About halfway through college, I got tired of dining halls—and it was probably what pushed my “food brain” over the edge. I made sure my Junior, and Senior year dorms had kitchens, and I cancelled my meal plan (it was too expensive, anyway).
Once I was in control of what I ate every day, one of the surprising changes was that I started eating less meat. In fact, I can still remember times when I only ate meat two, or three times per week—it saved money, and inadvertently got me thinking more about how to use spices to fill the void left when animal protein wasn’t available—it may have even had a few hidden health benefits too, but I’ll never really know.
Lentils were an obvious alternative source of protein, and an easy route into the world of “pseudo-vegetarianism”. They became like my chicken—the most basic survival food, and a blank canvas for anything I could come up with. In fact, I first learned to survive on lentils while I spent a summer working at a hospital in Germany spending money on everything but groceries. Fresh produce was everywhere, and I got my first true introduction to Middle Eastern flavors—my general rule of thumb was: if the label isn’t in English, or German, it’s probably delicious. I wasn’t just grabbing random foreign ingredients though—I really had to ask around to find the good stuff, and I found a store owners that got used to having me around.
Then all I needed to do was cook. For most of my life, I never really liked veggie burgers—the one’s I tried growing up were always missing something. Texture: would it hold together? Flavor: did it taste good? Appearance: did it look natural? Somehow, there was always something ‘off’ about them. Then I saw all the different ways that people cook lentils, and my mind started working. Lentils come in various varieties (red, green, yellow, brown, black), each with different properties and flavors. Red lentils were always the most convenient for me in college because they were cheap, easy to cook, and neutrally flavored. I got my final bit of inspiration from dinner at popular burger joint in Nashville: The Pharmacy. I had a lentil burger there that I knew I could improve—and I think it worked
After some trial and error, I worked out a recipe that I think maximizes flavor, texture and appearance—all while remaining vegetarian friendly.
3 Cups Red Lentils, Cooked
2 Eggs, Beaten
4 Cloves of Garlic, Minced
1/2 Onion, Diced
1 Bell Pepper, Diced
1 Cucumber, Diced
1 Roma Tomato, Seeded and Diced
2 Cups Plain Yoghurt
2 Cups Arugula
2 Cups Pickled Red Cabbage
1 Lemon, Juiced and Zested
1 Cup Flour
1 Cinnamon Stick
1/4 Cup of Dried Mint
1/4 Cup Fresh Mint, Chopped
1/4 Cup of Cilantro, Chopped
1/4 Cup of Cumin
1/4 Cup of Paprika
1/4 Cup Chili Powder (Optional)
1/4 Cup of Coriander
1/4 Cup of Turmeric
1/4 Cup of Sumac
4 Tbs Olive Oil
Flatbread of Choice
Salt and Pepper to Taste
- Rinse the lentils thoroughly in cool running water, then add to a pot with 1 Tbs of olive oil, a big pinch of salt, and the cinnamon stick. Cover with cool water, and bring the pot to a slow boil, stirring occasionally. Add extra water to keep the lentils covered.
- When the lentils start to soften, remove the pot from the heat, and transfer to a large, heat-safe bowl, and allow them to cool to room temperature.
- In a separate bowl, mix the eggs, flour, remaining spices, and chopped cilantro. When the lentils have cooled, slowly stir in the egg mixture until the lentils thicken. The mixture should begin to hold together on it’s own, but if the lentils are still too loose, you can stir in additional flower in 1/2 cup increments until you are able to form patties in your hands.
- Place the patties on a lightly oiled baking sheet, cover, and store in the fridge for at least twenty minutes to allow the patties to set. Pre-heat your oven to 425 degrees.
- While you wait, mix yoghurt, cucumber, tomato, olive oil, lemon juice, cumin, fresh mint, salt, and pepper together to make a basic raita (yoghurt sauce) for your burgers. Cover, and refrigerate until you serve the burgers.
- Heat 1 tbs of olive oil in a pan on med-high heat. Sear your lentil burgers on both sides in the pan, then place them back on your baking sheet, and put them in the oven. Bake for approximately 10 minutes, or until the patties are fully cooked, and firm. Toast your flat bread just before you remove the burgers from the oven. Plate the burgers with your greens of choice, raita, and serve.