These nutritious legumes are versatile, delicious and easy to prepare.
Lentils, those tiny lens-shaped legumes you find in dried soup mixes and curries, are delicious — and packed with nutrients. A prized dietary staple of Southern Asia, Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, lentils are thought to be one of the world’s first cultivated crops, dating back more than 8,000 years. Today, these nutritious gems are slowly making their way into the American pantry.
Lentils are part of the legume family, which also includes beans and peas. They are sold dried, whether whole, hulled or split, and come in a wide range of colors and sizes. The most common varieties in American markets are green and brown, which can be used interchangeably in recipes. Red and yellow lentils are now available in most better markets. No matter what color or size, lentils cook quickly and are versatile enough to toss into a wide range of dishes. They also serve up nicely on the side — ideal in place of starchier choices like potatoes or pasta.
Lentils are rich in B vitamins, iron, zinc, manganese, phosphorus and magnesium. They’re also full of isoflavones, some of the best-understood phyto-nutrients. Phytonutrients protect the body and fight disease, help your heart, boost immunity, and function as an antioxidant.
When paired with whole grains like rice or barley, lentils form a complete protein. They are also rich in soluble and insoluble fiber, which help moderate blood-sugar levels and assist with good digestion. One caution: Because lentils contain purines, naturally occurring compounds that can be broken down into uric acid, those suffering from gout or kidney problems should avoid them.
Lentils store extremely well. Just keep them in a cool, dry place. Dark storage is ideal, but light will not harm them. They may lose some color in about six months, but they keep indefinitely.
While dry, sift through lentils carefully to remove unwanted stones, which can sneak through the harvesting process because they’re about the same weight, size and color as the lentils.
Unlike other legumes, lentils do not require presoaking. Just rinse them off in cool water before cooking.
If covered, cooked lentils will keep for up to three days in the refrigerator or up to six months in the freezer.
Cooking lentils is a snap. In a saucepan, add about 21/2 cups water to every 1 cup of lentils (or you can use the same amount of vegetable or chicken broth to add flavor). Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 to 30 minutes or until tender. Check by tasting — the lentils should be al dente, like pasta: whole and firm, but tender when chewed. (Note: Green lentils, also called French or Italian, require a 3:1 ratio of liquid to lentils.)
For a tasty main dish, mix cooked lentils with cooked rice, and add your favorite spices. This entrée should be served alongside cooked vegetables to make a balanced meal.
Combine cooked lentils with chopped peppers and other vegetables to make a delicious cold salad. Green lentils, which are small, delicate and peppery, soften in about 30 minutes and are especially good for salads, because they hold their shape well when cooked.
Red lentils soften quickly, in about 15 minutes, so they are ideal for purées or as a thickening agent for soups. Simply stir vigorously or purée in a blender.
Because lentils have a mild taste, it’s great to pair them with strong flavorings, such as garlic, turmeric, chilies, cumin or cardamom.
Chef Cary Neff is the president of the consulting firm Culinary Innovations and the author of The New York Times bestseller Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).