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Exploring Lentils: One of the World's Healthiest Foods (With Recipes)

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

lentils-one-of-the-worlds-healthiest-foods

Lentils: So Amazing They're Even Mentioned in the Bible!

Jacob and Esau were fraternal twins. Jacob was a good cook and Esau was a hunter.

After one particularly long and arduous hunting trip, Esau returned home so famished he proclaimed that he would sell his birthright for a bowl of soup from Jacob.

lentils-one-of-the-worlds-healthiest-foods

Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.

— Genesis 25:34

Lentils Are So Good They're Worth Giving Up Your Inheritance?

OK, that might be a bit of a stretch, but lentils do have a lot going for them. A quarter cup of uncooked lentils gives you:

  • 169 calories
  • <1 gram fat
  • 0 grams saturated fat
  • 0 grams monounsaturated fat
  • 12 grams protein
  • 34 grams carbohydrates
  • 15 grams fiber
  • 3 mg sodium
  • 0 mg cholesterol
  • 2 mcg Vitamin K

Let's Put the Nutritional Information in Plain English, Please

So, to those of us (including me) who do not have a PhD in nutrition, what does this mean?

Well, lentils:

  • Are low in calories
  • Have no fat, no cholesterol
  • Lots of protein
  • Lots of fiber
  • Low sodium
  • Have lots of vitamin K, which supports bone calcium

A (VERY) Brief History of Lentils

I promise to not bore you with a lengthy treatise on the origin and value of lentils. But here are a few things that you might find interesting:

  • Lentils have been found in Egyptian tombs (apparently they have a long shelf life!).
  • They are drought tolerant and are grown throughout the world (world production in 2013 was 4,975,621 metric TONS!
  • The three major producers of lentils are Canada, India, and Turkey.
  • About one-quarter of the worldwide production of lentils is from India.
  • In the United States, the most significant growers are the Palouse region of eastern Washington, the Idaho panhandle, Montana, and North Dakota.

Now, a Bit of Information About These Tasty Legumes

Yes, lentils are legumes, related to beans and peanuts, and they look a lot like dried split peas in appearance, although they are not as sweet. You can think of them as a starch since they are mostly carbohydrate and protein with no fat. The great thing about lentils is that they contain lots of fiber—about a half cup of cooked lentils has 8 grams of fiber.

But unlike most other beans, lentils do not need to be soaked before cooking.

There are three main types of lentils.

  • The most common is the brown lentil, sometimes labeled Indian Brown Lentil or German lentil. They cook quickly and will be mushy if you cook them too long. Not a problem if you add them to soup for thickness.
  • There is a small dark green lentil also called the French or Puy lentil. They have a thin shell and a stronger pea-like flavor. These are slightly tough and take longer to cook. They are great in salads and side dishes such as pilafs.
  • Red (pink) and yellow lentils have had the hull removed and are split much like split peas. As a result they will cook more quickly than brown or French lentils. These are small and have a mild flavor.

How to Cook Lentils

  • One pound (16 ounces) of dry lentils yields about 7 cups cooked.
  • Remember, no soaking is required.
  • Place the lentils in a colander and rinse with cool water to remove surface dust; drain.
  • In large saucepan combined 5 cups cold water and 1 pound lentils. Bring to boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until tender, stirring occasionally. Brown French, and yellow lentils take 25-30 minutes; red lentils about 5-10 minutes.

Lentils with Rice and Onions

This first recipe is from a dear coworker who was born and raised in Lebanon. Unfortunately, I do not have a photo of his dish, but it is common in that part of the world. Every family has their own recipe.

Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup long-grain white rice
  • 1 cup brown lentils
  • 3 cups yellow onions, chopped
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cumin
  • salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

Instructions

  1. Cook the rice according to package directions; set aside.
  2. Rinse lentils to remove any dust or grit then place in large saucepan with lid.
  3. Add 1 quart (4 cups) water. Simmer uncovered over very low heat until the lentils are soft (about 20-30 minutes). You don’t want the lentils to turn to mush—they should retain their shape and have a bit of resistance when you test them. (Go ahead, pick up one with a spoon and taste it!)
  4. Cover the lentils with a lid and set aside.
  5. Now it’s time to cook the onions. Heat oil in large sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add onions and sauté until onions are caramelized, about 20-25 minutes. Don’t rush this process. If the heat is too high and the onions brown too quickly they will become bitter. Low and slow is the key to perfectly browned onions. They should have a slightly sweet aroma and be the color of butterscotch sauce on ice cream.
  6. When the onions are browned, remove half of them to drain on paper towels to crisp. Set aside.
  7. Add the cumin to the remaining onions.
  8. Next, drain the cooked lentils in a colander. Add the drained lentils to the onions, season with salt and pepper, and simmer about 2 minutes to blend flavors.
  9. Gently mix cooked rice into the lentil/onion mixture.
  10. To serve, top with the reserved crispy caramelized onions.

Lentil Salad with Garlic and Fresh Herbs

This lovely cold lentil salad is full of bright, bold flavors and will have everyone coming back for seconds. I would suggest the addition of sliced Kalamata olives and some crumbled feta cheese.

Moroccan Chickpea Soup

lentils-one-of-the-worlds-healthiest-foods

Ingredients

  • 2 tsp. olive oil
  • 1 large onion chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 2 cans (14 oz each) Swanson vegetable broth
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 cans (14 oz each) diced tomatoes
  • 2 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. dried ginger or 1 tsp. fresh minced
  • 1 tsp. turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. black pepper
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp. dried coriander
  • 1/2 cup orzo pasta
  • 1 can (15 oz) chickpeas
  • 3 cups cooked lentils

Instructions

  1. Sauté onions in olive oil over medium heat in large soup pot until they begin to soften. Add the broth, water, tomatoes, and herbs and seasonings. Cover the pot and bring to a boil.
  2. Uncover, stir in the orzo. Cook, uncovered until the orzo is tender, about 6-8 minutes.
  3. Rinse and drain the chickpeas. Stir the chickpeas and lentils into the hot soup and continue to cook until heated through.

© 2015 Linda Lum