TORONTO -- Chef Michael Smith can't say enough good things about Canadian lentils.
"For me they're the ideal ingredient. They hit all the marks. They're beyond healthy -- I'd bore you to tears with the reasons why lentils are healthy," he explained. "They're beautifully delicious, with a wonderfully earthy, neutral flavour that marries and pairs with virtually anything else.
"They're Canadian and they're very, very inexpensive to buy, easy to find and easy to cook with. You don't have to precook them. You don't have to soak them the night before. For me, they fall squarely in the category of ingredients that I consider easy."
Smith is a spokesman for Canadian Lentils, the organization that promotes fibre-rich lentils, of which there are four basic types grown in this country, primarily Saskatchewan -- green, red, black beluga and French green, or du Puy. They are packed with such nutrients as zinc, beta carotene, selenium and folate.
"We grow more than anyone else in the world. We produce what's generally regarded as the best in the world, but we ship the vast majority of them. If we can just get a few more to stay at home, the numbers add up much better for our Canadian farmers," the television host and cookbook author says in an interview from his home in Fortune, P.E.I.
In keeping with that goal, Canadian Lentils has launched a contest to help home cooks become more familiar with lentils.
The Love Your Lentils Canada competition features two divisions -- home cooks and food bloggers.
Home cooks have a choice of adapting five base recipes that Smith has created -- a brown rice and lentil side dish, chocolate chip lentil cookies, a lentil and spinach salad, lentil chili and a vegan lentil burger -- while bloggers are asked to start from scratch and be innovative.
Smith and his team will review the top 10 recipes in each division as voted on by the Canadian public by May 31 and select the top three in each category. Smith will make and test the finalists' recipes. The winning blogger and home cook will be announced June 13 and join Smith in Saskatchewan starting June 23 for a culinary adventure, including a visit to a lentil farm.
"Simply visiting and meeting somebody who produces food in Canada is very powerful, whether it's lentils or any other ingredient," said Smith, who led the team of chefs who cooked for the world's Olympians in the Whistler Athletes Village in 2010. "It really does help us connect ourselves to our food."
With the base recipes, Smith wants home cooks to "stir a little of their own personality into the recipe." It could be as simple as varying the toppings on the lentil burger. He will be looking for taste and appearance, as well as creativity -- especially among the bloggers.
"That's pretty much the big three, whether you're judging the Bocuse d'Or in Lyon, France, or lentils in Prince Edward Island."
The host of such Food Network Canada shows as Chef Michael's Kitchen, Chef at Home, Chef at Large, Chef Abroad and The Inn Chef offers a tip to novice recipe developers: keep it simple.
"Understand that lentils are flavour sponges," said Smith, who plans to publish another cookbook this fall. "They're very, very good at absorbing the flavours around them and because they're neutral they can work in many different ethnic foods.
"Many different flavour themes can be applied to them. But keep it simple and just keep in mind that lentils are a very versatile ingredient and go from there."
Contest details are available at loveyourlentils.ca. There is also a link at Smith's website, chefmichaelsmith.com.
Here are two innovative and delicious recipes using lentils created by chef Michael Smith:
Bacon Lentil Burritos
Lentils do such a good job of absorbing the bright sunny flavours of the Southwest that no one notices the missing meat in this burrito, a favourite of Smith's children.
4 thick slices bacon, chopped
1 onion, diced
5 ml (1 tsp) chili powder
5 ml (1 tsp) cumin powder
5 ml (1 tsp) dried oregano
250 ml (1 cup) dry green lentils
1 l (4 cups) water
250 ml (1 cup) corn
5 ml (1 tsp) salt
5 ml (1 tsp) hot sauce
4 large soft tortillas
1 carrot, shredded
125 g (4 oz) "taco-blend" shredded cheese (approx.)
60 ml (1/4 cup) salsa (approx.)
Handful or two of cilantro leaves and tender stems
Begin by crisping bacon. Toss it into a saucepan along with a splash or two of water. Bring mixture to a simmer. As bacon begins simmering, the water will encourage it to cook evenly. Eventually the water boils away, leaving the bacon bits to crisp in the rendered bacon fat. Be patient. When the bits are crisp, strain bacon. Set some aside for topping.
Toss onion and seasonings into bacon and stir until flavours brighten and textures soften, 5 minutes or so.
Pour in lentils and water and bring mixture to a slow, steady simmer. Continue cooking as lentils absorb moisture and begin softening. Stir occasionally and keep an eye on the works. Eventually lentils will become tender and absorb all the water, about 45 minutes. If the mixtures still seems a bit wet for a burrito filling, simmer a few minutes longer. In the last few minutes of cooking, stir in corn, salt and hot sauce.
Lay 4 tortilla shells on work surface and evenly divide filling among them. Top with carrot, cheese and salsa. Sprinkle with crisp bacon and top with lots of cilantro. Fold in sides and roll up tightly.
Makes 4 burritos.
Source: Recipes created by Chef Michael Smith.
Lobster Lentil Arugula Salad
Chef Michael Smith hails from Fortune, P.E.I., at the heart of Canada's lobster fishery. His salad combines the earthy heartiness of lentils, the luxurious sweetness of lobster and the peppery flavour of arugula.
1 l (4 cups) water (approx)
250 ml (1 cup) green or du Puy lentils
2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt
2 to 4 lobsters
4 l (16 cups) water
125 ml (1/2 cup) salt
15 ml (1 tbsp) canola or sunflower oil
15 ml (1 tbsp) cider vinegar
15 ml (1 tbsp) honey
15 ml (1 tbsp) Dijon mustard
2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt
4 thinly sliced green onions
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 large carrot, shredded
142 g (5 oz) arugula (about 1.5 l/6 cups)
Lentils: In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, bring water, lentils and salt to a boil. Reduce heat to maintain a simmer and continue cooking and tasting just until lentils are tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Strain any excess water and let lentils cool to room temperature.
Lobster: Meanwhile, in a large pot, bring water and salt to a vigorous boil. Remove rubber bands from claws by firmly grasping and crossing claws over the body. Plunge lobsters into water and cook for 15 minutes. Let lobsters cool until you can handle them. Protect hands with a pair of gloves and remove all meat from the tail, knuckles and claws. Grasp lobster firmly by the tail and head and twist off tail. Crush in your hand to break shell, then pry apart tail. Break claw open with the back of a knife or nut cracker. Cut open knuckles.
In a large salad bowl, whisk together oil, vinegar, honey, mustard and salt. Toss in vegetables and cooked lentils. Just before serving, add lobster and arugula and toss everything together thoroughly, evenly distributing vinaigrette.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
-- The Canadian Press