Learning to Love Lentils


Break out beyond beans with our complete guide to these little nutrition standouts.

Lentils are the dried seeds of a type of legume. They have long been valued for the healthy vegetable protein they provide, as well as their fiber, folate, iron and potassium content. There are a number of different types of lentils, each with slightly different cooking characteristics, and myriad ways to use them. Pick and prepare them right with this guide to choosing nutritious, versatile lentils and some tips for cooking them.

Brown lentils, also known as Spanish Pardina lentils, are the most common supermarket variety. They have a mild flavor and are a popular meat substitute in casseroles, stuffed vegetables and veggie burgers. Add cooked brown lentils to a rice or bulgur pilaf or stir them into a tomato-based pasta sauce.
Cooking time: 18-25 minutes, depending on whether you want them firm for a salad or soft for a soup.
Best for: Soups and stews.

French green lentils are prized for their firm but tender texture and nutty flavor. Le Puy lentils, cultivated in the area of France by that name, are considered the best. You can find them in specialty stores and natural foods markets.
Cooking time: 18-20 minutes.
Best for: Salads, side dishes.

Red lentils, which are actually salmon-colored, are especially convenient because they cook very quickly. They turn yellow and tend to break down when cooked. Look for them in natural food stores and ethnic markets.
Cooking time: 8-10 minutes.
Best for: Soups, dals (traditional Indian dishes of spiced lentils, which are often served over rice) and pures.

Yellow lentils are sometimes labeled toor dal or moong dal in South Asian markets. They become quite soft during cooking.
Cooking time: 10-12 minutes.
Best for: Soups, dals and pures.

Tiny black lentils are also called beluga lentils because they resemble caviar when cooked. Like French green lentils, they hold their shape well after cooking. The distinctive color of these lentils comes from anthocyanin, which has beneficial antioxidant properties. Try black lentils as an accompaniment to broiled salmon.
Cooking time: About 20 minutes.
Best for: Salads and side dishes.

Cooking lentils: Since there is always a possibility that foreign matter may be present, even in packaged lentils, spread lentils on a baking sheet and check carefully for debris. Rinse lentils thoroughly. Place in a large saucepan, add enough water to cover by an inch or two and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook at a gentle simmer, partially covered, until tender. If using lentils in salad, drain. If using in soup, keep the liquid. Note that tomatoes inhibit lentils from becoming tender; if you are cooking lentils in a soup or stew with tomatoes, you will need to increase cooking time by about half. You can also wait until lentils are three-quarters cooked before adding tomatoes. 1 cup dried lentils yields 2 1/4-3 cups cooked.

One cup of cooked lentils contains 230 calories, less than a gram of fat, zero cholesterol, 4 milligrams sodium, 40 grams carbohydrates including 16 grams of dietary fiber and 4 grams sugars, 18 grams of protein and 37% of your daily iron.

Sources for specialty lentils: You can find an array of lentil varieties in bulk bins of natural foods stores, Middle Eastern and South Asian markets. Also, check out websites such as www.gourmetstore.com and www.kalustyans.com. Dried lentils will keep, tightly wrapped, in a cool, dry place for up to a year.-Patsy Jamieson


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