Waste Not is a collaboration with my friend, Carrie King. The premise is simple: Carrie, a food writer and editor, shares a recipe highlighting at least one particular way that we can curb food waste. I make it at home, take a bunch of pictures, and share it with everyone here.
This week, Carrie tackled the container of lentils that seems to be forever lingering in my fridge. My kids eat a huge amount of lentils, and while they’re generally not very picky about how they’re served, I admit that on the third day of lentil leftovers for lunch, everyone’s craving something a little more…vibrant.
Carrie saved the day with a lentil-studded take on traditional falafel. To gather ingredients, I hit up the string of Middle Eastern shops along Atlantic Avenue near our apartment in Brooklyn, refilling my jar of cumin, filling up another small jar with chickpea flour, and getting a freshly made batch of pita for serving. (Yes, okay, and saying hi to Mushamash, the cat, and nibbling on nougat. Who can resist?) When I found myself with still more cooked lentils on another night, I made a variation on the theme with parsley and oregano and served them “meatball”-style with tomato sauce and pasta. So satisfying.
It’s hard to beat a big ole’ pot of lentils. They’re easy on the wallet and heavy on the nutrition. And cooking a bag of lentils always seems to leave leftovers for days. Helpful in the food budget department, not so helpful in the enthusiasm-for-lunch-or-dinner department. Leftover lentils can lose their appeal as they hang in the fridge, drying out. And, let’s be honest, even in their most freshly cooked state, cooked lentils aren’t winning any beauty awards—especially green ones. A food stylist’s nightmare is a bowl of green lentil soup. My enthusiasm for them definitely wanes when I open the jar of leftovers and know that straight-up reheating them in a saucepan will result in a pasty glob of dry lentils.
But, have no fear! I am here with the recipe version of lentil CPR. The best way to breathe new life into any leftovers is with vibrant, fresh elements and flavors like herbs and aromatics and citrus. Falafel is full of those very things! Its origins are rooted in the Middle East, where it would seem they were doing “fast casual” more than 1000 years before harried New Yorkers even knew it was a thing. It’s quick, nutritious, and tasty – all the hallmarks of a modern-day grab and go recipe. As is pretty typical with foods steeped in years and years of tradition, there are also lots (and lots!) of opinions on what constitutes a “classic” or “traditional” falafel preparation. General consensus is it includes either chickpeas or fava beans as the main component, both legumes, just like their cousin, the lentil! So, with apologies to falafel purists, it’s a no brainer that some sort of falafel-like situation would be perfect way to bring lentils back from the food waste dead.
No matter the legume (or bean) that you use, the idea is the same—mash them up with lots of fresh herbs like cilantro and parsley, aromatics, and dried spices. Add a little flour for binding. Roll up as a ball (or in more of a flattened slider shape) and shallow fry. Lots of people are into baking their falafel—I’m not one of those people.
This recipe is more of a guideline when it comes to the shaping of the falafel. Since leftovers will vary in terms of seasoning and consistency depending on how you first prepared your lentils, you’ll have to just get a good feel when it comes to how much flour to add. Too much, and the falafel will be dry and fall apart. Too little, and the falafel will be wet and…fall apart. A good way to dip your toe in before ruining the whole mixture is to shape one, and give it a trial fry in the skillet. If it works well and retains its shape, you’re good to go!
I recommend serving these with warm pita or other flatbread, and lots of fresh lime for squeezing over top. Alternatively, you could serve them “protein-style,” wrapped in butter lettuce or baby gem leaves and topped with fresh lime juice, more fresh herbs, and drizzles of tahini or plain yogurt (or both mixed together!)
Leftover Lentil Faux-lafel
2 cups cooked green lentils
1 loosely packed cup cilantro leaves and stems, finely chopped
1 loosely packed cup flat leaf parsley leaves and stems, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, minced
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons – ¼ cup chickpea flour
Olive oil (or neutral oil, like grapeseed)
Flaky sea salt (I like Maldon or Jacobsen’s)
In a large bowl, combine the cooked lentils, chopped cilantro, parsley, garlic and shallot.
Stir in the ground spices. Continue to mix, smashing with the back of the spoon to mash most of the lentils. (Note that you could do this by pulsing all of the ingredients in a food processor or vitamix.) I prefer to leave a smattering of the lentils whole for texture.
Taste for seasoning at this point. It’s tough to give you an exact measured amount because it all depends on how seasoned your lentils are from previous meal. (Not tooting my own horn or anything, but in my case, my lentils were already well seasoned, so I only added another ½ teaspoon salt to compensate for the extra bulk from the herbs/aromatics/flour.)
Once seasoned well, add the chickpea flour. Start with 2 tablespoons and mix it to incorporate. You should start to see the mixture tightening and forming into a bit of a thicker paste in spots. If necessary, add another tablespoon or two, depending on how wet your lentils are. I would not add more than ¼ cup. (Conversely if your lentils have been in the fridge for a day or two, they are likely pretty dry, so you might find you need to add a bit of olive oil to make a wetter mixture. You’ll have to go by feel.) Once the mixture is slightly pasty, grab a golf-ball size amount and gently squeeze it in your palm – if the mixture sticks together, you’re golden.
Form 16-18 balls, each roughly the size of a golf ball. Give a gentle squeeze as you shape them to help it all stick together.
Heat ¼-inch olive oil in a heavy bottomed skillet, preferably cast-iron. Once the oil is rippling, add half of the faux-lafel to the skillet, you should hear a gentle sizzle. (It’s tempting to get them all jammed in there at once, but working in batches helps the oil stay hot enough to crisp up the outsides.) Cook until deeply golden-brown on the underside, about 2 minutes, then gently roll the balls to evenly brown another side. Cook until brown and roll again. Repeat until evenly browned on all sides.
Use a slotted spoon to carefully remove faux-lafel from the skillet and drain on a plate lined with a clean kitchen towel – sprinkle with flaky salt while still hot. Repeat until all of the faux-lafel have been cooked.
+ I made some concessions here in order to keep this vegan. If you were looking for a tighter ball, you could add a lightly beaten egg as a binder, making it even less like falafel and more of a meatless meatball.
+ A tablespoon or two of tahini (sesame paste) added to the mix is delicious, and also helps with binding. (I didn’t include it here in part because, well, I didn’t have any on hand and the point of this was to use up leftovers so as not to waste rather than accrue more food for one recipe!)
+ If you don’t have chickpea flour, you could also use a finely ground whole wheat flour, or even AP flour.
Thanks to Carrie King for writing this post and developing the recipe. When Carrie’s not encouraging me in tiny-apartment cooking adventures, she’s a food writer and editor. Her cookbook work includes Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner….Life with Missy Robbins and The Chef Next Door with Amanda Freitag. She has contributed to Gather Journal and Life & Thyme and works as recipe editor at Marley Spoon and Dinnerly. Thanks to culinary school and lots of time spent in kitchens, both professional and home, she can cook just about anything, but usually just wants a
few couple few slices of pizza.
For the curious:
The cast iron skillet shown here is a Field Skillet, a gift from the The Field Company. It’s a lightweight, smooth-bottomed take on the classic cast iron pan and it’s been a dream to cook with.
The shallow blue dish used here for mixing is the Weeknight Serving Bowl from East Fork Pottery.
The checked napkin is the Jenn Napkin from Fog Linen. (The oily dish towel is “vintage” Fog Linen, much-loved, finally showing signs of wear, and kept on hand for just this sort of messy project. Subtle encouragement to kick paper towels to the curb, greasy projects be damned!)
And now your turn: Any other favorite ways to use up lentil leftovers?