The humble lentil has been nourishing humanity for thousands of years.
As one of the most healthy and inexpensive sources of protein and iron on the planet, lentils are a legitimate superfood and are the perfect ingredient to warm your heart and soul.
Illustration: Maria Schoettler
What are Lentils?
Lentils are small seeds that grow in pods of two. As a member of the legume family, lentils are related to beans, chickpeas, soy and peanuts. Thought to originate in the Near East, lentils are among the oldest cultivated plants in human history and are a staple of many traditional diets. There are approximately a dozen varietals of lentils, which vary in color, size and how well they hold their shape when cooked. The most ubiquitous are Spanish brown lentils, which are relatively large and mostly hold their shape, though can fall apart at longer cooking times. Here in San Francisco French green “Puy” lentils are also fairly easy to find. These are smaller than brown lentils, with dark green and blue speckled coloring. French green lentils hold their shape extremely well, and are therefore excellent for adding to salads, stir-fries and other dishes. The smaller red and yellow lentils commonly used in Indian cooking tend to disintegrate and become paste-like when cooked. Black beluga lentils are also very small, but maintain their shape well. Black lentils are especially delicious and delicate, but are harder to find than other varietals.
Lentil Health benefits
For a plant, lentils are exceptionally high in protein and iron, making them invaluable to vegetarians. The protein availability of lentils depends on how they are prepared. Lentils contain the essential amino acids isoleucine and lysine, but are normally low in methionine and cystine, meaning that on their own they are not a “complete protein.” However, if lentils are first sprouted before they are cooked, then all essential amino acids are available, including methionine and cystine. Sprout lentils by soaking them in water for 8-14 hours, depending on size. Alternatively, a full complement of amino acids can be achieved by pairing lentils with whole grains such as rice or wheat. Lentils are also a great source of fiber, vitamin B1 and folic acid, and are naturally gluten-free.
Beans and lentils are comfort food, mainly because of their creamy, soft textures once cooked. Just as cocoa adds depth to a mole sauce in Mexican cooking, it works wonders here, bringing complexity, color, and a pleasant, subtle bitterness.
Are Lentils a complete protein?
No. According to the Cleveland Clinic, you should try to eat a variety of legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains each day, which will allow you to get all the essential amino acids. All together, these equal complete proteins. For example, the combination of lentils and rice, but you don’t need to eat them at the same meal to get complete proteins.
Lentils are rich in minerals, protein, and fiber. 100 grams of cooked lentils contains: 116 calories. 9.02 g of protein.
Hearty and satisfying this lentil curry benefits from the thickening power of Ginger Peanut Garlic Paste and the earthy addition of chard or spinach.
Lentils are delicious, inexpensive and easy to prepare, making them an essential addition to any foodie’s pantry. Though soaking lentils will cut down on cooking time and improve nutrition, it is not necessary. Always sort and pick through your lentils to remove small pebbles, which can often be found mixed in with both packaged and bulk legumes, even the best brands. Don’t skip this step or you may find yourself with an unexpected dental bill. For lentils that maintain their shape well, cook them by simply boiling in excess water with a dash of salt until tender (approximately 20-30 minutes), drain and serve. When working with lentils that do not keep their shape, you should follow a recipe that tells you the ideal lentil-to-liquid ratio. Cooked and drained lentils store well in the refrigerator in an airtight container for several days. They also keep well in the freezer and can be quickly thawed in the microwave.
Sourcing and storing lentils
Dry lentils are easy to find, easy to store (just keep them in a clean, dry container) and are very inexpensive. In San Francisco, a good selection of lentils can be found in the bulk section of Rainbow Grocery. For specialty imported lentils, you can often find several varietals at Bi-Rite Markets. Heirloom lentils can also be purchased online a at Zürsun Beans.
No restaurant in the city is as adept at using lentils as Dosa, which serves traditional and updated South Indian fare. South India is largely Hindu and almost entirely vegetarian, with lentils being the primary protein source in the diet. Though Dosa is not a vegetarian restaurant, lentils or “dal” are featured throughout the menu. The name Dosa refers to a traditional South Indian dish that resembles a large pancake stuffed with vegetables and potatoes. The dosa batter itself is made from lentils and rice, and is allowed to sit and ferment slightly. This process gives the dosa bread a light texture and slightly sour flavor, almost like a delicate, gluten-free sourdough. Dosa’s rasam “fire broth” is a lentil-based spicy soup meant to be sipped directly from the bowl, similar to Japanese miso soup. Owner Anjan Mitra calls it “vegetarian chicken soup,” a sort of cure-all for anything that ails.
Red Lentil Quinoa Pilaf
Brown, green (including the prized French Puy variety), and black (often labeled ‘beluga’ because of their resemblance to caviar) lentils all cook up fairly quickly, making them perfect for adding to soups and salads. Like many beans and grains, lentils can be also cooked in large batches and then refrigerated or frozen. Yellow, white, and red lentils are almost always sold hulled, and because they don’t have skins, their cooking time is shorter.
- Prep Time: 5 minutes
- Cook Time: 20 minutes
- Total Time: 25 minutes
- Yield: 4 servings 1x
- Category: Pilaf
- Method: stovetop
- Cuisine: American
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup quinoa
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup red lentils, rinsed
2 cups chicken broth
- In a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat, combine the olive oil, quinoa and pine nuts and stir until the quinoa and pine nuts are lightly toasted, about 3 minutes.
- Add the garlic and pepper flakes and continue stirring until fragrant, about one minute.
- Add the lentils and the broth and bring to a boil.
- Cover, turn the heat to low, and cook until the liquid is absorbed and the quinoa and lentils are tender, about 20 minutes. Uncover and fluff with a fork.
- Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.
Reprinted with permission from Bowls: Recipes and Inspirations for Healthful One-Dish Meals, by Molly Watson (Chronicle Books, © 2017).
- Serving Size: 4
Keywords: lentils, quinoa, pilaf