In a world of coffee drinkers, Sam and I are tea fanatics. Our cupboards are bursting with tins and boxes, strainers and saucers. We drink black tea in the morning, green tea after dinner, and herbal tea late at night. We even have one of those fancy tea kettles that heats water to different temperatures for different types of tea.
I love cooking with tea–and with one tea in particular–almost as much as drinking it. Lapsang souchong tea is dried over wood fires, giving it a distinctive smoky flavor. Add some leaves or a bag to a pot of soup broth, and you’ve got something deeper and huskier than any non-meat broth I know. My new favorite trick? Cooking black lentils–sometimes called beluga lentils, because they resemble caviar when cooked–in a cauldron of smoky tea, tomatoes, and spices.
The recipe I adapted this from called for simmering everything together at once–lentils, tomatoes, the works. I’ve tried that, and don’t recommend it; the acid in the tomatoes keeps the lentils from softening. Instead, I use the method from my grandmother’s bean and tomato soup. In that recipe, you start simmering the legumes on their own, cook up a saucy tomato mix in a separate pan, then bring everything together towards the end of the cooking time. I added a handful of greens, too, which wilted down and made the whole dish more substantive.
At first taste, you might assume there’s meat in these lentils. It’s a nifty little trick, brought about by the marriage of smoky tea and glutamate-rich tomatoes. You could easily serve this as a standalone vegan meal–I have, and my omnivorous dinner guests loved it. If you eat eggs, these lentils are incredible with a poached or soft-boiled egg on top. And as with so many soups and stews, the flavor gets even better after some time in the fridge or freezer.
Smoky Tea-Braised Lentils (serves 6)
Adapted from Culinary Tea
1 quart (4 cups) water
5 tsp Lapsang Souchong tea leaves (or 5 tea bags)
1 lb (about 2 cups) black (beluga) lentils, rinsed and picked over for stones
1 tsp ground coriander
2 star anise
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tbsp olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
1 large celery stalk, diced
Salt to taste
2 large or 4 small garlic cloves, minced
2 tsp minced fresh ginger
1 (28 oz) can diced or crushed tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted
About 2 1/2 cups chopped kale, chard, or other leafy greens
2 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro or parsley
1 tsp balsamic vinegar, or to taste
Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Bring water to a boil, then remove from the heat and add tea leaves or bags. Let steep for 4-5 minutes, then strain.
In a large saucepan, combine brewed tea, lentils, coriander, star anise, and black pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to keep the liquid at a steady simmer. Simmer, uncovered, for 20-25 minutes, or until the lentils are just starting to get tender. If the lentils look like they’re drying out before they’re ready, add a splash of water.
Meanwhile, heat oil in a deep-sided skillet or saute pan over medium heat. Add onion, carrot, celery, and a pinch of salt, and sweat for 8-10 minutes, or until the onion is translucent. Add garlic and ginger and cook for another 30 seconds to 1 minute, or until fragrant. Add tomatoes and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until the mixture has reduced and thickened slightly.
Add the tomato mixture to the lentils, along with a large pinch of salt. Add greens, stirring until they wilt. Continue simmering, uncovered, for another 10-15 minutes, or until the lentils are tender and most of the liquid has been absorbed.
Remove the pot from the heat, cover, and let stand for 10 minutes, or until the lentils have absorbed the remaining liquid. Stir in cilantro or parsley, and season with salt and balsamic vinegar to taste. Ladle the lentils into bowls and drizzle with olive oil. Serve warm.
Make ahead/leftovers: As with so many lentil recipes, the flavor of this dish gets even better over time. It will keep, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for up to a week, or in the freezer for up to 6 months.