside.

In a mixing bowl, combine 4 cups of cooked lentils, chopped onion, currants and capers. Stir to incorporate. Top with half the dressing and stir. Taste and add more dressing, if necessary.

This salad is best when it’s allowed to marinate for 2 to 3 hours before serving.

Recipe source: Adapted from The Frog Commissary Cookbook, by Steven Poses, Anne Clark, and Becky Roller (Camino Books 2002).

Serves 4

Refried Red Lentils


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil (for a smoky flavor, use bacon fat)
  • ½ cup chopped red onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 cups cooked red lentils
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 to 5 turns of a pepper grinder
  • Fresh lime juice, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons chopped green onion to garnish (optional)


Heat oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. When it shimmers, add onions. Cook, stirring regularly, until the onions develop some brown spots and are fragrant, about five minutes. Add garlic and stir to combine. Add lentils, cumin, salt and pepper and stir.

If the lentils appear to be sticking, add a splash of water to help things loosen. Use a potato masher to help break down the lentils as they simmer in the pan.

Once the lentils are quite tender and have almost entirely lost their individuality, taste the refried lentils. Add more salt or a splash of lime juice to balance.

Use as you would refried beans in burritos or quesadillas.

Makes 2½ cups

Marisa McClellan is a food blogger, freelance writer and canning teacher based in Center City Philadelphia. She runs a website called Food in Jars, where she writes about canning, preserving and delicious things made from scratch. She regularly writes for the Food Network, USA Today, Grid Philly and Mrs. Wages. Her first cookbook, Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round, is now available.


  1. I LOVE Lentils, nuff said.

    And refried lentils sound amazing! I had never imagined that! Marisa you rock!

    Also I had never thought to precook in big batches, pure genius! Thank you! 🙂

    • Marisa says:

      Thanks Jessica! I’m so happy that you like these ideas!

  2. Cary Bradley says:

    Brilliant. I’m a legume nut, but have never played around with red lentils. Do you think they taste like regular old brown lentils? Thanks too for the tips on you slip them into your week’s dishes. Huzzah for refries :)!

    • Marisa says:

      I feel like they’re ever so slightly less earthy than brown lentils. But honestly, they’re fairly interchangeable.

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