What the heck is a lentil?

This post is part of my “Reformed Carnivore” week: a discussion of how this former meat-eater started focusing on a more plant-based diet in order to cut back on the footprint created by my family’s eating habits.

If you missed it, click HERE to read why and how I got started!

And click HERE for my post about chickpeas.


A few years ago, the only thing I knew about lentils was that some restaurants served something called “lentil soup.” I couldn’t have told you what they looked like, what they tasted like, or what they were.

And I wasn’t really interested in finding out.

I’ve never been a brave eater. During the toddler phase, kids develop an aversion to “weird” foods that they aren’t already familiar with. It’s the chicken nugget phase, when everything else is suspect and probably disgusting. Well, in some ways I got stuck there. Trying new things was not part of my dining experience. If I didn’t know what something was, I just assumed it was probably gross and weird, and decided to stick with what I knew I liked.

But here I am, writing a post about lentils.

green lentils

It all started with a google search for how to make a vegetarian version of shepherds pie. Shepherds Pie is a favorite of ours but I needed a way to make it meat free. I found a recipe that included lentils, and I reasoned that it would probably be a safe way to try them since they’d be mixed in with lots of other veggies and flavors. Long story short, they were a great substitution for the ground meat I usually used!

Lentils are inexpensive and simple to cook, so they are a great addition to your meat-free menu. There are lots of recipes and ideas out there, but the way I often find myself using them is to replace ground beef in our recipes, like the shepherds pie. I’ve used them in pasta sauces and casseroles. Their small, round shape mimics the texture of meat, and they mix well with other flavors.

Maybe one of these days I’ll even try lentil soup… until then, enjoy the recipe below. It’s a version of my original attempt at meat-free Shepherds Pie.


Vegetarian Shepherds Pie with Lentils

  • Peel and chop a few large potatoes (I sometimes use a combination of potatoes and sweet potatoes), and boil them until soft. Mash them up, adding a little butter or milk (dairy free or regular) as needed to make them smoother according to your preference. Set aside while you cook the rest.
  • Sort and rinse dry lentils. You’ll want to make sure there aren’t any small rocks mixed in (it’s possible–I found one once!). Cook dry lentils: boil them in water for a few minutes, based on what color/type you have. If you buy in bulk (bravo!), google cooking times for your lentils. Otherwise, cook according to package instructions. Set aside.
  • While potatoes and lentils are cooking, gather and chop other vegetables. You can use whatever you like, but here’s what I often use:
    • onions
    • carrots
    • squash
    • broccoli (they add great texture!)
    • peas
    • corn
    • mushrooms (not my favorite, so I don’t always include them)
  • Saute veggies in a pan to soften. I start with the onions and carrots because they need more time. Once the onions are starting to get translucent and the carrots are beginning to soften, I throw in the other veggies. Corn and peas go in last since they take less time.
  • As the veggies are cooking, sprinkle with salt, pepper, garlic and oregano (or your favorite spices). I also add worcestershire sauce and/or steak sauce. As always, season according to your preferences. I measure nothing.
  • After the veggies are mostly cooked through, add in your lentils and stir it all together.
  • Mix some cornstarch and water (you can use flour, but I prefer cornstarch since gluten and my body don’t get along) and pour in. You can also add a bit more worcestershire or steak sauce to add a bit more liquid since veggies don’t leave juices the way meat does. Mix everything together and cook for another minute until it thickens a bit. This will create a “gravy” that will help blend the flavors and keep everything stuck together.
  • Preheat your oven to 375 F when your veggies are mostly cooked.
  • Put your veggies and lentils in the bottom of a baking dish. Spread evenly in the pan, then add the mashed potatoes on top, spreading them flat as well. Add a sprinkle of cheese if that’s your thing.
  • Put it in the oven for 30-ish minutes or until the gravy is bubbly. Let it sit for a minute to cool, then serve it up and enjoy!

    What’s your favorite way to eat lentils?

One thought on “What the heck is a lentil?

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