Lentils are definitely one of my favorite vegetarian proteins. They’re unprocessed, they’re quicker to make than dried beans (no soaking required!), and they just have a nice, earthy flavor that works so well in a variety of dishes. One of my go-to easy lunches is a bowl full of lentils and whatever veggies I have on hand, tossed with garlic, olive oil, and red wine vinegar. And not only are lentils delicious in their own right, but they also make a great meat substitute–I often use them in place of ground beef in recipes.
I recently received a copy of The Essential Good Food Guide and rather than write a review of the book, I thought I’d share an excerpt. An excerpt on lentils! You can purchase it online from Amazon. It’s a great resource for healthy eating!
Lentils are the world’s oldest cultivated legume, likely domesticated around 7000 BCE. The botanical nomenclature Lens culinaris means “cooking lens.” And our word for the optical instrument no doubt comes from its similarity in shape to the small, round, flat shape that distinguishes all varieties of lentils. Colors range from slate green, brown, and black to reddish orange, coral, and gold, with all varieties having unique, delicious flavors and textures but a similar nutritional profile. One of the easiest beans to digest, lentils also rate as a favorite because of their short preparation time and versatility. Unlike other beans, no presoaking is required. Pressure-cooking is not recommended for any variety of lentils, as the foam that they create during the cooking process can clog pressure vents. Nor is it generally necessary, as most varieties cook quite quickly using the boil and simmer method.
Lentils are marketed in four general categories: brown, green, red/yellow, and specialty. In turn, within each category are several varieties, which makes for fun discovery and experimentation. In general, the brown and green varieties retain their shape well (some more fully than others), whereas the hulled and, most particularly, split red and yellow lentils tend to disintegrate and, therefore, are best for soups or in applications where they’ll be pureed. Specialty lentils, in which I place those that are especially distinctive in flavor, shape, and origin, largely fall within the brown and green categories.
Brown lentils sold in bulk or in a package that is labeled simply as “lentils” with no delineation of specific variety will typically be the “regular” lentil, also known as brewer lentils. Those that are marketed just as green lentils will be in one of three classes according to size. If large, they may be the Laird lentil or one of several similar varieties. If the green lentil is medium in size, it will be the Richlea lentil or the like. The classic small green lentil variety is the Eston lentil. Fortunately, when cooking, you won’t have to struggle with which is which as these basic brown and green varieties have similar cooking times and water-to-lentil proportions. Still, learning more about each lentil’s characteristics enhances the enjoyment both in cooking and in dining.
Use 2¼ cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes.
These are tiny black lentils that look remarkably like shiny, glistening caviar when cooked. Their rich, earthy flavor and soft texture is perfect in salads and soups or featured with pasta, rice, or sautéed vegetables. Not only does their deep black color present a dramatic, striking contrast when cooked with a variety of colorful green and red vegetables, but it also indicates they are high in the antioxidant anthocyanin.
Use 2½ cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 40 to 45 minutes.
Known for their distinctive rich, peppery flavor, French green lentils are further distinguished by their slate green color with bluish black undertones, and their small size, about one-third the size of green lentils. They are also rich in antioxidant phytochemicals similar to those in blueberries and black grapes and in minerals, particularly iron and magnesium.
While French green lentils are grown using the same variety of lentil as the famous Puy lentils, since they are grown in North America or Italy rather than the Puy region in central France, they are never referred to as lentilles du Puy. Nonetheless, they can be substituted in any recipe that calls for Puy lentils, not to mention being less expensive, as well. As French green lentils hold their shape well, use them as a side dish in accompaniment with vegetables and pasta, in salads, in a light soup, or as a focal point in a meal.
Use 2½ cups water to 1 cup lentils. Boil and
simmer for 40 to 45 minutes.
Also known as lentilles du Puy, these lentils are slate green in color with bluish black undertones and about one-third the size of green lentils. Grown in the volcanic soils of the Le Puy district in the Auvergne in central France for nearly the past two thousand years, Puy lentils offer exceptional quality, flavor, and nutritional content, most notably mineral contents and particularly iron and magnesium. As a source of anthocyanins, their dark color, similar to that as found in blueberries and black grapes, provides valuable antioxidants. Look for the AOC (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) label to ensure authenticity. Known for their distinctive rich, peppery flavor, Puy lentils are traditionally served as a side dish, in salads, as a focal point in a meal, or even as a foundation for meat, fish, or game.
Use 2½ to 3 cups water per 1 cup lentils. Boil and simmer for 45 to 55 minutes.
When buying lentils and there is no other descriptor on the label, regular lentils—the name of an actual variety that is about as straightforward a name as it gets, otherwise known as the brewer lentil—is the most common type of lentil available in North America. Distinguished from other lentils by their mottled khaki color, regular lentils have a mild, somewhat earthy flavor. Commonly used to make hearty soups, stews, and side dishes to serve along with grains and pastas, this variety holds its shape well after cooking. Still, these tender beans are also easily mashed, which is why they have long been associated with making vegetarian meat loaf and burgers. Brown lentils and rice have similar cooking times, so they’ve long been cooked together, often with celery seed or other seasonings.
Reprinted with permission from The Essential Good Food Guide by Margaret Wittenberg, copyright (c) 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. Photographs (c) 2013 Jennifer Martine
Now that you know everything there is to know about lentils (and then some!), here are some of my favorite ways to use them:
1. Lentil Mushroom Meatballs
2. Vegan Cincinnati Chili
3. Chard, Lentil & Potato Slow Cooker Soup
4. Herbed French Lentil Salad
5. Middle Eastern Lentil & Rice Soup
6. Lentil Mushroom Burgers
7. Butternut Squash, Lentil & Kale Salad with Tahini Dressing
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