Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Lentils

There are some foods that are associated with luck and happiness in the New Year – and fortunately for us, delicious and nutritious lentils are on the list! Theories abound as to why we eat lentils on New Year’s, but the most plausible is that they resemble money (in the form of coins) and thus bring luck and fortune to whoever eats them. In Italy, it is traditional to eat lentils and a super tasty type of sausage, called cotechino, on New Year’s. If eaten together as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, the eater will have good luck for the year to come. Indeed, many cultures view lentils as lucky for the New Year, including Brazil and Germany. The takeaway: eat lentils for luck (and health) in the New Year!

A Brief History

According to biologists, lentils are an ancient crop, thought to be one of the first domesticated way back in the early Neolithic era (as far back as 8,000 BCE). Mediterranean food writer Clifford A. Wright notes that early archeological evidence of lentils comes from several sites spread around the Mediterranean, including Greece, Syria and Palestine. From their origins of domestication in the Eastern Mediterranean, cultivated lentils spread to Europe, Central Asia and to the Nile Valley in Egypt, then crossed into Southeast Asia between 2,250 BCE and 1,750 BCE. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Hebrews enjoyed them, and writer Julie O’Hara notes that archeological remains of lentils were even found in royal Egyptian tombs dating from 2,400 BCE. Agricultural scientists speculate that lentils were introduced into the United States circa 1900.

Factual Nibbles

  • Lentil’s genus name, Lens, comes from the legume’s resemblance to optical lenses. 
  • This is the 2013 official poster for the National Lentil Festival in Pullman, Washington, which sounds like an awesometime – it includes a lentil cook-off, a lentil pancake breakfast, the world’s largest bowl of lentil chili and the Tour de Lentil bike ride.   
  • Speaking of the National Lentil Festival, here are the 2013 Lil’ Lentil King and Queen. 
  • The ancient Roman cookbook Apicius dedicates an entire chapter to lentils, including recipes for lentils and parsnips (with cumin, coriander and mint) and lentils and chestnuts. 
  • In the Bible, Esau (brother of Jacob), is said to have sold his birthright for a “mess of pottage” i.e., lentil stew. The phrase “mess of pottage” has now become a phrase meaning something seems good in the present but that is ultimately shortsighted. 
  • Pellegrino Artusi, in his seminal Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (published in 1891), had this to say about lentils: 

If Esau indeed sold his birthright for a plate of lentils, then it must be admitted that their use as food is ancient, and that Esau either had a great passion for them or suffered from bulimia.

Cultivation

Lentils (Lens culinaris) are cool-weather loving, low-growing legumes that produce small pods with one or two lentil seeds per pod. According to the US Dry Pea and Lentil Council, lentil production in the US is focused in Idaho, Oregon, Washington State and the Northern Plains states (Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota). Canada, India, Turkey, Australia and the US lead the way in global lentil cultivation..

Seasonality

In the US, lentil harvest begins in August in most lentil producing areas. However, fresh lentils are not sold, and lentils can be dry stored for up to four years – basically, this means that lentils don’t have a season. However, if you’re lucky enough to live near a lentil producing-region, you might find freshly dried lentils in the late fall or early winter.

Environmental impact

The good news about lentils is that they can be grown with limited irrigation, making their water footprint low in many areas. The USDA explains that lentils are also frequently rotated with other cereal crops (like wheat and barley), capitalizing on their nitrogen-fixing properties, which can help to enrich soil without the use of artificial fertilizers. Crop rotation can also help mitigate erosion, reduce disease infestation in cereal crops and help control weeds. The bad news: lentil growers employ chemical desiccants (drying agents) to ensure that the plants and the harvested legumes are mature and dry enough for harvest. Herbicides, including glyphosate (aka Roundup) and Reglone are sprayed on the lentil plants to aid in the drying process. Insecticides and other herbicides are also used on conventional lentils to help control pests and weeds. A report from the European Union’s Laboratories for Residues of Pesticides found that even some organically labeled lentils had glyphosate residues above the set Minimal Risk Levels (MRLs); conventionally grown lentils had even higher proportions of glyphosate contamination above the MRLs. If you’re concerned about pesticide residues, look for organically grown lentils.*

Characteristics

Earthy-tasting lens-shaped lentils come in many different types, varying in size and color. Depending on the variety, lentils when cooked may keep their shape or fall apart into a natural sort of puree. Some of the most readily available are:

  • Brown lentils: probably the most common, brown lentils are fairly large and hold their shape if cooked for a short period of time, but fall apart if cooked for too long. They’re great for soups, purees and dips.
  • French green (du Puy) lentils: small, green, or in the case of du Puylentils, speckled green and black. French green lentils hold their shape, even when cooked for a long time. Perfect in soups, braised and in salads. (du Puylentils are my favorite.)
  • Black (or Beluga) lentils: tiny lentils, jet-black in color. Black lentils hold their shape very well. Like French greens, they are perfect braised, in soups and in salads.
  • Red lentils: come in several different varieties. You might see red lentils labeled “masoor” in Indian markets. Red lentils tend to be sweeter than green, brown or black lentils, and fall apart when cooked because their hulls have been removed. They’re used in Indian dals (legume-based dishes) and Middle Eastern cuisine and are great pureed or made into dips.

