Food Primer: Lentils

Okay, I’m half winging this and half stealing it from utilizing Wikipedia. Let’s see what happens.

Trying to find foods that are low-calorie, high-nutrition, and work with my various tummy and blood sugar issues has led me deeper into a pescatarian diet as time has rolled by. One of the great helps on this journey has been lentils. The humble lentil, too often resigned to mushy, flavorless soups, is a versatile, nutritious, tasty pulse, and after only a try or two of some classic recipes, you’ll find yourself ogling lentils as if they were bouncy boobs at the gym.

There are numerous types of lentils. The most common in the U.S. is the plain green lentil, and it’s the one that is usually used in those dastardly soups I mentioned. Next most common is the red lentil, which turns yellow when cooked and is found in numerous Indian dishes, most commonly dal. Behind that is the French green lentil, which is not exactly green, but mottled and a bit smaller than the other two. And the last one that I’ve had dealings with is the black or beluga lentil, a teeny little variety that’s harder to find in stores in my experience. There are other kinds too, but I’m not going to go overboard with the explanations here.

For all lentils, the way to prepare them is to dump them into a strainer, first. Pick through them for any small rocks that may not have been sorted out in processing. (I’ve only ever found one once.) Rinse them under cold water, stirring with your fingers, and then put them in a pot with the requisite amount of water and a couple of pinches of salt, bring to a boil, simmer, and serve. That’s obviously the quick-draw version, and you will find more detail in any given recipe.  Their flavor is there but extremely mild, so like most grains, they are a nice canvas to paint flavor upon.

Green lentils, which can be found for slightly over a dollar a pound dry (canned lentils would just turn into mush) in the Goya aisle at your local supermarket, are generally denoted as “lentils” in recipes. If you want them to hold their shape when you’re done cooking them, don’t stir too much or they’ll turn into mush. The best recipe I know of for green lentils is mujaddara. Cook up a pot of lentils and a pot of rice of any variety you like. Slice an onion into rounds and fry in oil until deep brown. Mix the rice and lentils together, adding plenty of pepper, and top with the onions. Eat. This sounds so boring, but my favorite cookbook calls it “one of the best things there is”, and I swear this is true. This is a slightly more fancy version, with allspice, but with just salt and pepper and fried onions it’s terrific. I like mine with brown rice.

Red lentils fall completely apart when they cook, but this can be quite an advantage with certain recipes. The best recipe I know for them is a savory soupy thing with mustard seeds, lime, and wilted spinach (OMG so good), but sadly it is copyrighted so I can’t share it here.  This recipe is darn close to it, though, and if you search for dal or daal on your favorite recipe site you will find plenty, I’m sure.

French green lentils are small, hard little boogers that cook up separate from one another, like rice, and I only just made my first recipe with them last night. Since they don’t moosh together like red and green lentils, these are great for salads, and can be substituted in any nice bean salad that you know.  Here is a good salad recipe, although I would replace shallots for the red onion. Much easier to get two tablespoons without having a lot left over. I’d also roast the peppers and make a dressing out of the herbs, oil, and vinegar, but that’s neither here nor there.

Black lentils, or beluga lentils, or black beluga lentils, are the smallest ones of all. They are hard and shiny and the prom queen of the lentils, very attractive on a plate (as you see here). If you can’t get them in your area, order a pound or so from the Amazon gourmet foods section – that’s how I got them. For black lentils, I can recommend this amazing veggie-burger-sort-of recipe by Heidi Swanson, my second favorite recipe maven. I admit it can be a bit of a pain to make these burgers, but they’re so worth it and you can fill them with whatever you want.

Nutrition, you ask? Lentils are full of iron, and have enough amino acids that they are close to a complete protein. They are also filling and relatively low in calories, which makes them a friendly food all around in my book.

For more information, here is the Wikipedia page on lentils. Photographs picked up for the price of a drink in various seedy bars on the internet. Get it? Seedy? Lentils? Oh, never mind.


12 Responses to Food Primer: Lentils

  1. boundandgags says:

    Damn! I don’t think I can hang with you people any more! I didn’t know ya’ll were, and it pains me to say this, ambitious.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of you all, but, personally, I like to hang out with people more sluggish than myself. Flattens out the curve a little.

    If you ever start a healthyish (or any ish really) site, let me know. I know I should get in better shape and I tried. I went to a spinning class but got dizzy and crashed into a mirror. It would have been nice if someone told me I could have used a bike.

    Seriously, I’m pulling for all of you. Maybe it’ll motivate me to get off my butt and do a workout suggested by Kevin Meaney:

    “I’ve been doing the Fonda workout: the Peter Fonda workout. That’s where I wake up, take a hit of acid, smoke a joint, and run to my sister’s house and ask her for money.”

  2. Shari says:

    Great post! I love lentils, even in the dastardly soup. One must not overlook the humble bean as a near perfect food.

    • crisitunity says:

      Of course you can make a great soup out of lentils. I was just kidding. But the recipes generally seem to require a big hunk of pork, and despite most Western recipes, there are other ways to get flavor into pulses than via meat.

  3. Laura says:

    I love lentils! Trader Joes has a vacuum-packed beluga lentil that is pre-cooked, you just have to pierce the bag and microwave or boil the pouch. I LOVE mixing the lentils with a spoonful of sour cream, a splash of chunky salsa, and some diced chicken breast. We also do a flatbread sandwich with lentils, hummus, and Trader Joe’s curry chicken strips. Like I told Kim before, if we ever move away from Arizona, unless we go to California (never gonna happen) I’m sure going to miss Trader Joes.

    • crisitunity says:

      See, if you add the chicken, it takes away from the pescatarian thing. Just saying.

      Also…uh, there are Trader Joe’ses all over the place. There were a couple where I lived in New England and there’s one in Annapolis. I don’t think it’s just a West Coast thing.

  4. Kimmothy says:

    Great post, but I don’t like the little critters. And I hate it when there’s a healthy food I don’t like. There aren’t many. Pretty much these and collard greens.
    Still, great post!

  5. Taoist Biker says:

    When you talk about the amino content you have me interested. I trust Dys more than myself to make something interesting out of new ingredients, so we’ll see when/if/how we can pull something together! (I’m not betting on her reading this anytime soon, if her coming to bed at 3:30 this morning is any indication of how her work week is going.)

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