Lentils are the world’s oldest cultivated legume, likely domesticated around 7000 BCE.
The lentil is Middle Eastern and Asian in origin and was one of the earliest cultivated crops. It is at least 10,000 years old, and in many countries, India in particular, it has long been an indispensable part of the diet. Lentils are nutritionally rich, full of protein, vitamin B, iron, and phosphorus.The Romans were connoisseurs of red lentils, which they imported from Egypt; lentils were a favourite food of Christians during periods of religious abstinence from animal products in the Middle Ages; Because it grew easily and was cheap, the lentil became known as the “poor man’s meat”.
Lens culinary, as the lentil is designated botanically, is a legume like peas and beans—a plant that yields edible seeds in a pod. In this case, the seeds are small and flat and the colour, depending on the species, ranges from flat black to iridescent orange. In harvesting, the vines are clipped and the lentils are left to dry in the pods for a week or two. The pods are then picked, the seeds separated, and the lentils sold either whole or decorticated—with the seed covering removed. Either kind is tender enough to be cooked without soaking, though decorticated lentils cook faster.
Not only are lentils and other pulses high in fiber, nutrients and protein, but their production is also much easier on the environment than meat and other protein-rich foods.A pound of lentils takes just 43 gallons of water to grow, compared with 216 gallons for soybeans and 368 gallons for peanuts, according to Food Tank, a nonprofit dedicated to global food security and nutrition.
Lentil production, in particular, emits the lowest level of greenhouse gases among common protein sources, including other dried beans, according to information from the Global Pulse Federation, the group promoting the U.N. initiative.
So let’s incorporate more lentils into our diets for better health and environment.
Common Types of Lentils
- Red lentils
Red lentils are sometimes called red ‘split’ lentils. With colours ranging from gold to orange to actual red, these are the sweetest and nuttiest of the lentils. They’re somewhere in the middle in terms of cooking time and are usually done in about 30 minutes. They tend to get mushy when cooked through, so they’re perfect for Indian curries, or for thickening soups. A few varieties are Red Chief and Crimson, and you’ll often find them in Indian or Middle Eastern markets.
- Puy lentils or French green lentils
Puy lentils are a type of green lentil and are small and dark with speckles. 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, flavour, and nutritional content, most notably mineral contents and particularly iron and magnesium. As a source of anthocyanins, their dark colour, 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. Because of this they are more expensive than other lentils.
Known for their distinctive rich, peppery flavour, 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.These take about 30 minutes to cook and keep a certain degree of firmness. If a recipe requires Puy lentils and you can’t get your hands on any, just use brown or other types of green lentils instead.
- Green lentils
Widely available, large, these can be pale or mottled green-brown in colour with a glossy exterior. They have a robust, somewhat peppery flavor. Green lentils generally take the longest to cook, upwards of 45 minutes, but they keep a firm texture even after cooking. This makes them ideal for salads and other side dishes.
- Brown lentils
These are widely available in supermarkets and also known as brewers lentil. The colour can vary tremendously from light brown to almost black. Large and rich they have a lovely earthy flavour and also keep a firm texture after cooking. They take 25 – 30 minutes to cook.Common varieties are Spanish Brown, German Brown, or Indian Brown.Brown lentils are great to use as a meat substitute in meals that traditionally require mince – for example, Moussaka, lasagne and Shepherd’s pie. These tender beans are also easily mashed, which is why they have long been associated with making vegetarian meat loaf and burgers.
- Yellow lentils
Yellow split lentils are often found in Asian shops and larger supermarkets. They are a little bit larger than red lentils taking about 20 minutes to cook. Sweet and nutty, yellow lentils break down quickly when cooked and are used as a thickening agent in many recipes, such as Indian dal.
- Black beluga lentils
These are tiny black lentils that look remarkably like shiny, glistening caviar when cooked. Their rich, earthy flavour and soft texture is perfect in salads and soups or featured with pasta, rice, or sautéed vegetables. Not only does their deep black colour present a dramatic, striking contrast when cooked with a variety of colourful green and red vegetables, but it also indicates they are high in the antioxidant anthocyanin.
Black beluga lentils are a little harder to find but can usually be bought from specialist food shops and larger supermarkets. They take 30-40 minutes to cook.
Hearty spinach and lentil soup – Vegetarian Recipe
- 3 tablespoons regular olive oil (or coconut oil)
- 1 large red onion, finely chopped
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 cups red or brown lentils, picked-over and rinsed
- 10 cups vegetable stock
- ¼ cup fresh mint, chopped
- Large handful coriander, chopped
- 2 cups fresh spinach, washed and chopped
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Kosher salt and freshly-cracked black pepper, to taste
- Full-fat Greek-style yogurt
- In large pot, sauté the onions in the olive oil (or organic coconut oil) until they start to soften.Turn heat down to medium-low and continue to cook until they start to caramelize, about another 3 to 4 minutes.
- Stir in garlic and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent the garlic from burning.
- Add the cumin and cayenne, and stir to mix in well.
- Add lentils and 6 cups of vegetable stock and bring it to a boil.
- Once the soup starts to boil, reduce heat and allow to simmer until lentils are soft. About 30 minutes.
- Add the remaining stock as and when needed so that the liquid level stays an inch above the lentils while cooking. If you want a creamier soup, you can mash some of the lentils with a large stainless steel spoon once they are softened.
- Once the lentils have attained their desired softness, add the spinach and stir it in. Let it cook down for a bit but be careful not to overcook it.Turn off heat.
- Add the mint, coriander and lemon juice and stir it in.
- Taste and tweak with salt and pepper.
Serve in bowls and garnish with dollop of Greek-style yogurt.
Lentil and sausage casserole – Non Vegetarian Recipe
(Adapted from Geoffrey smeddle campaign for the Sunday herald.)
- 8 chicken sausages
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
- 2 onions, finely chopped
- 1 fennel bulb, chopped
- 180g of bacon/ pancetta, chopped
- 1 celery stick, chopped
- 1 large carrot, chopped
- 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
- 450ml of chicken stock
- 1teaspoon balsamic vinegar
- 1teaspoon redcurrant jelly
- 200g of lentils, dried
- 2 tablespoon of half fat crème fraîche
- 1tablespoon of wholegrain mustard
- 4tablespoon of olive oil
- Salt and pepper
- Place a frying pan over a medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Once hot, add the sausages and fry until browned all over. Cut into thin slices and set aside.
- Place a large casserole dish over a medium heat and add the rest of the oil. Once hot, add the garlic, onions and a pinch of salt.Fry until the onions are soft but not coloured, approximately 3-4 minutes.
- Add the bacon, fennel, celery and carrot to the dish, add salt and pepper as needed and fry until all of the vegetables have softened. Then, stir in the thyme and sausages.
- Then add the lentils to the pan, turning them two or three times to coat them well and add the chicken stock. Bring the contents to a boil and reduce the heat so the lentils and vegetables simmer gently, stirring every now and then for about 30 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Ensure that the water level is always more or less about an inch above the lentils; replenish with as much water as needed.
- Once lentils have softened, stir in the balsamic vinegar and redcurrant jelly until fully incorporated and raise the heat and bring to a gentle boil. Once the desired consistency is reached remove the casserole from the heat and divide into bowls.
- Mix together the mustard and crème fraîche in a bowl.
- Serve immediately with a dollop of the mustard créme fraîche.