Legumes labeled “yellow lentils” are generally not lentils at all, but rather yellow split peas or chana dal, a variety of split chickpeas.

What to look for

Look for lentils in the bulk department of your grocery store, or packaged. Lentils should be whole (i.e., not chipped or broken), and free from significant amounts of debris like rocks and dirt (a little bit is normal – see Pro Tips, below).

Nutrition

Lentils are super good for you: loaded with fiber and protein, they are also low in calories. The little legumes are also packed with nutrients, including folate, manganese, iron, thiamin, phosphorus and magnesium. Unfortunately, lentils are deficient in several key amino acids (methionine, cystine, and tryptophan) but if paired with rice or nuts, can provide all of the nutrients you need. 

What to Do with It

Lentils can be boiled, braised, pureed and mashed. Unlike other dried legumes, they don’t need to be soaked before they’re cooked, and their cooking time is relatively short (usually ranging from 20 to 45 minutes, depending on variety and age). They are delicious cold, tossed into salads or pureed into dips. I love lentils tossed in tangy vinaigrette as a bed for seafood, like scallops and salmon. Brown, green and black lentils are often paired with pork (think prosciutto and bacon) as a seasoning. All varieties of lentils stand up well to strong flavors, like garlic, onion and robust spices (think cumin and curry). Lentil flour is used in Indian cuisine, and increasingly as a substitute for wheat flour for those with gluten insensitivities.

Cooking

Many cultures rely upon lentils for a cheap and delicious source of protein and nutrients, so lucky for us, our options for lentil-based dishes are numerous and varied. Here is David Lebovitz’s ode to lentils du Puy, with a recipe for lentil salad with vinaigrette. Lentil soup is enjoyed from France to Italy to Brazil, where sopa de lentilha is enjoyed for good luck on New Year’s. Lentils can be subbed for dry or canned beans in many recipes – try replacing lentils for beans in your next batch of chili! The famous lentil-and-rice dish mujaddara, eaten throughout the Middle East, is thought to be the culinary descendant of Esau’s “mess of pottage.”  

Lentils also work well as a meat substitute in dishes like “meat” loaf and burgers, and in dips – I like the sound of this beet and lentil dip with dill and sour cream. Red lentils make a great curry and are turned into delicious soups in much of the Middle East (check out this Moroccan red lentil soup). You can even bake with lentils: like these chocolate cupcakes with lentils and this recipe for lentil bread. Lentil flour can be baked into crisps and used as a substitute for wheat flour in cookies and other baked goods.

Storage

Lentils can be stored for many years; however, the older the lentil, the longer they will take to cook (and sometimes they are less flavorful, to boot). Store lentils in a cool, dry place – I like to store mine on the counter in a large glass jar.

Pro Tips

No matter the variety, lentils need to be washed and picked through before cooking. First, inspect and pick through the lentils for small stones or large clods of dirt. Then, using a fine-meshed colander, rinse lentils under cool, running water to remove any remaining dust and dirt. Drain well and cook!

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Dried lentils keep for a very long time, so preserving lentils isn’t much of an issue. However, cooked lentils freeze beautifully, so next time you make a batch of lentil soup, cook a little extra to have on hand in the freezer!

Recipe

Warm French Green Lentils with Walnuts, Ricotta Salata and Parsley

Pairing nuts with lentils increase their nutrition, and add a nice crunch, too. I love French green lentils (aka du Puy) for their flavor and firm texture, but any lentil aside from red lentils will do in this recipe. Just be sure to not undercook them to keep them from falling apart. Feel free to substitute a mild feta cheese for the ricotta salata (a type of pressed, salted ricotta).

Ingredients:

For the lentils:

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons shallots, chopped fine
1 tablespoon carrots, chopped fine
1 tablespoon celery, chopped fine
1 cup French green lentils, picked through and rinsed
3 cups water (or low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock)

Kosher salt

To finish:

3 tablespoons red-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
¼ ; teaspoon cayenne
1/3 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and chopped
3 tablespoons parsley, chopped
1 ounce ricotta salata, crumbled

Method:

1. In a large saucepan set over medium-high heat, add the 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and the shallots. Sauté until the shallots have just started to soften (do not let brown), about 3 minutes.

2. Add the chopped carrots and celery and sauté for another 2-3 minutes.

3. Add the lentils and stir to coat, and then add the water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium low and cover the pot. The cooking time will depend on the age and size of the lentils; for French green lentils, start checking at around 25 minutes. (It may take as long as 40 minutes.) They should be soft but still firm to the bite and not falling apart.

4. While the lentils are cooking, make the vinaigrette: in a large bowl (you will add the lentils later) whisk together the red-wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, a pinch of salt and a grinding of freshly ground pepper until combined. Whisk in the cayenne.

5. Drain the lentils and immediately add to the vinaigrette. Toss well to coat. Taste and add additional salt, if necessary. (Keep in mind that the ricotta salata is quite salty.)

6. When ready to serve, gently stir in the walnuts and the parsley, then scatter with the crumbled ricotta salata.

(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

Responses to "Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Lentils"

  1. Nathalie

    I love lentils, but have never cooked them the way you describe in your recipe. (I usually just add them to homemade soup.) But this recipe sounds so good, I'm going to try it this week! Thanks for the great info too.

    Kristen
    01.21.2014

    Our pleasure, Nathalie!

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