30 May 2017Lentils: The Convenient Bean

Lentils can sound so dull. Even the color is dull. And there's that word "lent", conjuring images of giving up things you like for 40 days. Actually the word lentil has nothing to do with Lent. The word derives from the Latin lenticula, or lens. Lentils are shaped like the lenses in our eyes, hence the name.

About that dull color: that's just one type of lentil, the common brown lentil, typically sold in plastic bags or as canned lentil soup. They might actually be the least interesting lentils you can buy. There are several other kinds, with different colors and different flavors.

All lentils are legumes, with the same basic nutritional benefits, with some variations based on the variety. They're high protein and high fiber, and have significant iron and potassium. The standard serving size listed on packages is 1/4 cup dry, which cooks up to 3/4 to 1 cup, depending on how much water you use. The basic recipe is to bring 3-4 cups of water to a boil for every cup of dry lentils. Add the lentils, cover and simmer 20-30 minutes, depending on degree of doneness you want for your recipe.

People have been growing and eating lentils for thousands of years. Evidence of ancient lentil consumption can be found in Western Asia and the Middle East. Lentils are mentioned in the Bible and recipes are found in Greek and Roman writing. Now they are grown and consumed around the globe. There are reportedly hundreds of varieties. Here are some of the more widely available types of lentils:

Brown (sometimes called green). These are the most widely available lentils. They are larger sized and cook quickly, but don't hold their shape so well. Best uses would be for soups or casseroles where a firm lentil isn't so important.

Red/Yellow (not to be confused with yellow split peas). These lentils are very popular in Indian cooking, especially for traditional dal soups. They tend to break down and lose their shape, but that makes them great for the creamy consistency of dal.

Black (Beluga). These lentils are more rounded and hold their shape when cooked. They take a bit longer to cook. Great for salads and hot casseroles where you want the lentils to stay intact. Find them in specialty food stores if your local grocery doesn't carry them.

French (du Puy). They're a very deep green color, almost green/black. Like black lentils, these also take longer to cook and hold their shape. Use them in soups when you want a less mushy texture, or use in salads or casseroles.

Because of their high protein content, lentils are great additions to vegan and vegetarian diets. Added bonus: they cook quickly compared to other dried legumes. And the flavors work well with lots of different cuisine styles. Here are a few recipes to introduce you to some of these lentils.

RECIPE NOTE: I actually weighed one cup of different lentil types on a food scale and came up with different values than even some USDA weights, so I used my values when calculating these recipes. In general, the USDA values underestimate the weight of a cup of dry/uncooked lentils. These are the weights I measured: Brown lentils: 172 g/cup. Beluga lentils: 180 g/cup. Du Puy lentils: 184 g/cup.

Black Lentil Salad

Beluga lentils are more difficult to find, but worth the effort. I found a recipe for a salad using them, and adapted it for easier preparation. This is a great vegetarian dish for a summer evening meal. Accompany with a tossed green salad and some warmed pita bread.

4 servings

  • 1 cup black/Beluga lentils
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped celery
  • 3-4 scallions, sliced thin, about 1/4 cup
  • 1 cup chopped fresh tomato (you can omit this if you don't have really good summer tomatoes. Substitute sweet red pepper or 1/4 cup minced sun dried tomatoes)
  • 2 hard boiled eggs, peeled and sliced
  • 3 TB olive oil or canola oil
  • 2 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 tsp minced garlic
  • 2 tsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • pinch of dried tarragon

1. Cook the lentils in 2-3 cups water for 30-40 minutes until done. Add more water as necessary. They should be firm and hold their shape, but not too hard to eat. Drain off any excess water.

2. Set aside to cool.

3. Whisk the oil, mustard, garlic, vinegar, salt, pepper and herb in a small bowl. Mix into the lentils.

4. Add the chopped vegetables and mix gently.

5. Garnish the salad with the sliced egg and serve. Per serving: 274 calories, 13 g fat, 31 g carb, 15 g protein, 400 mg sodium, 8 grams fiber

Red Lentil Soup or Dal

Dal is a traditional Indian soup and there are probably as many recipes for dal soup as cooks. There are some basic concepts. First off you use red lentils, cooked in lots of water until creamy. They fall apart easily, so you won't need to puree them at all. Second, you use spices like cumin, ginger and lime. Fresh cilantro is a traditional garnish added before serving.

This is a very simplified recipe. Many traditional Indian recipes list a dozen or more different spices, some of them more exotic such as asafetida (or hing), which is a ground tree resin with an odor similar to garlic. This recipe substitutes minced garlic.

Makes 6 servings

  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth, or plain water
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 3 TB peanut or canola oil
  • 2 tsp minced garlic
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1-2 tsp minced jalapeno (to taste) OR 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 TB chopped fresh cilantro
  • juice of 1/2 lime (more to taste)

1. Bring the broth or water to a boil, add the lentils and turmeric and simmer 1 to 1-1/2 hours until lentils are very soft. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. The soup will cook down a bit and you can add more water if it gets too thick.

2. Heat the oil in a small pan over moderate heat. Add the garlic, pepper and spices and stir to cook briefly. Do not burn! Add the hot spices to the dal, along with the salt and lime juice. Taste and adjust seasonings to suit your preferences. Add cilantro just before serving.

3. Accompany with naan (flat bread) or a rice dish, and a vegetable curry dish for a complete meal.

Per serving: 169 calories, 7 grams fat, 19 grams carb, 8 grams protein, 480 mg sodium, 2 grams fiber

Spiced French Lentils (du Puy lentils)

Du Puy lentils are described as having an earthy flavor, perhaps because they're traditionally grown on volcanic soil. In fact, the name "du Puy" can only refer to lentils grown in a certain region of France with that type of soil. Grown anywhere else, they are just French lentils. Whatever you call them, they do hold their shape better than brown lentils.

  • 1 cup du Puy (or other French) lentils
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 TB olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced, about 1/2 to 3/4 cup
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh flat leaf parsley
  • 1 TB capers, drained
  • 1 TB lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp grated lemon zest
  • 1/2 tsp salt, or more to taste
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper, or to taste
  • 1/2 tsp paprika

1. Sauté the carrots and onions in the olive oil in a sauce pan that has a lid.

2. Add the water and bay leaf, bring to a boil. Add the lentils, reduce heat and simmer about 40 minutes. Lentils should hold their shape but still be tender enough to eat.

3. After lentils are cooked, drain off excess water.

4. Add the capers, juice, salt and seasonings. Mix gently.

5. Taste for salt and adjust seasonings to your preferences.

6. Accompany with a grain-based dish for a meatless meal. Or use as a side for a simple grilled chicken or fish.

Per serving: 243 calories, 7 grams fat, 33 grams carb, 12 grams protein, 657 mg sodium, 16 grams fiber

I found another similar recipe that substituted 1/3 cup minced dried apricots for the carrots. They're added after the onions are sautéed, so the lentils simmer with the apricots. Sounds interesting.

Donna P Feldman MS RDN

is author of "Feed Your Vegetarian Teen", writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition and is co-host of the Walk Talk Nutrition podcast series.

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